header is screenshot from Spiritfarer/Necrobarista
Waiting Room
Reid McCarter

Necrobarista is a game about waiting. Its characters, an assortment of the living and dead who haunt a Melbourne café called The Terminal, are on their way toward whatever lies beyond limbo. Though each spirit who enters the place can only remain for 24 hours, the café’s managers, Chay and Maddy, have allowed many of them to extend their stay beyond what’s allotted. Kindness, in Necrobarista as in so many real-world businesses, has a price. Maddy has racked up an enormous debt of freely given hours, which an organization called The Council of Death must apparently collect in order to maintain the cosmic/spiritual balance. Despite its fantastical trappings (Necrobarista contains not just ghosts, but necromancy and talking robots), the game is all-too relatable for my generation— economically disenfranchised, given front row seats to an environmental apocalypse we're so far helpless to stop, bound up in a sense of frustrated hopes and aimless malaise as we are.

Necrobarista’s characters are, appropriately, millennial and millenarian both. They work in jobs that they want to believe matter, even as the weight of larger societal and economic forces temper their expectations that any improvement in their circumstances is on the way. Maddy has taken over The Terminal, working alongside her friend, mentor, and former boss Chay while knowing that she can only repay the business’ “time debt” through unsavoury methods. After The Council of Death sends its enforcer (the long-lingering ghost of famous outlaw Ned Kelly, an armoured helmet permanently affixed to his shoulders) to collect, Maddy decides to stop generously extending her patrons’ stay in purgatory and to recoup her losses by gambling for their hours. If she wins, the debt is lessened and the loser (a newly arrived, disoriented soul named Kishan) has less time to spend in purgatory, preparing for the end. She figures out soon enough that she has no stomach for swindling others and resigns herself to living forever with the debt, barring a miracle.

Maddy is representative of a generation whose existence is defined by both immediately tangible debt and the bill rung up during our direct ancestors’ decades of self-interested wealth-building. Time may not be money, exactly, but it amounts to the same thing in Necrobarista. Both translate to the ability to survive, whether because the owner of them has enough resources to live or because, in the game’s fiction, they literally determine how much time is left before leaving purgatory and becoming well and truly dead. There’s another aspect of Maddy’s debt, though, that’s more important to Necrobarista: the effects it has on her hopes for the future.

Toward the end of the game, the player is shown that Maddy has been working on an occult ritual that would stave off the inevitable “final” death of her friend, Chay. Maddy, with help from a 13-year old robotics expert named Ashley, attempts to revive him through a dangerous, experimental form of necromancy. It’s of no use, of course. The ritual fails again and again. Chay must still die in the near future and when she's left alone at last, Maddy will continue to be saddled with a debt so huge it seems she'll be repaying it for centuries. Without him, she's entirely on her own, forced to figure out how to move forward under a crushing weight and without any advice from her mentor. 

The thread that follows from here, taking the metaphors that exist throughout the rest of the game, doesn’t lead to very inspiring conclusions. Saying goodbye to Chay, Maddy accepts her circumstances. Her debt is only erased by a bit of last-minute deus ex machina: an unexpected gift that wipes away her burden. Read this way, Necrobarista seems to argue for making the best of a bad situation by looking for the silver linings of a world that cannot be improved. No revolutionary act will accomplish Maddy’s aims; something like an unexpected inheritance might help, though. All her work—her attempts to subvert the rules of an unfair world—left her where she started, after all. It was only useful as an involved kind of self-help process. 

This sense of hopelessness might not be inspiring, but it does ring pretty true. For so much of my generation as for Necrobarista’s characters, life is something that seems to have happened before we were born. In the current day, we trudge through, knowing that the quality of life afforded to prior generations just isn’t in the cards for us. We wait around then, maybe hoping that a miracle will come along to improve our lot or maybe just whiling away the hours until it all ends. Maddy spends the bulk of her time tending bar, chatting with friends. In her spare time, she reads fringe theories on necromancy, looking to the edges of mainstream society for a radical transformation that seems like it will never come. Just outside The Terminal, there’s an industrial dockyard whose waters are figuratively or literally the River Styx, the passageway to death.

Though its ending suggests only intimate solutions to larger problems—Maddy’s best chance at happiness lies not in a great, paradigm-shifting change but in the kindness of her friends—Necrobarista is still a painfully apt distillation of a generational angst so enormous it’s often rendered only in parody. Even its most off-putting aspects work toward this. At first, the game seems to put too much of a distance between character and player. It comes off as reflexively self-conscious, beholden to the micro-genres of Twitter-speak and anime slapstick. (Maddy’s overly laboured “cool” dialogue and Ashley’s goofy, robot-and-caffeine-fuelled violence are the worst offenders.) But, give it a bit of time to settle and this stylistic choice reveals itself to be an appropriate one. After all, these characters believably live in the literalized limbo of an entire generation, and our affectations—pop culture reference and a desperate, faux-detached sense of humour—function as a coat of make-up to disguise the bottomless pit of dread, existential, economic, and otherwise, that would so clearly show on our faces without it. 

Necrobarista, like Night in the Woods before it, is a story told in the right format for the wrong moment in time our generation has been born into. Of course our art is a bit twee. Of course it feels like scrolling social media. Looking into the abyss of our collective future is a hard thing to do.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.