February 16, 2013
Review: Coffee With Keisha by Tlaero and phreaky
Coffee With Keisha is the fourth dating game from the team of Tlaero and phreaky (not counting Daydreaming About Keeley, which isn’t a full game). It takes sometime after Life With Keeley and stars Keisha, who was a supporting character in several of the previous games. The player takes the role of Sam, who works in a coffee shop by day and pursues his dream of being a rock star by night.
Overall, the plot of Coffee With Keisha is pretty standard for a dating game. The premise is that the PC gets up the courage to talk to the girl of his dreams and tries to pursue a relationship with her, which is basically the same as both Getting to Know Christine and the first Keeley game. There are only six scenes in total, and the game is almost entirely linear until midway through the fifth scene, where it splits according to whether the PC has been predominantly nice, naughty, or somewhere in the middle. This is a sophisticated method of determining the PC’s path, but unfortunately it has the effect of making the game seem even more linear than it is because there are no obvious decision points.
One plot point that struck me as rather weak is Keisha’s claim that Nostafaru (the PC’s band) are big in Japan. Her sole evidence for this claim is that someone she knows in Japan really liked them when he saw them in America. From there to Nostafaru being very popular in Japan is a bit of a leap. And if Nostafaru were popular in Japan, wouldn’t the PC have some independent evidence of this? Likes on the band’s Facebook page if nothing else. It’s also a little surprising that the PC isn’t at all upset by the implication that this supposed popularity is based on a bootleg recording. In fact he’s pleased because it helps him get to third base with Keisha, which perhaps explains why he'll never enjoy any professional success without her help.
The game’s dominant theme is Keisha’s superiority to the groupies the PC has been with up to now. The latter are implied to be immature and explicity labelled as sluts, a label that Keisha repeatedly makes clear does not apply to her ("So you like the outfit? I was going for 'Sexy rocker chick who's not a slut.'"). Because of this, she is reluctant or unwilling to perform any sex act that remotely non-vanilla, such as oral, anal, bondage, and threesomes because "[t]hat's what a groupie would do". Despite this, the player is repeatedly told that sex with a non-slut like Keisha is inherently more exciting and fulfilling for the PC ("The groupies never kiss you, they just go straight for your cock. This is... better").
This attempt to avoid the conflation of female sexuality with being a slut is laudable, but comes across as heavy-handed. It also verges into slut-shaming in my opinion, as 'the groupies' are consistently depicted as inferior to Keisha and Keeley merely because it's implied that they've had sex with the PC without being in a relationship with him. At the risk of editorialising, no woman *is* a slut, it's merely a label applied to her by people whose sense of 'decency' is offended by her behavior. Keeley and Keisha are apparently easily offended, since their definition apparently encompasses not only promiscuity, but dressing provocatively and, seemingly, enjoying sex too much. I doubt very much that that was intended by Tlaero, but in her eagerness to clear Keisha of any possible accusation of sluttiness it's where she's ended up in my opinion.
To me, Keisha feels like a combination of Christine and Keeley. Like Christine, Keisha is dating a man to whom she's superior in nearly every way. Professionally, she has a highly paid job while the PC is a struggling musician. Educationally, she speaks seven languages while the PC never displays any similar erudition. Even physically, there are suggestions that Keisha is fitter than the PC. The author was perhaps sensitive to this problem as there are attempts to smooth it over with some clunky dialogue about equality. However, that's undercut by the fact that Sam is only allowed to be good at one thing (music), and can't even achieve success in that without Keisha's help.
Keisha also resembles Christine in the sense that it is she who makes all the decisions in the relationship. That worked in Getting to Know Christine, where Adrian was presented as diffident and lacking in experience with the opposite sex. However, Sam is a much more aspirational protagonist, being a fledgling rock star as well as someone who’s implied to have had considerable success with women. Despite this, but in keeping with the game's theme, he is often nervous around a 'real' woman like Keisha. He's seldom allowed to take the initiative in the relationship either. It is Keisha who decides what they will do, what they will talk about, and how far they will go. About the only thing Sam is allowed to have are sexual fantasies, presumably since Keisha can't admit to any fantasies without looking like a 'groupie'.
One of the things I found most interesting about Keisha as a character is the effect that her college threesomes had on her. Coffee With Keisha is set at least five years after Keisha graduated, but she still can't think about them without getting visibly upset. This is in stark contrast to Keeley's attitude, which is much more relaxed even though objectively she has much more to feel guilty about. I'm not sure why Keisha reacts in such an extreme fashion, but my best guess is that she's sublimated all of the anger she felt towards Keeley for stealing her boyfriend and redirected it towards the threesome itself, which would also explain her frequently expressed aversion to any behaviour that could be considered slutty. However, it rather begs the question of what such a reaction was intended to achieve in terms of characterisation and plot? The most obvious thing is that it emphasises that Keisha is never going to repeat her college experiences in the 'real world' with Sam. It's certainly realistic that not every woman is bi-curious or willing to engage in group sex. But like the dream sequence in Life With Keeley, the flashback feels like a sop to the significant proportion of the playerbase that's interested in such things. Tlaero might well be speaking directly to such players when she has Keisha say "What is it with guys' infatuation with pseudo-lesbians?".
Keisha's craving for monogamy is one of the things about her that reminded me of Keeley, who also makes an appearance in this game. However, Keeley has either changed a great deal as a result of the events of Life With Keeley, or she's very out of character here. The most obvious example is her readiness to discuss her sex life with a comparative stranger, which is something that I find it hard to imagine Keeley doing in her other two games. There is also the fact that she calls Christine a psychopath and threatens that she will take retribution on the PC if he mistreats Keisha. Christine may have her faults, but to the best of my recollection she never threatened Adrian with physical violence. Moreover, in Life With Keeley Christine is depicted as being a good friend to Keeley, which makes Keeley's behaviour here seem rather two-faced. Word of God is that Keeley didn't mean the threat seriously. If so, that's something that could have been conveyed much much better, especially since Keisha later reinforces the threat. Leaving aside the fact that threatening the PC with violence doesn't make either Keeley or Keisha seem like very nice people, it also feels rather childish for Keeley to threaten to get a 'bigger kid' to beat the PC up if he’s mean to her friend.
Lindsey is the only other character of any significance, and her role in the game seems to be to act as the representative of 'the groupies', and give Keisha someone to be morally superior to. For example, after encountering Lindsey at the club, the 'nice' option that wins Keisha’s approval is for the PC to tell her that he thinks Lindsey is stupid (although to be fair, Lindsey does call Keisha a whore, which astonishingly gets no reaction from anyone). Lindsey is treated a little more kindly in her own ending, where she's shown to be more than the stereotype that Keisha assumes her to be. However, that's undercut by the epilogue, which suggests that the PC's life with her is emotionally hollow as well as professionally unsuccessful.
The main thing that distinguishes Tlaero and phreaky's games from the competition is the amount of dialogue. Outside of the sex scenes, nearly every option presented to the player is choosing what to say, rather than what to do. That's something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the amount of dialogue allows the characters to be fleshed out to a greater extent, which makes them more believable. On the other hand, it's not easy to write good dialogue, especially in a dating game where there's little space for the writer to provide any metatextual information about how it should be said.
The result is that although there are a few good lines, there are also a number of lines that I could not imagine a real human person saying. No doubt in the author's head there was a particular combination of emphasis and tone that made those lines work, but unfortunately that's not something that was able to be conveyed in the game.
One of the more distinctive features of Tlaero’s writing is her tendency to occasionally choose words that don’t quite fit the context in which they appear. It's rather more obvious here than it has been in some of her previous games because the very first sentence describes the PC as being part of an "upcoming" rock band. While the reader can divine the intended meaning, it would have been clearer if the band had been described as "up and coming", meaning showing signs of advancement, rather that something that actually means about to happen.
The graphics in Coffee With Keisha are as strong as they've been in the previous games, which is unsurprising since Lindsey is the only significant character who hasn't appeared previously. The girls are consistently hot, although I wasn't entirely convinced by the younger versions of Keeley and Keisha as they seemed too different from the originals. The only minor let down is the PC himself, who I thought was scruffy rather than sexy.
I was impressed by the initial stages of Coffee With Keisha because the dialogue branches fitted together like a web rather than the typical linear branching. That suggested that the player had a great deal of flexibility in what they could choose. Then I discovered how the mechanics actually worked and realised that there's virtually no flexibility at all. On hard difficulty, the player has to choose which ending they're aiming for from the very beginning of the game and consistently be either nice (which sometimes makes the PC sound a bit servile) or naughty (which sometimes makes him sound like an arrogant douchebag). Attempting to chart a course between those two extremes (which is where most people would naturally fall) will lead to failure with Keisha but might lead to hooking up with Lindsey, although that's depicted as a somewhat less than happy ending.
To be fair, that's not really any different from relationship building in most other games. The PC has to make whatever choices most please the object of their affection, who in turn makes no allowances for the PC's personal feelings or desires. In some ways Coffee With Keisha is actually better, since the player is given the choice of two extreme paths, rather than just one. However, the impression of freedom implied by the early stages of Coffee With Keisha (which are written with a level of sophistication that Chaotic, for example, has never come close to) makes the reality a more bitter pill to swallow.
However, the gameplay decision that I had the most trouble accepting was the addition of mouse-based 'minigames'. These are similar to the scenes in various Flash games where the player moves the mouse back and forth to guide the tempo of the action onscreen, with the added difficulty that there is no indication of precisely which direction the mouse is supposed to be moved in. Some of the minigames also require the mouse to be moved at a certain speed, which I found next to impossible. Overall, I felt that the minigames added frustration but not much else.
There are four sex scenes in the game. Of these, one is severely circumscribed, one is a flashback, and the other two are mutually exclusive. As with previous games by the same team, the sex scenes are visually in third person. I found this a little disconcerting, partly because I was unprepared for how scruffy the PC looks (the viewing angle in the first sex scene doesn't do him any favours either). Of course it also has the effect of distancing the player from the character they're supposed to be identifying with and thereby breaking immersion.
The flashback is in full third-person, by which I mean that at various points the player controls all of the participants. This was something that I found less than satisfying in Life With Keeley, but it's arguably worse here since none of the participants are the main viewpoint character. After spending most of the game being encouraged to identify with the PC in his pursuit of Keisha, the player is forced to watch someone else do the deed first, which breaks immersion even more.
All of the sex scenes are linear, or close to it, which is disappointing but consistent with the previous games. I also found them to be lacking… something. I think it's the fact that Keisha's loudly expressed rejection of uncontrolled sexuality ends up bleeding off most of the passion and excitement. For example, the impact of the threesome scenes is undercut by the fact that they're being narrated by present day Keisha, who invests them with her misgivings and guilt. During the scene at Keisha's house, she shows how not carried away by passion she is by explaining why she is going to give the PC a handjob rather than sucking him. The bondage scene goes to great lengths to undercut her submission to the PC. Before the scene even begins she hits him in the shoulder, causing him to acknowledge her superiority by whining about how strong she is. Even when she's tied up, Keisha leads the scene Br'er Rabbit style, so that the PC is mainly following her orders. Just before the climax of the scene, the PC has to beg for forgiveness when he thinks he's hurt her, only for her to order him to spank her. The scene does end with Keisha having finally succumbed to passion, which is perhaps why the epilogue shows that their relationship didn't last. I have no real complaints about the other two scenes (the 'nice' anal scene and the Lindsey ending), but they didn't make any great impression on me either.
Traditionally, this has been one area where Tlaero and phreaky's games have really shined. Playing Coffee With Keisha is free from the frustration of bugs or broken links. Although I didn't particularly enjoy them, I can't deny that the implementation of the minigames is impressive. Coffee With Keisha also features sound, as far as I know the first dating game to do so. It didn't work particularly well for me (the sounds stuttered quite a bit), but I suspect that might be something to do with my set up.
There were no spelling mistakes in the text, although there was the occasional piece of questionable punctuation. Tlaero also has a habit of capitalising things that don't need to be capitalised (the word 'Dear' for example). But those are minor quibbles, and the polish of Coffee With Keisha comes as a welcome change from Chaotic's games.
It's interesting to compare Coffee With Keisha to the very first Keeley game. Both games have very similar plots, and female leads that are ostensibly similar in terms of personality and outlook. At the time of her first appearance, Keeley was atypical of female characters in dating games in that she wanted a long-term relationship rather than a no strings attached one night stand. Where Coffee With Keisha differs for me is that it is much more heavy-handed in getting that idea across. In Keeley's first game, a relationship was presented as something that Keeley wanted because of the kind of person she was. In Coffee With Keisha it's presented as being inherently superior, and those that don’t want it (the groupies that Keisha is at such pains to distinguish herself from, and the PC is encouraged to denigrate) are therefore inferior.
In that sense Coffee With Keisha is closer to Life With Keeley. The difference is that Life With Keeley is actually a pretty good advertisement for monogamy. James and Keeley love each other, and that leads to some pretty hot sex scenes. By contrast, I never felt that there was any real emotional connection between Keisha and the PC. Being her boyfriend feels like a role that Keisha is auditioning the PC for, making him jump through various hoops. That was arguably the case in Getting To Know Christine as well, but Christine was a much more exciting character and consequently the hoops she set up were much more exciting as well. Also, I can see what Christine gets out of a relationship with Adrian. It's not so obvious why Keisha would want to be in a relationship with Sam, beyond the fact that they both like heavy metal. I appreciate the desire to create a strong female character, but I don't think that showing that Keisha actually cares for the PC or ceding control to him for a moment would be a sign of weakness.
I think that part of the problem stems from the decision to classify the PC's responses as either naughty or nice. Because Keisha responds to the PC in kind (and neutrally to everything else) it never feels as though she has a consistent personality, unlike Keeley or Christine. For example, on the naughty path, Keisha makes a couple of comments that suggest she's quite the passionate lover, but the sex scenes don't reflect that because they're written neutrally. That leaves a gap in characterisation which is largely filled by Keisha's obsession with not being considered a 'groupie'. It's understandable that a female author would prefer to create female characters who aren't sluts, but Keisha's behaviour feels like an over-reaction. If you're familiar with Tlaero's outlook, it also makes Keisha and Keeley occasionally feel like authorial mouthpieces rather than characters.
It doesn't help that Coffee With Keisha is short on sexual content, with any playthrough having at most only three sex scenes, only two of which feature intercourse, and one of which doesn't involve the PC at all. This reflects the fact that Coffee With Keisha is a comparatively realistic game. However, as I said in my review of Life With Keeley, I think that one of the attractions of AIF is that it allows the player to vicariously enjoy things that they couldn't in real life. AIF is about selling a believable interactive fantasy to the player. Realism is fine if it aids believability, but it shouldn't be the be all and end all of the game.
I've no doubt that Coffee With Keisha will be popular, since it's the first Tlaero and phreaky game to be released for more than a year and, despite my criticisms, their games are superior to anything else on the market. However, in terms of enjoyment, I don't think it compares to some of their earlier work. I'm thinking particularly of Getting to Know Christine, which I would still rank as the best dating game ever made.
Overall score = 63%