February 14, 2016
A copy of robo-tea:1cup! was provided in exchange for an honest review.
After a stressful year like 2017, sometimes I just need to play a game where the sole purpose is to relax and enjoy a cute story about robots going on tea dates. Thankfully, robo-tea:1cup! by jo-robo delivers on its purpose: to provide a stress-free queer visual novel experience about exactly that.
The game stars a guard robot named Galine on the planet Verdande, a gentle place where most robots are assigned jobs they enjoy and the pace of life is unhurried. Galine enjoys comic books, tea, and quiz shows, and it’s hard not to get immediately attached to this little character as you play through her story.
The story begins with Galine in the break room of their workplace, attempting to decide on a snack, before their supervisor, Vals, calls them over to bot-sit a detained robot, Revek. From this point, the game spins out into three different options that allow you to either date Vals, date Revek, or simply have “tea for 1.”
There are no bad endings, and the game allows you to backtrack through the story and make different choices at any time, demonstrating its commitment to a gentle story-based experience. While most games force you to at least work for your change of mind by having to reload from a save point, I really appreciated the stress-free option of just clicking back through the dialogue and seeing what happens if you explore the game freely and pick something else, which I found myself doing quite a lot while playing.
The game is written in the second-person point of view, while visuals are in the third-person perspective. This lets you put yourself in the shoes of the adorable robot, while watching them hold hands with their robot date. To me, it read very much like one of those “ReaderxCharacter” fanfics, with the bonus of visuals, which let me connect more deeply with the story and allowed me to feel like I was a little more of a cheerful, genderqueer robot than I actually am. A good thing, by the way.
The game is only about an hour long, with all three endings easy to achieve without much trouble. I usually play visual novels in bursts, working through one storyline at a time per session to accommodate my difficulties with focusing for long periods of time. However, I devoured this game in one go, flowing through the stories one after the other and finding myself almost disappointed when it was over. Thankfully, there’s a sequel and a one-shot expansion! You don’t have to play the game in one fell swoop, though, as you’re able to save at any point and hop back in where you left off without any trouble.
The art is simple and charming, with thick lines and bold colors that suit the synth-pop soundtrack and sweet, short story well. The designs of the robot characters are varied, with some robots having humanoid features, and others having more machine-like appearances, but just as much personality.
There are few choices to make throughout the game, and the most crucial ones only impact whose storyline you choose to pursue. The rest of the choices available are largely to encourage you to be gentle and considerate of your robot companions.
For example, at one point, Revek, the robot from the harsh planet Violennia, confides that their mouth is a slit located in their chest, rather than on their face. When the protagonist offers them a sparkle shake, the game gives you the option of either simply giving Revek the shake and being walked through the realization that they’ll need some extra assistance before they can enjoy their shake, or having that realization yourself and getting Revek a straw, at which point Revek thanks you for being so considerate. It’s a small thing, but it really contributes to the gentleness of the overall game.
Likewise, the game encourages healthy behavior in relationships in other small ways. While on a date with Vals, she seems torn between staying for the rest of the date and getting home to watch a concert stream with her absolute favorite singer. Instead of simply breaking off the date and going home in a huff, Galine offers to let Vals watch the stream at Gal’s house, so their date can continue and Vals won’t have to miss her favorite singer.
A thing I really appreciated about the game was its attempt to normalize nonbinary characters through the use of pronouns such as they/them and even xe/xir. While queer representation has made great strides in recent years, particularly among visual novels, representation for trans and nonbinary characters has been slow-moving. Seeing robots who consider themselves nonbinary represented so casually in a story, given how sci-fi loves to declare robots either male or female for no discernible reason, was another sweet touch to this game.
As someone who considers themself nonbinary, even the smallest drop of representation feels like a monumental step towards feeling more visible during a time when society only insists on seeing clear-cut black and white. The delightful irony of having machines operated by binary code declare themselves nonbinary was also not lost on me.
The game seems to have given considerable thought to the kind of experience it wanted its players to have, billing itself as a “safe space.” In truth, I felt that it delivered. Many games these days hinge on surprising the reader with jarring methods, twisting expectations around in often unpleasant ways in order to elicit emotional reactions. The recent release Doki Doki Literature Club! is an example that comes to mind and one that given my own mental health I just simply haven’t had the headspace to play due to the sensitive material it deals with.
I find that this is the case not only in games, but media of all kinds these days. I’ve been forced to abandon a TV show mid-season more than once, because I simply wasn’t in a healthy enough place to process the content it presented and couldn’t bring myself to continue with a program that might surprise me with more of the same later on.
robo-tea:1cup promises that everything will be okay, that for an hour you can grab your favorite cup of tea (chocolate-covered cherry for me) and know that there are no jump scares here, no depictions of abuse or death. For an hour, you can listen to the upbeat music and follow some nice robots as they read their favorite comics and get together for tea dates. I’m not saying that depicting the dark parts of humanity isn’t sometimes integral to storytelling, but I do appreciate that someone set out to create something made for people like me, who need these little pockets of gentle reassurance that not everything in the world is dark.
The only point I wasn’t too sure about was the fact that Vals, one of the romantic options, appears to be Galine’s supervisor at work. However, the game makes the point of showing that on the planet of Verdande, society functions in such a way that every robot is on equal status with the others and that each worker is just as valuable as the next. Vals considers herself part of a team, rather than its boss, and she’s shown to bond with Galine on a personal level, through their mutual interests. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I didn’t find this storyline to be a particular problem in the overall scheme of things.
If you’re looking for a quick visual novel to help you unwind after a long day, robo-tea:1cup offers a cute sci-fi story with simple gameplay and a relaxing atmosphere to immerse yourself in. And in an era when we’ve largely given up on the optimistic depictions of the future that shows like Star Trek: The Original Series gave us, I think we can all use that kind of content now and then.
robo-tea:1cup by jo-robo is available now on itch.io at a pay-what-you-want rate.