Necrobarista – Soil Drenched in Blood and Magic
*Spoiler warning for those that haven’t played Necrobarista yet and wish to.
Somewhere in Carlton, Victoria, lies a warehouse café known as the Terminal. It is, by all accounts, a typical Melbourne haunt: eclectic, stylish, and run by an amateur necromancer. The beans are rich, the avo only mildly malevolent, and the patrons a diverse mix of living and dead. What truly distinguishes the Terminal from its contemporaries is its true purpose: a stopping point for the dead as they transition between our world and whatever comes next, a place of momentary respite as the departed come to terms with the end of their lives. Sometimes, it seems, what you really need to help you process the reality of your untimely departure is a damned good coffee.
At the heart of the Terminal—easily visible even from the café exterior—is a shimmering, almost ethereal eucalyptus tree. Its roots lay semi-bare in the dank, dark sub-basement, gently nestled between arcane machines and glowing sigils; its naked branches stretch up and out above the mezzanine, spreading a subtle sense of unease. It is beautiful and mesmerising, but a leafless eucalypt tends to signal one thing only: death.
And yet its function is antithetical to its appearance as an omen of death. For the denizens of the Terminal, this tree represents life, hope, and an opportunity to correct past mistakes. Its primary purpose is not to spruce up the café—although it certainly succeeds at this—but instead to facilitate the (re)creation of life. It is a key component in a two-part necromantic ritual designed to resurrect former proprietor Chay Wu and retrieve him from the ghastly ‘undeath’ that spirits endure before they move on. The eucalypt serves as the conduit for the massive amount of spiritual energy needed to help Chay be born anew.
The assistance of trees with creating life is not a phenomenon unique to the world of Necrobarista; in fact, you can find several examples without needing to travel all that far from Melbourne. The Djab Wurrung people, whose sovereign lands are found in central Victoria, have long used birthing trees to assist with childbirth. Some of these hollow-trunked trees have stood for several centuries and are believed to have assisted in the birth of fifty generations of Djab Wurrung people. These are inarguably trees of life, by any definition.
The Terminal eucalyptus tree, despite being similar in function to a Djab Wurrung birthing tree, enjoys a few key differences. Chief among these is its freedom to persist as both a decoration and as a component for amateur necromancy—despite almost certainly violating several building safety codes. On the other hand, the birthing trees are under continued threat as the Victorian Government continues work to duplicate a stretch of highway through the path of hundreds of birthing trees and other relevant Djab Wurrung cultural markers. What should be an indelible part of the songlines of the Djab Wurrung people—and of the history of this land—are expected to make way for ‘progress’, for convenience, for the apparent needs of those who occupy the land at present.
For many of the distinct Aboriginal cultures across Australia, history is writ in landscape and in language. Oral histories and storytelling, already damaged through long, deliberate processes of colonisation, literal and cultural genocide, and continued racism and oppression, are not the unbroken legacies they were always intended to be—and the preservation of culturally significant places is equally under threat to continued acts of modernisation. Memories, then, are the expected legacy of many Aboriginal people: the memory of their ancestors, of their ancestral lands, of their culture and practices and language. And memory—how and if we are remembered once all physical trace of us is extinguished—lies at the centre of Necrobarista’s core character concerns.
Kishan is dead. When he walks through the doors of the Terminal, his life is already in the rearview mirror. But, as owner-barista Maddy Xiao indicates, the desire to look behind you, to ask the same kinds of questions, is all too common for the recently deceased. Looking backwards, trying to understand what has happened, is natural. Over the next 24 hours—the duration assigned to the dead to process and then move on—Kishan’s focus shifts from the past, to the present, and then to the future.
In one of the optional narrative segments scattered around the Terminal, Kishan wonders what is happening at his funeral: what are his friends and family saying about him, what kind of music did they pick, and so on. “It’s kind of everybody’s fantasy, isn’t it?” he remarks. Maddy, the de facto guide to the dead, squashes the thought. Funerals are a grieving process designed for the living, and Kishan should be more focused on what is right in front of him: finding his peace and moving onto what’s next. But it’s one thing to tell someone not to worry; it’s another entirely for them to be able to accept the cold, hard truth.
Roughly twenty hours into his time at the Terminal, watching what is likely to be his final ever sunset, Kishan has a meltdown. He’s sad, and fearful, and desperate for the validation that anything—anything—in his life was worthwhile, worth enough to make that sure he isn’t forgotten within a year. It’s the kind of validation that is forever unattainable to us, but it’s these worries that threaten to unravel Kishan at the very end. It would be easy to say that Kishan is struggling this much because he just hasn’t had the time needed to process, to accept his fate, but I am doubtful that any discrete period of time would be ‘enough’ for us to properly prepare for such a uniquely challenging experience as death. And that is made abundantly clear by the fact that even Chay—a man who has seemingly spent a century of his severely extended time on Earth acting as a chaperone to the dead—still finds his final moments difficult and uncertain, even after he accepts that he cannot linger any longer. Thinking about these concepts can be harrowing enough even while we have an opportunity to act on them, let alone once our agency is gone and memories of us are all that remains.
With so many characters voicing concerns about being remembered, it seems fitting that there is no mention nor memory of who owned the Terminal before Chay. Memories do fade over time, regardless of our impact or the desperate desires of those we leave behind. Presumably, Chay inherited the Terminal from someone before him, just as Maddy inherited it from him. But it is also peculiar that there is no clarity on what the Terminal was before Chay—who immigrated sometime during the 19th Century gold rushes—took the reins, or indeed well before that. The existence of the rigid and formalised Council of Death implies that the Terminal, or something like it, has always existed somewhere in the backstreets of Carlton. (That may just be a side effect of bureaucracy; it needs you to believe it has been and will always be necessary.) But very few four-level boutique cafés would have been operating at the point where Carlton was known only as Wurundjeri land, and so the Terminal—at least the building itself—is clearly a modern addition made sometime after invasion.
Identifying who previously helmed the Terminal is a moot exercise: we do not and cannot know. Perhaps the Terminal was once administered by Wurundjeri elders, or perhaps the Terminal supplanted traditional practices. The memory of those truths are long faded. But we do know that Maddy is the current owner and, from that, we can try to understand what her values are. She is, after all, the inheritor of the legacy and culture of the Terminal. She is the one who determines what stories are preserved for the next generation.
Near the front counter is an optional narrative fragment entitled Highlights from Thinking About Alchemy the Wrong Way, by Sophie Cordova. Fugitive alchemist Sophie Cordova—something of a mentor figure to Maddy—is on the run due to her radical ideas, such as maybe some of the old ways we did things still have actual value, even if they aren’t entirely accurate or as intellectual as the new ways.
Early pre-Aristotelian alchemical models were based on an understanding of five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Later, Aristotelian alchemical models separated elements into four categories of earth, water, air, and fire.
While this model may be more accurate and reflect an “evolution” of our understanding of alchemy, it seems to sacrifice the more practical separation of elements in a way that better allows us to understand less tangible things.
After all, juxtaposing wood against elements such as metal and fire makes it apparent that wood possess[es] certain soul-like qualities that other elements lack, which might prompt us to question what it is about wood that seems to make it behave like a “super-element” with practical uses beyond the conventional.
There is a great irony in the fact that while these kinds of questions eventually led us to discard the five-element model, the new model no longer allows for the existence [of] this sort of question to exist in academic literature. [excerpts from the in-game text; edited for clarity]
Cordova places value in the traditional practices and what they can contribute to knowledge and practice. This extends even beyond her immediate discipline of alchemy, as she suggests in personal correspondence with Maddy. In the letter, Cordova encourages Maddy’s ambitions to perform the highly illegal and dangerous necromantic ritual that will bring Chay back to life—in part because it would spite the ‘intellectual’ authorities (i.e. the Council of Death) who imposed the restrictions in the first place, but also just for the pure pursuit of knowledge.
The highlighted passages in Cordova’s book, the fact that Maddy proceeds with the illegal ritual, and her general chafing against the Council of Death (and its representative, Australian outlaw-cum-folkhero-cum-stuffy bureaucrat Ned Kelly) all suggest that Maddy trusts and sees value in the less mainstream, less dominant, and less accepted practices. Maddy resists the rules imposed upon her by the officials that she just barely tolerates, going so far as to bend and break several rules repeatedly during only a several day period.
But these ‘old ways’ that Maddy embodies are not the kind that Cordova’s writings describe. Necromancy, a word with a Latin root, is at best an import to Australia; it was brought, at its earliest, by colonisers—people who believed their ways were better, more civilised, more powerful. The red-covered tome that Maddy wields in her ritual is not the kind of tool that comes from the land upon which she stands. In Necrobarista, necromancy has already replaced the practices and power of the Wurunjeri people (and presumably the rest of Aboriginal Australia, too).
Placing the blame solely on Maddy and Chay would be unfair. Though they are both practitioners of necromancy, they’re not responsible for its import or for the cultural, magical, and literal colonisation of Australia. The blame for those actions lies elsewhere and earlier, when a certain fleet decided to arrive off the coast of Eora country—and earlier still, when a dishonest man looked upon a thriving land and its varied peoples and decided to deem it terra nullius.
Australia is a nation founded on lies and violence. Its continued existence is predicated on misinformation and acquiescence: we put invasion from our minds and, when we must acknowledge it, we distance ourselves by saying that it occurred long in the past and, besides, things are better now. The historical period of colonialism may be over, but its roots run deep and its impacts are very much current. We need to believe that things are, in fact, better now—that we haven’t lost anything, or that what we have lost was worth less than what we have now. We are all—Indigenous, immigrant, born citizen—told that the current ways are best, told to assimilate and accept and advance Australia fair.
But it comes at a cost. For Maddy and Chay, this cost seems to be their own cultural practice. One of the five-element systems that Cordova praises is wuxing, a Chinese conceptual schema that has historically informed many disciplines across music, medicine, and mysticism. Neither Maddy nor Chay mention wuxing during our time at the Terminal; any familiarity they may have had with these teachings has been replaced with an all-encompassing reliance on necromancy. Maybe the highlighted passages in Cordova’s book are Maddy’s way to remember part of her heritage—one more silent rebellion against the pervasive Council of Death. Maybe there are other practitioners secretly preserving the customs and practices inherent to the land and its traditional custodians.
Maddy and Chay, like many Australians, are victims of colonisation by osmosis. They’re not blameless—however unwittingly, they are still participating in and perpetuating the colonial culture of erasure. But escaping the control of a colonial system hell-bent on ensuring its own survival is difficult. The same applies to Necrobarista itself: although it intends no erasure, it is a colonised text made on colonised land and depicts a representation of Australia absent of its Indigenous past—and present.
Even if colonialism wins and we are collectively conditioned to forget Australia’s Aboriginal heritage, the land itself will never forget. Even if Maddy is unaware, Melbourne remembers. The eucalyptus tree at the heart of the Terminal, brimming with magic and life energy, is but one of many ways in which the land communicates the fact that its power comes from within itself. It will continue to do so, even if we have forgotten how to listen.
Dr Dakoda Barker is a director and consultant for the not-for-profit, Queerly Represent Me. Dakoda has lectured in game design, narrative design, game analysis, and game-based learning at RMIT University and the University of the Sunshine Coast. He has worked on several games as a designer, writer, and consultant, and has won awards for his work, including the Freeplay Independent Games Festival micro-game award for Rise. He specializes in the areas of chronic health conditions and Aboriginal Australia.