You might not know this but Australians love coffee. It's not part of the national image right up there with wrestling crocodiles, drinking beer, and playing knifey-spoony, but it's true. Starbucks lost $143 million trying to expand into Australia because we're a nation of coffee snobs.
And the center of Australia's caffeine obsession is the city of Melbourne, home of indie game studio Route 59. They're working on a game called Necrobarista, set in a cafe where some of the customers might actually be ghosts—it's hard to tell.
According to lead designer Kevin Chen, "The dead look just like the living. They look just like they looked when they were alive and it's rude to ask who's alive or who's dead."
Necrobarista is a visual novel that plays out as a series of vignettes all based around the one location. But unlike most visual novels it's not presented as static backdrops that 2D characters slide in front of while blocks of text appear. Each space is 3D, and between story scenes you're free to explore them.
During the demo I played, I watched two characters compete at the stab-between-the-fingers game (it's like knifey-spoony but more dangerous) in a basement under the cafe, then was free to wander around the room once the tournament ended.
In moments like this you can click on secondary characters as well as items that are nearby to make text about them pop up onto nearby surfaces. You can hear the thoughts of characters who are otherwise just faces in the crowd, learn a snippet of history about the place you're standing, or find out other additional details if you're curious. When you leave, the next part of the story plays out.
Another player responded to this by complaining, "Where's the gameplay?" In a normal visual novel that would be a ridiculous thing to say, but I can see how the addition of explorable 3D spaces in Necrobarista could create the expectation of more interactivity.
For my part, I was entirely satisfied simply by peering at things and reading descriptions like I was using the eye tool on every background detail in an adventure game. It makes Necrobarista feel like it's happening in a place with history, which is the aim.
"A really important part of the game is setting it in a real, grounded location," says Chen. "It's not just Australia, it's Melbourne. It's not just Melbourne, it's Carlton. It's not just Carlton, it's this specific street in Carlton."
Carlton is an inner suburb that's home to Melbourne's 'Little Italy' and a natural place to find a good coffee. "You get a lot of students there, it's a hip place," says Chen. "A bit gentrified over the years, but it's still very hip, and we wanted to set this place in that kind of back-alley setting. To be precise the cafe is a repurposed abandoned tram terminal."
Trams, like coffee, are another stereotypical part of Melbourne's identity. Route 59 is even named after a tram route. But like the other parts of the game that build on local specifics, there's a lightness of touch to the way it's handled that makes it feel universal. They're talking about having a scene with a broken ticket machine that blocks your progress, a frustration familiar to anyone who uses public transport no matter where. They want the city, the cafe, and its ghostly visitors to be grounded, "Kind of like 221B Baker Street from Sherlock Holmes," as Chen puts it. "It's not a real place but it's a real place."
Route 59 plan to release Necrobarista in late 2018.