While at university, I often took solace in the comfort of others. Not people, those were often few and far between in my personal life. Rather, I found myself in the company of characters in TV shows. Whether it was Seinfeld and his friends or the patrons of a plucky bar in Tokyo, TV show characters quickly became rent-free visitors in my mind. It was comforting and reassuring to be surrounded by a cacophony of others talking. It helped me avoid plunging into yet another bout of depression. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, the one about that plucky Tokyo bar, was by far the most consoling show in my loneliest of moments. And now that I’ve binge-watched it more times than I dare count, I’ve started to think about how it would fare as a video game.
Setting The Scene
Let me preface this by first setting the scene. It’s a warm night, the alleyway is packed, a couple anxiously awaits the service of a bubbly policeman. The signs that line the street bathe it in a bright neon glow. Lanterns sway gently in the soft breeze as they splash the path with a faint orange wash. At the end of this idyllic alleyway, full of aromatic scents wafting from the bubbling broth stewing in a shop just by your feet, is a small bar open from midnight onwards for all the late-night stragglers and the lonely wanderers.
Perhaps you are a hard-working individual wishing to relive your youth and indulge in a dish from your past? Perhaps you’re feeling a little down, and need the sage advice of a wise bartender? Regardless, you head on in, slipping beneath the curtains, and take a seat next to the locals. Almost immediately you fit right in. The bartender turns to you and asks, “What can I get you?”
What Even Is Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories?
For those not in the know, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is a Japanese show based on the hit manga series titled Shin’ya Shokudō (Midnight Diner). The manga was written and illustrated by Yarō Abe and was first published back in 2006. In 2009 the first televised adaptation of Midnight Diner aired in Japan. Subsequent seasons aired in 2011, 2014, 2016 and finally 2019. The fourth and fifth seasons were produced by Netflix and were released as Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. Additionally, two movies were released in 2014 and 2016 under the name Midnight Diner and Midnight Diner 2.
Now that we’ve got the history out of the way, let’s delve into what Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is about. The manga and related media follow the stories of a bar owner who people simply refer to as “Master”. His bar is open from midnight to seven and serves an extremely limited menu. However, should a patron request a specific dish, so long as he has the ingredients – or they bring them – he’ll make it.
Traditionally, each episode follows a regular citizen of Tokyo and their emotional journey through a turbulent part of their life. A specific meal, often associated with their past, will underscore their story. It will generally be the centrepiece of their emotional journey. Master, in all his wisdom, will do his best to counsel his patrons when required. Otherwise, through the support of their fellow bargoers, and through their own personal growth and development, these people will overcome their issues and move on. Occasionally these patrons will reappear in later episodes to pass on their own nuggets of wisdom to others. However, more often than not, they’ll move on having gained what they came for.
Turning Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories Into A Game
Once in a while, during our often mundane lives, we’re allowed to dream. We dream, like the characters in the show, to escape our relentlessly dull existence and indulge in the fantastical. So here’s my dream: what if they made Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories into a video game?
Escaping the mundane, living the life of someone else, isn’t that really what video games are all about? Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories offers that escapism to its fictional characters. But what if you were a patron at that bar, able to divulge your secrets, your woes and your worries? Or perhaps you’re the Master, listening to the stories of your customers and offering them the sage advice we wish others would impart on us?
I’m envious of the characters in each episode; I long to be a regular in a bar. I wish I had a place I could escape to so that I could enjoy the company of familiar faces. Making a video game of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories would allow for that very possibility.
Watching the lives of others on screen, witnessing the drama they experience and the resolutions they often come to, has always been fascinating. So, it stands to reason that being an active participant in their lives would be just as enthralling. A video game interpretation of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories would encapsulate that exact sentiment. It would offer to those who seek drama boundless entertainment, no matter which side of the bar they’re on. To those who seek to help others, or find help themselves, it would offer the safety of a warm bar on a long night, accompanied by good friends and a hearty Japanese meal.
Coffee Talk And The Company Of Others
Fortunately, there are games already out there that offer up this basic premise. The popular indie title Coffee Talk – developed by Toge Productions and released in 2020 – puts you in the role of a barista who runs a coffee shop in a supernatural setting. It’s your job to prepare drinks for your hapless patrons, listen to their problems and offer your sage advice when you can. You do all of this while a phenomenal lo-fi soundtrack by Andrew Jeremy soothes your mind and offers you a moments respite during these troubling times.
Coffee Talk is pretty fantastic for the most part and offers up a wonderfully unique visual novel experience. However, while it is close in both setting and themes to Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, it doesn’t quite capture the same essence. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is as much a show about the turbulent nature of grief, tragedy and loss as it is about the warmth and hopefulness of nostalgia and a good laugh. While Coffee Talk does expertly craft a narrative about so many interesting themes, it lacks the je ne sais quoi – so to speak – of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories‘ more philosophical approach.
The Beauty Of Background Noise
For a game based on the Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories franchise to succeed, it would not only have to explore those intricately difficult themes but also weave in the simple pleasure of existing in the company of others. Because some of the best episodes of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories put the Master in a more background role as his patrons do their best to help one another. If the game were to put the player in the role of the Master it would, at times, have to relinquish control from them. I feel it would be liberating and refreshing to simply sit back and watch as humanity flourishes all by itself. However, I’d imagine it would be a very difficult thing to make fun in a video game.
All of this is to say that a video game of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories would have to be as much a game about background noise as it would a piece of interactive fiction. For someone who spent many years alone with only the company of TV show characters, I can attest to the beauty of background noise. It’s comforting in the darkness, perfect to lull you to sleep and a companion in the loneliest of times. Heck, even my dog likes having the TV once when we’re out.
Lonliness And The Comfort Of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories
Perhaps Coffee Talk will be the closest we come to simulating the bar experience. Its developers recently announced an upcoming sequel, which all things considered looks promising. At the very least, it is bound to offer up more of its comforting magic and captivating stories. But I hope that one day we’ll get a game of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. I hope we get a game that not only allows you to help out, to make delicious Japanese meals and to be a wise bartender but also to immerse yourself completely in the life of a regular. Ultimately, that’s why I think they should make a game of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. To offer those who are perhaps feeling a little lonely a way out of the darkness. And boy do I hope they do.