Cozy in the Cafe: Kris Antoni Hadiputra on Developing Coffee Talk

Even figuring out the controls for the demo of Coffee Talk on the Nintendo Switch is relaxing. There’s no pressure from waiting customers, just natural exploration and little discoveries as I figure out how to find recipes for drinks on the in-game smartphone. While I had been curious about Coffee Talk, I hadn’t anticipated that brewing tea and hot chocolate in a cafe really would be this relaxing. But I soon fall into a soothing rhythm as I click on ingredients and watch them combine. Other than that, I can sit back and watch my supernatural patrons interact, or change songs on my phone and peruse other apps.

Developed by Indonesia-based Toge Productions, Coffee Talk casts players as a barista listening to the stories of Seattle’s more supernatural population while serving them drinks late at night. It joined other story-focused games at this year’s LudoNarraCon, a convention that’s been digital since it launched last year.

In the days leading up to the event, I got in touch with Toge Productions founder Kris Antoni Hadiputra, who also served as the co-writer and story editor for Coffee Talk. Over a back-and-forth email exchange, he talked about studying latte art, Fumito Ueda’s design philosophy, and offering some solace during quarantine.

Alyssa Wejebe: What are your plans and hopes for LudoNarraCon?

Kris Antoni Hadiputra: It is an honour for us to be included in LudoNarraCon. We are a small indie studio from Indonesia; it’s been a struggle for us to get people to know our games (especially outside of Southeast Asia) because we can’t always afford to go to events and exhibitions such as PAX or Gamescom. Hopefully, through LudoNarraCon we can introduce more people to games from Indonesia, our culture and backgrounds.

A.W.: I got to try the Nintendo Switch demo. It was nice! I got a kick out of seeing the silhouettes of characters with tails, horns, and pointed ears outside the cafe’s windows. In what other ways did Coffee Talk approach combining supernatural characters with modern day life?

K.A.: We try to mix fantasy with some of the story and world-building elements. We try to imagine what if elves, orcs, and dwarves live in our modern world, what would that be like. Some of those fantasy races might be acting like what we used to know in other fantasy tales; Elves with their high social standards, Orcs with their infamous stereotypes, but we tried to break those stereotypes as well in this game.

A.W.: Different dev logs posted by Toge Productions have said that influences on Coffee Talk included ‘90s anime like Cowboy Bebop and games like Ico. Could you talk more about the different things that inspired Coffee Talk?

K.A.: Coffee Talk started in an internal game jam in 2017. At that time, [writer and game designer Mohammad Fahmi Hasni] pitched a game where he wanted to replicate the feeling of “watching the rain while holding a warm drink and listening to chill music and conversations.” A warm, chill, and relaxing feeling that he got when hanging out (working late) in coffee shops (Fahmi likes to drink green tea latte and work remotely at coffee shops).

We were not sure how to translate that into a game, so we took a lot of inspirations from other games, movies, and manga. The most obvious inspiration that people point out was VA-11 HALL-A from Sukeban Games and Ysbyrd, where we took inspirations for the gameplay mechanic. As for the setting, atmosphere, and storytelling, we took inspiration from a Netflix series called Midnight Diner; it’s a show about a small diner that only opens at night where a diverse cast of characters come and talk about their problems. For the urban fantasy setting we draw some inspirations from Bright and Shadowrun. For the art aesthetics, we want it to have a ‘90s anime character design but with a modernized-retro-pixel art look, so we look at Cowboy Bebop, City Hunter, and Snatchers for inspirations. For the game’s design direction, we were inspired by Ico’s creator, Fumito Ueda’s design principle of “Design by Subtraction” where we would cut away features that are not essential for our core experience.

A.W.: I remember reading about Ueda’s “Design by Subtraction” principle in a dev log written by Fahmi, where he discussed resisting the addition of more features that could dilute a game’s core message. What is the core message of Coffee Talk that had to be preserved?

K.A.: We want Coffee Talk to focus on the stories of the characters and have it as a mirror that reflects our own personal experiences and world conditions. We want to give players a thought-provoking experience (in a safe, chill and relaxing way) and let them see the world from a slightly different perspective that they might not see or experience before. Just like when people contemplate while watching the rain and holding a warm drink. We might not be able to deliver this experience if Coffee Talk has a more challenging gameplay/objectives such as “collect X amount of money in a short time” or “serve drinks before customers get angry,” etc.

A.W.: Did the team research cafes, the work of baristas, drinks, and other things for Coffee Talk?

K.A.: Yes, Dio Mahesa, the game’s art lead, went through a lot of research to get the art and “vibe” right. We even used Google Street view to take a tour around Seattle to get the feeling and atmosphere. Andrew Jeremy, the game’s music composer, researched the “lo-fi chill hop music to listen while studying” genre. The programmers and I also studied how baristas make latte art from Youtube Videos and [from] observing them at coffee shops.

A.W.: Dio Mahesa said in another dev log that Freya was the first character he worked on. How did Freya’s design evolve? For instance, her hair is a different color in the initial design.

K.A.: In the early character development, Dio designed Freya wearing this green parka coat, with scarf around her neck, in order to match the rainy weather on the outside. But we decided to take her parka off, as if she already put it on the hanger. Also the hair color was changed, to make her look more unique; and also it was Fahmi’s hair color that day, so we added some Easter egg to it.

Left: A dev log shared Dio Mahesa’s initial design for Freya. Right: Final design for Freya.

A.W.: While trying the demo, I enjoyed finding the little details in gameplay, like the ability to switch songs on the in-game phone. Was it always the plan to give players some control over music like that?

K.A.: We wanted players to be immersed while playing as the barista, so all the in-game UI/UX is made to feel more tangible. We also want players to be able to change the music as they play. The original idea was to have a “notepad” for game menus, but it didn’t really make sense for the music player. Then a friend of ours, Gwen Foster, suggested that the barista has a mobile phone instead. Just like real life, you can play with your phone while other people chat away in the background.

A.W.: It’s interesting to see how the demo blends the UI with in-universe objects like the phone. The game’s menus feel more subtle. Was that always the plan for UI in Coffee Talk?

K.A.: We want the game to have a clear UI distinction when in-game as the barista and out in the “4th dimension” controlling the menus.

A.W.: I was surprised to find that I couldn’t choose dialogue options for my barista. Was that ever part of the game’s development before, or were dialogue options always going to be excluded from Coffee Talk?

K.A.: We had an internal discussion about using dialogue options; in the end, we decided not to have traditional dialogue options and have the story branching options be represented with the drinks you serve.

A.W.: The game emphasizes people gathering in a cafe and has newspaper headlines about a virus reaching Seattle in 2020. Do you feel like Coffee Talk has gained new significance due to COVID-19 and its impact?

K.A.: We received messages from people saying that Coffee Talk helped them in some way during quarantine or social isolation, that it gives them an escape or a sense of normalcy during these troubling times. The virus mentioned in the game was actually a reference to our other game, Infectonator. We never imagined that something like COVID-19 would actually happen.

A.W.: Coffee Talk also has a webcomic. How did that start?

K.A.: I met with Sunny Gho from @kosmiknetwork during a creative industry gathering. We’ve been acquainted for a while, but never collaborated on a project before because he works on Marvel and other big IP comics and I’ve always thought “I’m a small fry and why would someone like him work with a nobody like me” (Impostor syndrome maybe?). So, we talked and he pitched an idea for a webcomic adaptation for games, and turns out he was quite eager to work with us. So we quickly shared ideas and developed the concepts for Coffee Talk‘s webcomics.

A.W.: Last question — what’s your favorite drink at a cafe? I always go for hot chocolate.

K.A.: I’m more of a tea person myself. I usually drink Jasmine tea or ginger milk tea.

A.W.: Cheers to that. Thanks for your time, and take care!


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