If These Drinks Could Speak: Class and Labour in VA-11 HALL-A and Coffee Talk
Updated: May 11
SPOILER WARNING FOR BOTH GAMES!
Socioeconomic class informs access to labour, both in what kind of work an individual can do and where an individual can work. Videogames can express socioeconomic class through their core mechanics and stakes that the player must adhere to in order to “win” the game. VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Action Bartender (Sukeban Games, 2016) and Coffee Talk (Toge Productions, 2020) both take place within typically low-wage service work environments (a bar and a coffee shop) and aptly represent how different social classes can be expressed through “labour” game mechanics. In essence, while these two games appear similar on the surface, it is discernible through analysis that socioeconomic class can be conveyed through labour-based game mechanics and their apparent nuances.
In VA-11 HALL-A you play as Jill, a jaded twenty-something bartender working to make ends meet. The game is structured around making drinks for clients, listening to their troubles, and making enough money to pay critical bills and purchase items to prevent her from being “distracted” at work (Jill is more likely to give hints on complicated drink orders). Coffee Talk centers around a late-night coffee shop owner, whom the player names however they like, making drinks for their customers and listening to their stories and conversations as they roll in and out of the shop.
If the contrast between a cyberpunk dive bar and a fantasy Seattle coffee shop was not enough, the games set up their players for differing contexts via their Steam landing pages. Coffee Talk is described as a “heart-to-heart talking simulator about listening to fantasy inspired modern peoples’ problems, and helping them by serving up a warm drink or two”. Conversely, VA-11 HALL-A airs on the dive bar aesthetic suggesting players “keep your clients lubricated and you will be made privy to the most interesting stories”. There is a level of cosiness attached to Coffee Talk with deep conversation over artisanal drinks, where players in VA-11 HALL-A draw out the NPCs stories through inebriation - and sometimes by sobering them up.
With the games focused on their player learning the story of their different worlds, the way the player actually unlocks the narrative is through making their customers drinks. Both games use a recipe/ingredient system to direct the player through making drinks, however the aesthetic of the process is where the difference lies. In VA-11 HALL-A the player is given a set of six ingredients (think syrups) that they add according to the recipe by clicking to add correct amounts. You can “age” or add ice to the drinks, and mix/blend according to the recipe. Mixing drinks in VA-11 HALL-A becomes a prescriptive process - the player clicks the (literal) buttons and a perfectly presented cocktail appears at the end of it to signify a success.
Comparing this to making a drink in Coffee Talk, the game’s mechanics and the player-character’s socioeconomic context afford room for more artisanal flair. Again, the player is presented with recipes and ingredients in order to make drinks, however the recipe list is not complete, and the player can play about with different ingredients to unlock any undiscovered recipes, either through the narrative, or free brewing (with a restriction of only being able to trash five drinks a day). The player can also create latte art on specific drinks, a form of creative expression that emulates an expert barista. While neither game has a timer attached to the drink making, the level of customisation available in brewing these drinks gives a sense of more freedom for the player to explore and create, compared to VA-11 HALL-A’s prescriptive drink mixing engine.
Unlike VA-11 HALL-A, in Coffee Talk the player only exists in the coffee shop. We don’t see them go home, pay bills, or tally up profits at the end of the night. In fact, there are no prices listed, except that the player informs one customer that all the drinks are the same price. To me, initially, the player-character seemed devoid of social class, and instead a conduit for conversation through honey ginger hot chocolate and triple espressos. As the game continued the player-character made comments about not being concerned that the coffee shop would go bankrupt, and giving drinks out on the house on occasion. Combining this with the drink making mechanic reveals a level of class privilege - there is no threat of financial “failure” for the player. Where not making enough money as Jill can result in the game being cut short when she can’t make rent, in Coffee Talk nothing befalls the player in terms of finances when drink orders are awry.
As the player “speaks” through the drinks they make customers, it can be viewed that their only mode of expression is through their work. The player essentially communicates with NPCs through the product of their labour. Taking it further, in order to “win” (in the loosest sense as these are games with a heavy emphasis on narrative) players must serve drinks that match perfectly what the customer desires, and sometimes needs. However, the stakes are significantly different. If Jill messes up a drink order, maybe not even that the drink is wrong but not quite the one that the customer alluded to, she receives no commission and lower amount of tips at the end of the day - a large amount of her income. In both games if it is a drink order that is crucial to a NPCs storyline, the player may not receive the affiliated ending at the game’s conclusion, meaning that they won’t know what became of that specific character. Yet in Coffee Talk, the player can “redo” certain days in order to perfect the drink orders - Jill does not get the opportunity to “do-over” unless the player reloads an older save file.
The mechanics reveal the different affordances that class privilege can bring, from the financially devoid barista in Coffee Shop to the income-dependent bartender in VA-11 HALL-A. The mechanics of labour present in these two games are intrinsically tied to the socioeconomic context of their protagonist. Though these two games appear similar in representing service work, the stakes for the player are altogether different.