A Clean, Well-Lighted Cafe: Musings on Coffee Talk

By Celeste Roberts: Twitter | Instagram

N.B.: This piece will contain spoilers for the game and a short story.

Sometimes a long day or stressful moment beckons a visit outside of one’s home (a “home away from home,” so to speak). Visiting a familiar restaurant, bar, or coffeeshop can provide relief from whatever anxieties weigh heavy on the mind and heart, allowing the down-trodden to breathe, reflect, and perhaps gain insight from fellow patrons.

In Toge Productions’ visual novel Coffee Talk, the player assumes the role of a faceless barista who owns and operates the titular cafe. The setting is perpetually rainy Seattle, where crowds of mystical fantasy creatures like werewolves, fairies, elves, and succubi live among humans and endure the daily grind of working and making ends meet. I wonder whether these beings regret leaving their magical worlds for the human one? 

Unlike most real-world cafes, Coffee Talk is open late at night and into the wee hours of the morning (early birds will have to find their caffeine fix elsewhere). Surprisingly, quite a few characters patron the establishment’s graveyard shift, including an aspiring writer, an alien looking for mates, a couple rivaling Romeo and Juliet with their problems, and video game developers. The player’s role as the barista is to provide comfort–and even life-saving remedies–in the form of warm beverages. 

After I completed this game, which does offer decent replay value, I recalled one of my favorite pieces of literature as I noted similarities between the two mediums.

In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” two waiters observe an old man who often visits their cafe. The younger waiter, eager to return home to his wife and rest, bemoans the old man’s inconvenient lengthy visits. The waiters talk about the old man’s attempted suicide the previous week, with one commenting that the man has nothing to be upset about since “he has plenty of money.” The younger waiter, no longer hiding his irritation when their patron requests another brandy, tells the old man he should have killed himself.

The older waiter admits he does not mind staying later at the cafe since “there may be someone who needs the cafe.” When his younger coworker scoffs at this inconvenience, the older waiter responds, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.” 

The older, wiser waiter in the tale recognizes the importance of having a reliable place outside of one’s home, an escape for both body and soul. While his elderly regular faces loneliness after the death of his wife, the waiter ponders existential crises and the possible futility of his faith.

As I played through Coffee Talk, I felt a virtual embrace from the game’s relaxing soundtrack, even pace, and soothing atmosphere. Despite the often dismal news featured on the daily newspaper headlines that designate a new day and the myriad problems the patrons carried into the coffeeshop, I found myself comforted. The characters face problems mirrored in our own world: post-traumatic stress disorder, predatory behavior in the entertainment industry, families who disapprove of their children’s relationship, overworked employees, xenophobia, writer’s block while in pursuit of escaping a dead-end career… 

With so many heavy problems weighing on the characters’ minds, I was happy they had found respite in Coffee Talk, even befriending one another and offering advice or support. Instead of going to their homes to face potentially restless nights of worry and fear, they flock to a clean, well-lit environment, much like the troubled old man in Hemingway’s story. 

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