Coffee Shop Screenwriter – Review

Hold the door!

I know you’re an incredibly busy person, but this might be my only chance to impress you, so here’s my pitch.

This game (which can be played solo or as a team) sees you playing a screenwriter in a coffee shop desperately trying to finish a magnum opus by closing time. The quality of the writing is fuelled by caffeine with the primary mechanism being a balancing act of managing both money and sources of inspiration. By the end of the game you will have developed the character of the writer, a list of movies that helped inspire them, the details of the shop, and the outline for a screenplay destined to become a critical and commercial darling.

You’re interested in knowing more? Great! I’ll get my people to talk to your people. We’ll do lunch.

Coffee Shop Screenwriter

You may not have seen much in the way of roleplaying based around writing as the core, but be assured that the subculture is huuuuge with some “epistolary games” having been going since the ’90s. Whereas most roleplaying games have suffered at least some degree of trouble during the COVID-19 lockdown, writing-based rpgs have boomed.

Of especial note during this time are solo games, of which William Long’s Coffee Shop Screenwriter is one (despite the fact that it states that it can accommodate more, it is really a solitary experience at heart.) And though you may baulk at the inherently masturbatory principle of playing with oneself, keep in mind that Coffee Shop Screenwriter gives you that most exciting and elusive of roleplaying toys; a tangible, physical artefact of your experience that you can show to non-gamer friends.

The opening hook is gripping enough; you play a struggling writer given one day to come up with a screenplay or get blacklisted. In desperation, you’ve gathered the last handful of coins you have and hit a local coffee shop determined to seek inspiration over a caffeine binge. Using the standard Hollywood blockbuster formula as a series of Screenplay Beats, you’ll answer a set of questions to create your script.

This is a standard enough formula, but it is given complexity by the fact that your script is determined by the author’s caffeine level. When they’re juiced up they can come up with original ideas, inserting ingenious twists or drawing on personal experience to portray moments of oh-so-human pathos. But run low on coffee and the script begins to suffer as they lazily rip off better films or wearily throw in whatever drudgery is going on in the cafe. Because of your limited finances some part of the script is bound to suffer, so it’s important to decide when to grab another espresso and when to simply struggle through with whatever garbage will get the job done.

If this were a case of just answering the story beats and balancing the caffeine/money seesaw, Coffee Shop Screenwiter would be a pretty simple process, but the whole endeavour is made much more interesting by coming up with the details of the writer, cafe, and film inspirations during play… and it makes it harder too.

Consider my screenwriter Jeremy as he was leading into the climax of his script. Just as the hero was about to confront the primary antagonist I, the player, became excited. This script was coming together! I had a pretty solid idea of what cool thing would happen during this story beat and was about to write it down…

… But then I stopped and looked at Jeremy’s caffeine rank. He was sadly in withdrawal and there was no way he was gonna come up with a fresh idea at the moment. No, was down to “hack” level, which completely threw a spanner in my works. I’d have to mine old territory or work out something in the coffee shop that would help. In the end it was far more interesting as I had to arrange a bit of drama in the coffee shop so that Jeremy could use it as inspiration for his script, which not only made the screenplay work but fleshed out Jeremy’s environment.

It’s elements like this that mean you’re developing multiple stories; the screenplay, what brought the author to this moment, what the coffee shop is like. And at the end of it you’ll have a screenplay outline that you can possibly develop even further.

It should come as no surprise by now that I really, really liked Coffee Shop Screenwriter. It hits a lot of buttons for me and was a great experience. Many moments made me laugh aloud. The introduction written in the form of an actual screenplay is excellent theming, the coffee stains as a design feature are spot on, and the screenplay beats are so very iconic. Hell, it even made me want to drink a coffee (and I don’t even much like coffee.)

If I have an issue with Coffee Shop Screenwriter it would have to be that all-too-familiar problem that many Hollywood scripts have; it has a poor ending. For a game that offers so much freedom during the playtime it always ends with the same old story. Your script is successful and it becomes a box office success.

I would have liked the end to follow the rest of the game and offer a series of questions. Is the author happy with the script? What would they change on a second draft? What does the agent think? What does the studio change in the script? Does the film flop? What are reviews like?

These can even be affected by the various notes made during the game, such as the number of “lightning bolt” original moments being indicative of “stars” of critical success, or the Movie List helping determine box office takings. As it stands it just feels a bit… uninspiring. And that’s a shame because so much of this game (the themes, the systems, the story) is about inspiration.

I would also recommend an alternative method for playing with multiple players. Have each player play separately and then take it in turn to pitch your screenplay to the “studio board.” That would be a lot of fun.

But don’t let these minor quibbles deter you. I greatly enjoyed Coffee Shop Screenwriter and will play it again. If you’ve ever wanted to write a script, this is your shot at the big time.

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