The gamification of chill beats: the music of Kind Words and Coffee Talk

God, I envy that anime girl with the stripy cat. You know the one. It must be really quite lovely to read endlessly in a cosy room overlooking a distant city. Nothing seems to matter outside of that small room and the craziness of the outside world is rendered peaceful. She is free to lose herself to the hypnotising swirl of smooth, chill beats.

Look at that precious kitty!

But what exactly is a chill beat? As I understand it, chill beats are synonymous with the genre of lo-fi hip-hop, more colloquially called lo-fi. According to music critic Jody Amable, ‘Lo-fi hip-hop […] refers to hip-hop built on more traditional music styles like jazz and blues, buttressed by elements like drum machines, but all taken down a notch. There’s often a strong musicality to lo-fi tracks, and virtually no vocals.’ Lo-fi is characterised by evoking feelings of softness and predictability, all of which contribute to eliciting sensations of calm. Lo-fi achieves this sense of by using a regular pulsing rhythm without sudden changes of tempo, repeating cycles of rich harmonic sequences, and looping melodic refrains built from a mixture of synthetic and acoustic sounds. Lo-fi is jazzy without being jovial, infusing contemporary musical production with hints of vinyl-cracked nostalgia.

Given that Lo-fi garnered popularity as a looping backdrop to relax/study to through popular 24/7 streams on YouTube it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that chill beats tend to appear in games that are also aiming to conjure a meditative atmosphere. This kind of musical style doesn’t lend itself to games that are epic in nature or place pressure upon players to achieve specific goals—just think of how more action-oriented games like Bloodborne or the Uncharted series galvanise players through energetic sonic backdrops. Lo-fi, in contrast, isn’t communicating to players that they are in a rush to succeed, assert domination of a game-world, better their gameplay, or even progress an in-game narrative. It feels like that games featuring chill beats are encouraging players to luxuriate in the details of a game’s world rather than pushing them to a finishing point. At least, that’s how it feels to me anyway.

Making dope drinks in Coffee Talk.

I’ve recently played through two games that incorporate lo-fi in subtly differing ways. The first game is the visual novel Coffee Talk produced by Indonesian studio Toge Productions. In this title, you are placed in the shoes of coffee shop barista in an alternate version of Seattle, where humans coexist alongside elves, succubae and other fantastical races. The game sees you listening to customers’ concerns during late-night visits to the coffee house you manage, and a key game mechanic (indeed, possibly the only real method of expressing agency within the game) involves serving customers their preferred drinks. Be warned, serving an orc an espresso instead of their preferred matcha latte could force you to face very mild consequences!

The second game featuring chill beats is Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to). Crafted by Popcannibal, this title is a rather unique experience, in which you write letters of kindness to other players who have composed letters detailing questions or thoughts and launch them into the virtual unknown. I wouldn’t say this is so much of a game per se, but more like a gamification of compassion, where the aim is to simply listen and respond to the difficulties other people may be facing. In a nice touch, players can respond to helpful letters by rewarding authors with collectible stickers. These in turn can be used to decorate a cosy bedroom which your letter-writing avatar occupies.

Writing dope letters in Kind Words.

While being quite different in game mechanics, style, and genre, these games share some similarities in how they intermingle chill beats with gameplay. One such similarity is that the games’ scores are largely disinterested in player actions or plot progression. Disinterested music is generally not discussed in videogame music studies as dynamic music (as in, music reacting to or informing player inputs) is of interest to ludomusicologists as dynamic music is unique to videogames. After all, part of the reason we love playing games is that we can press a button and watch shit explode, preferably with a loud “boom”.

While the music in Coffee Talk and Kind Words is not dynamic in this sense, players are still able to interact with the soundtracks in both titles. Players are free to skip and shuffle tracks by controlling a radio. Some may even choose to turn off the music playlist completely which would probably make the games feel very different in tone, possibly even a bit lonely.

One thing that is intriguing about disinterested musical loops is that it crafts a sense of audiovisual stability within these titles’ game-worlds. Instead of consciously paying attention to the soundtrack to receive gameplay information through musical cues, players are able to focus on the information being fed to them visually. Coffee Talk is a visual novel, so players receive vast amounts of information through dialogue and written cues—overloading players with extra musical information on top of this could easily disrupt the gameplay flow. Likewise, Kind Words uses this looping music to encourage players to focus their attention on creating thoughtful responses to other players’ letters.

Looping music crafts a sense of calm and stability, and can convey information about a game’s mechanics to players. In Understanding Video Game Music, Tim Summers outlines that the presence of a repetitious, disinterested soundtrack implies that the game universe is underpinned by a stable architecture.* In Coffee Talk and Kind Words, the idea of both games being stable and predictable is important to suggest that these are broadly calm gaming experiences. Hence, the looping chill beats establish a connection between predictable gameplay structures and a chilled affect. This idea is further reinforced when this vibe is also conjured up through both games’ distinctive, yet aesthetically pleasing visuals and low-stakes gameplay.

Despite these similarities across Coffee Talk and Kind Words, there are some noticeable differences in how these soundtracks are used. Of course, this makes perfect sense, given that the games are asking quite different things of players. Coffee Talk is a plot-driven visual novel asking players to progress through a pre-written narrative, whereas Kind Words encourages players to construct and engage with their own stories (and the requests made of other players).

For example, Kind Words rewards players by gradually expanding the playlist’s repertoire, whereas Coffee Talk does not. One intriguing feature of Kind Words is that players receive a new track each day that they interact with the game. Upon responding to another player’s letter with some (hopefully) kind words, the player receives a new track, which can be integrated into their existing in-game playlist. Contrastingly, Coffee Talk does not reward players for progressing through the game with the promise of more music. Instead, players can freely engage with music from the start of the game.

Due to this difference in use of music, you could argue that players understand the nature of exploration and what it means to complete both games differently. In Coffee Talk, players complete the game by reaching the end of the narrative and observing how their choices affect characters’ epilogues. In comparison, players of Kind Words may instead gain a sense of completion through filling their music catalogue as there is no fixed narrative to explore or complete.

The sonic qualities of these games are also subtly different, making each game’s audiovisual aesthetics distinct from one another. In Coffee Talk, I was struck by how the music had a slightly muffled, indistinct quality—in Kind Words, no such effect can be heard. This slightly blocky effect is easily created by filtering out very high frequencies from a track. These high frequencies often lend sounds a crisp definition or brilliance. Just as an example, the highest frequencies in a mixed pop song are often occupied by hi-hats and cymbals, top ends of synthesisers, and vocal articulations. If you were to remove high-end frequencies (in a technical process known as applying a high pass filter) the sounds would sound very muffled, as if you’re hearing them underwater, or from an adjacent room.

Intentionally filtering the music in Coffee Talk has two noticeable effects: the first is that the sound effects shine through the soundscape more cleanly, directing player’s attention to the sensuous drips of coffee, flurries of steam and chiming doorbells heard in the coffee bar. This grounds the game in a sense of unreality, where the intimacy of brewing barista-style drinks is heightened and highlighted as a uniquely interactive element of gameplay. Secondly, the soundtrack’s blocky quality mirrors the pixelated, retro style of the game’s visual aesthetics.

Kind Words’ soundtrack sounds busier in the top end of the frequency spectrum. This causes the sound effects to be more intertwined with the backing music rather than sitting neatly on top. As in Coffee Talk, the music of Kind Words reinforces the visual aesthetics of the game. Instead of creating a retro feel, the soundtrack helps to craft a fantastical vibe as it features an array of glittering synths dancing around the top end of the frequency spectrum, combined with unusual synths and distorted drum loops. The other-worldly nature of the chill beats deliciously reinforces the game’s fantastical visual palette.

It may seem immediately obvious to write that these games use chill beats to create relaxing experiences for players (well, duh), but I feel like it’s important to focus on using the word “experiences” rather than outright using the word “games”. While we can argue about if we can even consider visual novels (like Coffee Talk) and games without clearly established narratives/goals (like Kind Words) as games at all, I think it’s more interesting to configure these titles as a gamification of relaxation. And, as pointed out above, chill beats are essential to crafting and conveying this to players.

Chill beats in these titles encourage players to luxuriate in the games’ vibes, embrace the lax settings of their stories (or lack thereof), and reflect on their in-game experiences. Contrasting to the music of many other games, the chill beats do not demand attention from players and do not react to or provide information about how players should interact with their games. Instead, the chill beats distance themselves from player actions and play a key role in constructing cohesive audiovisual aesthetics. This is quite a different role for music to play compared to, say a survival horror game, where reacting to sound cues can mean the difference between life and death. Thankfully, as far as I know, games with chill beats don’t involve matters of life and death, or even success and failure. A perfect tonic to the outside world right now.

Now all I need is a stripy cat…

*This idea is discussed in pages 105-6 of the linked e-book preview. Don’t worry about reading the transcribed sheet music as it’s not essential for understanding the main argument!

Coffee Talk is available to play on macOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. This version was played on a laptop running Windows, and Andrew Jeremy’s original soundtrack for the game can be found on Spotify and Apple Music.

Kind Words is available to play on macOS and Windows. This version was played on a laptop running Windows, and Clark Aboud’s original soundtrack for the game can be found on Spotify, Apple Music and Bandcamp.

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