I usually try to finish everything I recommend on this list in some form or another – it’s easier to sell something to someone else when you know it inside and out. When you’re an expert on something, gifting it to another person is a unique joy: you get to scan their reaction and enjoy the thing again, vicariously, because you know the twists and turns. You’re confident in the craftsmanship, and as a curator you get to feel like you had hand in spreading something Good. It’s a lot like food-service, in that way: you may not have made the food from scratch, but the pride is real. Bartending is like this. So is being a barista.
Sometimes I’ll become so attached to a piece of media that I’ll just stop halfway through, without warning, wanting to drag the experience out. The last time this happened was with the sublime, anthropomorphic magical-realism simulator Night in the Woods. It’s happening again.
I don’t know if I’ll ever finish Necrobarista because something about it cuts so close to the bone. I’ve been these people, for better and worse. The work feels alive because it is – on both sides of the screen.
(I was a barista for five years.)
Necrobarista is a visual novel, though it may not look like one at first. Created by the Melbourne-based indie team at Route 59 Games, it takes the minutiae of coffee-shop life seriously. As someone who lived in that world, I recognize the espresso machine, the coffee grinder, the dish-pit and the soft glow of the lighting. I can tell where I’d stand, and how I’d lay out the space. I see the seating area and get to explore and subconsciously plan out how I’d tend to it, because Necrobarista lets you wander the cafe between chapters. You’re encouraged to explore the space, using up Macguffins you earn through play to open up little full-text memory vignettes of the characters. It’s extremely charming and nostalgic in the way only a game that explores a niche part of life can be. If you’ve been a barista at a pretentious (or just hip) cafe, you’ve been here. I wrote a term paper or two in The Terminal, I’m sure. I think I worked there for a bit.
I’m very into the cafe itself and the synthetic intimacy of digital spaces. Necrrobarista pulls this off with aplomb. I could live there forever. But that isn’t why Necrobarista made the Hallowe’en list, despite the fact that it isn’t a horror game at all.
It made the Hallowe’en list because everyone is dead.
…Or, at least a lot of people are. Terminal City is the cafe at the crossroads between life and death. It’s a kind of stop-over purgatory in which the dead have 24 hours to calm down and get their heads in order before passing on to whatever comes next. It’s hell and heaven’s waiting room, a liminal space between the obligations of the living and the oblivion of the dead, where the just-dead minds of the newly-dead go to calm and center themselves. It’s Charon’s boat, slowly wobbling across the river Styx. But with more mood lighting and hardwood.
…So it’s a coffee shop.
You play as Maddy Xiao, a 27 year-old barista who infuses her brews with the souls of the damned, or so she says. She’s the new owner of The Terminal, and relentlessly crabby. Maddy’s job is to chill out the souls of the dead with boutique espresso, and ready them for whatever comes next. She isn’t alone in this: the ambigously-ancient master Necromancer Chay Wu works there too, and a literal child named Ashley who has a fondness for machinery and a troubling caffeine addiction. It isn’t immediately made clear who’s dead and who isn’t, but we know for sure that the new arrival through the front doors is newly deceased, and that he has to be gone in 24 hours or else we’ll incur more Time Debt to the Council of Death. They’ve already sent their guy, Ned, to hassle us for too much ‘borrowed time’.
And what exactly any of that means is anyone’s guess.
The joy of Necrobarista is slowly unraveling a mystery along with a cast of spunky oddballs. At most junctions the characters know a great deal more than you do, especially Maddy herself. If it sounds like an anime, it absolutely is, and the team is open about their influences. By turns Necrobarista feels like an indie comedy, a snarky coffee blog, and a high-concept slice-of-life anime. Which of each you’ll get in a given scene is half the fun of playing. Add on that the menus, the camera angles and everything are so kinetic and you have a Visual Novel that feels genuinely alive – unlike half the cast (who are dead. that was a pun).
It is overwhelmingly charming and I’m never leaving.
I, too, have a Time Debt now.
Will I ever finish Necrobarista and punch the clock at Terminal? It’s really hard to say, but it’s obvious we’re dealing with something special. If you have any affinity for coffee culture, exhausted millennials, the hipster undead or surprisingly deep visual novels, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
Just watch your dose and grind.
…And if that didn’t convince please, please watch their incredibly anime trailer, which plays in full at the end of the prologue. If this rainy anime daydream doesn’t convince you, nothing will. I’ll live here forever.