By Alex Orona
In June, my Step Father passed away from Cancer. It sucks but I dealt. I was strong for my loved ones, buried myself in new projects and work, kept busy and pushed through those ‘hard to get out of bed’ days. Eventually, things normalized and we’re back to everyday life. Enter the Gaming Fyx Podcast. Our podcast colleagues discussed a game that stuck out to me: Necrobarista, a visual novel (not normally my fare) that was released in July. They spoke so highly of this game that I bought it without question and proceeded to play it an hour a night for a week.
Necrobarista is about death and the grieving process but it’s more than that. Necrobarista is a game about the Terminal- a coffee bar in the far off land of Australia that is visited by both the living and the dead for a cup of coffee (or age permitting, a stronger drink). The patrons of the Terminal are diverse in culture and backstory, bringing fascinating tales and leaving as quickly as they arrive. The cafe is run by a ragtag bunch of misfits including Chay the previous owner, Maddy the current owner, Ashley: Child Engineer and Ned: the corporate supervisor. It’s a lot but each are introduced at a pace that lets you drink them in slow, yes, pun intended.
I started my journey with reservations regarding the visual novel genre. I have a known history for not taking them seriously and streaming them strictly for comedy. This is not your average visual novel. Necrobarista plays in 3D cell shaded anime adjacent space, but most scenes are just that – take these 3D models, place them in dramatic poses and display them. Add in some quick cuts and it feels dynamic with each click of the mouse, new cuts with scenes dripping in style and flair. I repeatedly stopped to take screenshots for future desktop backgrounds – each one complete with quirky one liners spouted out from the characters in the scene. I’ll keep these for a while.
My stepfather’s passing was a long, drawn out process, and when he was gone, the world was off. A person who was critical to my upbringing, someone who was part of the fabric of my being. It might be cliche to say, but a piece of me was just gone leaving only an old watch with a mangled band. Something was missing, it was like that feeling of impending doom. Have you ever had the feeling like something was stuck in our teeth and maybe if you tongued at it long enough it’d come loose but never does? That’s how it felt. People could go about their days but I was the only one that realized this anomaly. This must be what it feels like to be the first person to know the evil plot in a body snatcher movie. Mix all that with some occasional unmotivated “tough” days or the tendency to overwork myself and time passed slowly. I eventually let the thoughts go of what could be wrong and continued with my day to day, but even writing this, things don’t feel quite the same.
Fast forward to playing Necrobarista now. I alluded to the characters feeling REAL, but I didn’t understand how real. The game has a back half twist that I will not spoil but needless to say, it has to do with death. The curious thing about the back half twist is, it was always there existing under the surface. Upon a second playthrough, the lingering shadow of death is present still. There is an unease, an unspoken tension, it makes me uncomfortable. The Terminal Cafe is built around the concept of life and death, but that doesn’t leave the characters jaded, in fact it humanizes them, makes them privy to each individual situation and handling it in their own unique ways. There are tons of games that will use the steps of grief as a theme (see Gris) but the characters aren’t going through the steps in a clean cut way. No, the world isn’t black and white.
The human condition is chaos and comes with infinite variability, so it’s impossible for the world to be anything other than grey. That’s where Necrobarista’s characters live. The grey in-between. Some characters fight tooth and nail to stop the inevitable looming shadow of passing on, some get mad or just feel lonely but with each interaction, each character, each instance, I just felt… all of it. Did I wish that I could fight until I was beaten and broken to change the situation? Definitely. Did I feel like no one in the world knew what I felt like nor would again? Sure. Did I feel like this was some way my fault, despite Cancer being a cruel asshole? Very much so. These characters spoke to me. In a world where a cafe exists in Melbourne that houses the dead passing through, this felt down to earth.
The connection came for me that while experiencing this story, I didn’t realize that these feelings still existed in me. I felt fortunate that I was able to “process” my feelings through keeping busy and being present for my family but it turns out I had buried a lot of it. This game had me relating to each character with my own reflection on death. When Chay would get mad, so would I! When Ashley cried, so did I, not for the story as much as for my own personal experience. The game had taken it’s story and subconsciously made it so universal that without any provocation I was back in it with my Step Father. I was back feeling things I tried to avoid. The game brought everything back, the seams fell away and I could see the game for what it was. A universal experience with characters so wide and diverse that anyone can find themselves a surrogate to identify with.
That’s what makes Necrobarista so special – you have these characters who remain strong, independent, and charismatic. Then having them break down to these baseline characteristics. When the eccentricities fall away, they remain as human beings. This is how the writing really shines. Bringing the characters to life and in my own experience, seeing the raw emotions I felt within them. Seeing their reactions and feelings made me realize that my own existed. That it was acceptable to take some time to feel them instead of hiding them away. Taking time for myself to grieve, not because someone told me to, but because the game organically showed me what it meant to grieve.
Once the dust had settled and the credits rolled on Necrobarista, I was better for it. It left me reflecting on my own past experience and how the game ushered me through a complex maze of my own feelings and processes. I felt I was content looking at the new world I was facing. I have since replaced the band on the old watch that was left to me, ready to face a new challenge of becoming a father myself. Now with a renewed look at my time with my Step Father and my time with Necrobarista, I’m better and thankful for both.