COVID & Coffee Talk

Made by: Toge Productions

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC & Mac

Review date:

Emoji summary: ☕️👽😐

Review by: GDLP

Spoilers: Vague mention of something that happens in the final scene way down the bottom of the review

I don’t like coffee because it is bitter and my tongue still hasn’t learnt to enjoy bitter things. I don’t drink tea either. It is tepid and noncommittal. With tea, I also associate it with being a kid told to make one million cups to very different specifications for all the aunties waiting in the living room, multiple times a day. So no, not for me. No tea, no coffee, but I could drink them both now so easily because even if I held the liquid in a pool on my tongue for long boring seconds, I wouldn’t be able to taste anything. All flavour has started to tell lies in my mouth.

My COVID started with some wooziness on a Saturday night. I remember saying ‘I can’t concentrate’ when I was on the phone to Michael. The next morning, I woke up with a dramatic cough and I braced myself… but at first, it was fine; still felt like daytime. I was taking meetings and speaking to friends and being a vertical person, even in bed where I was sleeping sitting up to relieve the annoying cough. By the end of the first week however, I had a steady melting fever, my chest was tight, and all of the energy had left my body without me even noticing when exactly it had happened. I woke up the following Saturday and realised I couldn’t taste my afternoon breakfast. I couldn’t smell things either. I found it a bit entertaining, a little bit of a novelty; and it started to feel surreal that I had the thing off the telly. I crouched beside my low fridge and tasted every condiment. I opened the lids of all the little spices too. I shoved fresh coriander leaves into my mouth and a few up my nose for good luck but everything was invisible. I was only awake for 4 hours that day before I needed to sleep again. The can of coke I’d tried and tested stayed heavy on the countertop all day so I poured it down the sink before getting back into bed, thus ending week 1 in a daze.

I remember a friend who had COVID in the autumn saying they wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and I thought you probably don’t hate people as much as I do - but I also wouldn’t wish it on anyone and maybe I’m not as vengeful as I thought. Week 2 was horrible. I couldn’t have any pressure on my back at all. If I tried laying down totally flat in bed, it felt like my lungs had let go of the rest of my body and had fallen backwards with a slap against my spine where they were heavy under their own meaty weight. I wish that was me being dramatic and writerly but that was the exact sensation. The top part of my chest felt shrunken and squeezed as well, and I quickly found I could only breathe comfortably if I lay on my front with my head to the side like a tired baby having belly time. Every hour or so, I would switch up positions and curl up on my side like an animal. My lower back began to hurt at this point. It felt weak and vulnerable like some of the pieces were missing. When I was awake, all I could think about was my awkward, shallow breathing but then again, I slept so much. I turned the alarm off on my phone and let myself be. If I needed to sleep, I would sleep. I lay there wrapped in blankets with the window open, cool air rolling over my head, and I wished I wasn’t on my own. I answered less phone calls and messaged people instead because it’s a lot harder to speak when you can’t breathe properly. It is also much harder to cry.

Sometimes I felt angry but the anger had no weight behind it because I had no energy and there was no use, not now. I tried not to worry everyone but I called 111 in week 2 because I didn’t know what to do to turn things around and because, honestly, I think I wanted an adult to tell me it was going to be okay. I had ordered a pulse oximeter based on a friend’s recommendation and the 111 voices were worried about my heart rate but my oxygen levels meant I didn’t need to go into hospital. They prescribed me an inhaler, told me they didn’t think I would get any worse than this, and I tried my best to absorb their words. Michael picked up the inhaler from the pharmacy in ASDA on the other side of the graveyard and he dropped it off shortly afterwards. I opened my front door and sat on the floor over 2 metres away from him, and the tears streamed because he looked like a Disney prince and I looked like a wet cardboard cut-out of the person he’s engaged to, crumbled up on the floor in a heap.

I’m writing this on day 28, 4 weeks since that vague wooziness on the Saturday night. I wish I could say I was all better now but if COVID was a fire, I’m the burnt out patch on the floor left there the next day. My temperature is normal now, the feeling of my lungs scrunched up in a tight concertina has totally eased up, and I am awake for longer nowadays. But I’m so tired, my whole upper body feels bruised, I still can’t take deep breaths, and my muscles have began to ache. I can breathe in for 2 seconds at the most which… well, it means when I speak, I run out of breath. My voice flows between normal, small, rough, trying, and sad. I’m tired but when I yawn, I have to stop because I run out of air and cut myself off. Yesterday I was awake all day, the day before I napped, and the day before that I woke up feeling like I was made of actual stone. I carefully moved my arm, like, to check I could still move. It felt like the day after the tough mudder run I did in 2012, that bad. So, weird breathing, fatigue, and a touch of misery. I climbed the stairs to the bathroom today and when I looked in the mirror I thought I was shaking until I realised it was only my high heart rate vibrating my neck and shoulders. I lifted my hands to fix my fringe before I went back down but everything was slow-motion like I was trying to control a bad claw machine. I can’t believe this is happening.

A little silly part of me feels like I lost the game. I stayed home all year, I didn’t pay attention to the eat out to help out con, I haven’t broken the rules. I’m 26, I run 5Ks for fun! I hate the government! I thought this new lockdown was the final boss and we were all nearly at the end. But I also know if the government hadn’t been so shit, I wouldn’t be sick in January 2021 after what… forgetting to hand sanitize after pushing open the door to my apartment building one time? It’s not fair. I’m trying not to think about how much work I’ve lost and how I had to pay rent this week anyway. People keep asking me if I’m better yet and I don’t know what to say. I can’t do almost any of my work because it involves speaking, thinking big galaxy-planning ideas and having full health bar energy to carry them all out. It’s like my body has been swapped with somebody else’s. I miss myself a lot and I just want things to go back to normal.

Now that I’ve given you the previously on, a satisfying end to this text would involve me introducing a game I played that lifted my spirits, calmed my soul, and made me feel wholly less alone during the worst few weeks of my adult life. The day before things got really bad, I did try Stardew Valley but I put a pin in it for better times. This might sound like a joke but the resource management was too much. And still napping lots, still on my side in bed but more lucid now, towards the end of week 3 I played one very small game after asking friends for titles they thought I could handle. If I’m honest, I really wasn’t in the mood but I knew I should have a go because soon I might be able to write something - I might be able to write this - and it would help to have a game to write around. So I played Coffee Talk which was made by Toge Productions and released in January 2020, but it felt flat and distant. I did read an NHS post-COVID advice leaflet that said I might not enjoy the things I usually do, so you might want to write off any moody reviews with that in mind, but I also think I’m getting very good at describing exactly where it hurts.

Coffee Talk is straightforward, static, and more like a book on the screen. You play a barista in a cafe that opens at night. Your view is of the bar in front of you where you serve drinks to customers. Most are human but there’s also a vampire, a werewolf, a succubus and an alien in this down to earth fantasy. In terms of the gameplay: a character comes in, asks for a drink, a screen pops up for you to choose and brew together three ingredients based on what they’ve said, you serve them their drink and the conversation continues. One girl is writing a novel and comes to the bar to try and get some words down; a kid comes in when she’s arguing with her dad; her dad comes in to find her; two strangers realise they work in the same industry and get to know one other. There’s a spaceman at one point too. It’s just clicking through dialogue, making drinks every now and then, click, click, click, the end. And like, I’m glad I was able to play something from start to finish (with a big sleep in the middle) but I found no joy in the 2 or 3 hours we spent together and I think I know why.

When I watch, play or read something so character-driven, I look forward to that moment the maker closes the gap between myself and the protagonist. Even if we’re nothing alike, even if I hate them, it’s exciting to be pulled towards another person - to forget this is fiction and suspend my disbelief even if it’s only for a moment. Nice to leave your own body especially, desperately, when it is so sick and tired. But with Coffee Talk, I didn’t move an inch. I went nowhere, I was no one. You get to name the main character and that’s as far as it goes. You don’t see yourself bar a brief animation of an arm making coffee (with light tan skin mind you… I wish there was a choice and some range considering the base levels of diversity in the characters skin tones and body types, and all the wasted potential given the genre). But besides no character customisation, and more important maybe, you also don’t choose any lines of your own dialogue and so the coffee shop owner is pretty much a totally passive protagonist. So, why am I here? What’s the point in there being a player at all? I might as well be watching a video instead or reading a book. And I know there is a screen for making drinks for your customers but even there, in the only opportunity the player has for agency, the set-up is limited, boring and repetitive. Espresso, green tea, hot chocolate and repeat. I thought, well, maybe the fun will come in when I get to try my hand at some latte art but that had such a stiff user interface on the Switch that I did not feel remotely inspired by the offer. And I needed fun to come in - I hated the monotony of my old job as a barista, and for some reason thought this game might somehow reframe it.

My biggest problem with it though is something a bit more structural, and a point that might only land if you’ve played it. I think the slip-ups should have been in the first play through, not something to dig for in the second. And you could play this game and not know what I mean by slip-ups because mention of them is so loosely handled in the final scene. If the slip-ups had been in the main game, I would have found a better purchase on all of the dialogue because I would have wanted to know what was going on? What was the barista on about? Why was this happening? I would have been made to care more about the story, the people populating it, about the art and music too. It might even have excused the passivity. But it all ran through my fingers because, yeah, I don’t think there was enough of a hook. In stories, we get on the side of a protagonist because we learn what it is they want and we’re with them when they’re trying to fulfil that desire. But when we don’t learn what this barista wants until Coffee Talk has finished, any drama there may have been continues to flatline. Expecting people to go back in and find the small pieces of drama for themselves is a bit mad to me, and I wonder what the drop off is there - how many people bother zooming through dialogue they’ve already had to trudge through just to see a few quick moments of discomfort? Turn the game upside down, I reckon. Let us get inside. And I don’t think that’s me seeing things through these COVID blues. That’s fair, right?

‘I’m going to make you drink a cup of tea later.’ I’ve moved into Michael’s parents house now that I’m no longer infectious and he’s trying to peer pressure me into drinking tea. Fine. I can’t taste it anyway and he says it will help my throat. I ignored the NHS’s 10 day advice and followed the World Health Organisation’s instead so I ended up on my own for 21 days in that flat, the second longest we’ve ever been apart. The first was the 116 days during lockdown one before I finally moved out of my Nan’s and into a place of my own. The tea was red and fruity but that’s only going off the colour; it tasted hot and that was all. I’ll stay here for now. I’ll sleep and eat, I’ll have my inhaler, I’ll stick heat pads on my back and whinge. The doctor said I am allowed to try and go for a walk next week. Hopefully my lungs will start to catch up with the past and after a safe amount of time I can go back to walking all the way down to the water, running around the park I thought I’d grown tired of, and slowly, slowly, recover. If it means I’ll get better, I’ll even start drinking tea.

a busy city skyline full of towers and the caption below says ‘a time when anyone can dream of being whatever they want to be’

a cafe on the corner on a road called Coffee Talk is seen under rain

three characters in pixel art are visible in a comic split screen style with a man, a woman with green hair, and a pink girl with horny

an astronaut sits at the coffee bar in full astronaut get up saying hello there

three people sit at a coffee bar and two of them look a little odd - there’s an older man with cat ears, and the woman with blue hair has webbed bits coming out of her hair and shoulders

a big wolf

a silhouette of two people looking at each other closely, and the woman has horns on her hair

A woman with green hair looks at me from across the bar and I tell her I can still serve the caffeine she needs