We’re no scientists, but there’s a correlation between people who love tea, and people who love to gossip. The sample size is ‘our family’, but it’s true – we’re sure of it.
Teacup loves tea, and loves gossip. It’s true of both the game and the main character, both named Teacup. For the entirety of the game, you will be hunting for ingredients for a tea party, but you will also be accumulating gossip from the many people you meet along the way. And gossip isn’t throwaway; it’s incredibly useful. It will make you aware of new areas that can be travelled to, and will notify you that people have returned to older areas. Gossip is the lifeblood of Teacup, and – my gosh – my curtain-twitching gran would have loved it.
As the titular character, you are a frog in a kind of Wind in the Willows setting. There are porcupines, toads, mice and bats, all dapper and swish in their Sunday best and standing up on their hind legs. They all live in a forest, broken into various landmarks like a lighthouse, a swimming pond and a shopping plaza, and everyone has their own business and ways of making do.
The people and buildings are all water-coloured nicely, while the environment tends to be stippled by hand with brushes and sponges, giving this a very authentic, Victorian childrens’ book vibe. And layered on top is the pleasant plink of piano and strum of acoustic guitar, giving it a rather wholesome feeling. The keyword here is ‘pleasant’.
Teacup wakes to find a note from her friends: they’re all rather excited about her tea party tomorrow. She’s forgotten about it, so – and this is how high-stakes it gets – she has a day to travel about her little community and find the ginger, lemon, honey and various other ingredients she needs for the tea-tasting party. A small journal lists the ingredients and their history, and they get ticked off nicely as the game progresses, while a map gets slowly updated as you learn of new areas.
To get the ingredients for the tea party, Teacup needs to fight in hand-to-hand combat with her enemies in bloodthirsty roller-derbies. If, by hand-to-hand combat, we mean ‘talk with them nicely’ and by bloodthirsty roller-derbies we mean ‘completing the occasional puzzle’.
Teacup doesn’t have a bad thought in its head. It would balk at Beatrix Potter for daring to write about a fox that would conceivably eat the rabbits: it’s that innocent and pure. Everyone in Teacup’s world is friendly with everyone else; there are no money problems, no fears, no confrontations, no predators. At one point, three raccoons wait menacingly at a crossroads, but they turn out to be avid knitting fans. Any potential edges have been filed off, and then greased with vaseline just to make sure.
When the people of Teacup have problems, they’re mostly on an inanimate level. A lighthouse mechanism stops working. Some rugs start moving by themselves. Some letters have become jumbled in the post office. These are the cataclysms you have to contend with, and they manifest as extremely lightweight puzzles – the stuff you’d expect from a hidden object game. Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright would reject them for being too easy. There’s a jigsaw, an actual hidden object puzzle, a rhythm action game, a Simple Simon memory sequence, and a series of cogs you have to match up. Everything is acutely familiar to anyone who’s been exposed to a puzzle, board game or video game before.
Complete these puzzles and you might receive an ingredient for your party. Some gossip might open up a new location, or give you somewhere else to go in an old location. And so the journey continues, as you meet lovely people with trivial problems, all in the hunt for ginseng.
Don’t get us wrong: we don’t mean the above critically, or even with a tongue in our cheek. Games like this could and should exist. Teacup is extraordinarily accessible, for one, as we’d struggle to think of many people from two to one-hundred-years old who wouldn’t get something from Teacup. There’s barely a bump on the road, and you don’t have to worry about it straying into PG territory. The controls are simple, with only movement and an action button (there’s a run button if things get too pedestrian for you), and it’s over after barely an hour. You don’t need to commit much to get a return from Teacup.
Regardless, it created problems for us. By deliberately and consciously avoiding any conflict, high stakes, deviations to the path, humour or challenge, Teacup runs the risk of not risking anything at all. It’s a single dandelion seed floating on the breeze, and you might admire it for a moment, but there’s nothing about it that sticks in the memory, and it certainly doesn’t make you feel anything.
If it did more to teach, or made us laugh, or gave us an insight into the world they created, or showed some teeth as the villagers had conflicts with each other – even so much as an old man who won’t give a ball back – we might remember Teacup. But it’s a wisp, floating by and barely registering on any emotional scale.
What Teacup does do is relax. Gaming is often about escape, and there is every chance that you will want to run away to a utopian version of Animals of Farthing Wood where the hedgehogs don’t get run over. Spending an hour in a community of people who all clearly love each other and want to spend time with each other has value, and we’re not immune to that. You certainly won’t find many games that are this good-natured.
So, look into the tea leaves: what do you want from your future? If it’s to laugh or cry; to be told something new; to meet someone memorable; or to be taken to fantastic new worlds, then Teacup will fall short, and it will do so repeatedly. Teacup doesn’t want to make you feel; almost the opposite, in fact.
But if you want to stop thinking for a moment, to be buffeted on the waves of a story as you wind down, then Teacup is written for you. It’s a lullaby, a gentle massage and a warm cup of tea all at once, and – to many – that will be just the ticket.
We wanted more edge and interest from Teacup, and certainly a longer game for the price. But we’re confident that it does what it sets out to do: to relax and consign the world to a drawer, if only for an hour or two. And we suspect that’s plenty of people’s cup of tea.
You can buy Teacup for £8.39 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S