The Joy(stick) Of Cooking: Analysing Food In Video Games
Image Credit: Food in video games has witnessed a stirring evolution.

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IT’s been nearly six weeks since the launch of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom on Nintendo Switch, and enterprising players are still finding new tricks and secrets littered across the world of Hyrule and beyond. The action-adventure title builds substantially on its 2017 predecessor The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, by nearly overhauling some systems while only slightly tweaking others.

One of those that falls in the latter category is the system of cooking, where Tears of the Kingdom has tweaked enough of what was on offer in Breath of the Wild to make the whole exercise far more rewarding. You no longer have to search high and low for cooking pots; instead, they are now found scattered all over the place. Also, your recipes need not be memorised anymore; Tears of the Kingdom allows the documentation of all your culinary discoveries to be done in a recipe book.

But the essence remains the same: Source out ingredients — ranging from basic staples to the weird and wonderful — and toss them into a pot. The resultant creations serve a variety of tasks including replenishing lost health, giving you an extra bit of speed, keeping you warm in cold places and so on. And this got me thinking about the role food plays in other games.

Food menu from ToTK. Courtesy Nintendo


In the world of video games in general, food has largely served the purpose of providing health boosts or some sort of buff that strengthens your on-screen character. However, just as in real life, food isn’t all about sustenance alone. If that were the case, the egregious notion of ‘small plates’ wouldn’t exist… but I digress.

Food As A Video Game Mechanic 

Before we get into the meat of this particular topic, there are games like Overcooked, Cooking Simulator and the ilk that are purely about cooking or racing against the clock to put dishes together. These are not being included in this assessment, because the role food plays in those games is self-evident.

For all other games, it’s possible to break down the existence of food in games into three broad categories. The first is improvements and buffs, and apart from food, is seen in the likes of bits of armour, little trinkets, weapon upgrades and so on. With these, you can see immediate results upon applying or consuming an item, be that in the form of increased vitality, strength, hit points, defence or a charm boost to name but a few. Then there are those that have a deleterious effect on your opponent or enemies. 

Street Fighter 6. Courtesy Capcom


Where this applies to food is that some items — very often the rarer or more expensive ones — do more good to you (or bad to your opponent) than the cheaper and more common options. It’s a perfectly serviceable gameplay mechanic that allows food and beverage to serve the purpose of providing sustenance and not a whole lot else.

The second category is food as a narrative or plot device. “Find x, y and z, combine them in n container to make f,” is a typical instruction followed swiftly by, “And feed f to q in order to gain their favour.” Depending on the game (and whether it’s a basic action-adventure title or an elaborate roleplaying game, for instance), the preparation to be served up can vary in complexity and shelf-life. Some games for instance could even have you looking elsewhere on the world map for seasonal produce, and then give you a limited amount of time within which to deliver the dish, or else it goes bad and you have to start all over again. 

And then there are those instances when the process of putting the food together isn’t as vital as what that dish or item (a vial of hemlock, for instance) does, and the sequence of events it sets in motion.

Third, there’s those games that turn food into a minigame of its own. This includes timing-based Fruit Ninja-style slice ‘n’ dice minigames, or those that see you putting together dishes with ingredients while time ticks down, management sims within games that let you run little restaurants, izakayas and the like, or the sort of mix and match mechanic that Tears of the Kingdom boasts to let you cook a whole host of different dishes with their own little perks.

ToTK Recipe Book. Courtesy Nintendo


The Growing Prominence Of Food In Games Over The Years

There’s a tiny category of games where food and various types of food exist purely as gorgeous collectibles. In terms of nutrition or sustenance, a banana split, a margherita pizza and a pot of gumbo would likely have the same value as each other. And in terms of ticking boxes on a list with the view to unlocking an achievement, they also serve the same purpose. Which all makes you wonder why the developers went to such efforts to produce food that you can neither smell, nor touch, leave alone eat.

For instance, an article in 2015 on Kotaku Australia that marvelled at the sort of food that the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XV would have, met with some disagreement. One commenter wrote, “God dammit Square (Enix)… this isn’t the stuff that’s important. Gameplay, story, interesting charactors… that’s what matters.No one’s going to give a shit about how the food looks if we’re playing a 40 hour tutorial, for a completely incomprehensible grind fest!” (sic).

This was extremely apt, since just as with food, there’s no pleasing everyone.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Courtesy Nintendo


Moving on, this is as good a time as any to look back into the rich history of video games and my dalliances with food (and in some cases, food porn) over time. My own first brush with food and beverage in video games came with 1989’s Prince of Persia and the health potions found in most levels. Those using colour monitors were easily able to distinguish between the ones that restored health points and those that stole them from you. 

For me with my black and white monitor, it was a game of Russian Persian Roulette to figure out which was a ‘good’ potion and which one was a ‘bad’ one. Eventually, muscle memory and memory of the conventional sort kicked in and I was able to distinguish between them. Years later and armed with a colour monitor (in case you were wondering), I would be acquainted with Guybrush Threepwood and the Secret of Monkey Island. Using a piece of tainted meat, I was able to put a pack of Piranha Poodles to sleep and proceed to the section that had been hitherto inaccessible.

Monkey Island. Courtesy Lucas Arts


First-person shooter titles generally tended to opt for health packs or stim packs — boring and sterile, these were generally silver boxes bearing some text or buttons — of various potencies that signified the amount of replenishment your health could stand to gain. Deus Ex from 2000 broke from the pack by offering the opportunity to pick up candy bars, forties of whiskey and wine among its various consumables.

Two decades ago, the eighth title in the popular Harvest Moon series of farming and life simulators on the Nintendo Gameboy popularised the notion of cooking. Previous editions had, for one reason or another, steered clear of the mechanic, but Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland included it as a way to take your produce to the next level. Subsequent editions of the game would even include cooking competitions and such-like. Cooking food in games got so popular that even the dark and grimy universe of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt found some space for a distinctly McDonald’sy creation.

The Witcher 3. Courtesy CD Projekt Red


Over the years, food began to occupy a greater role in gaming, and I don’t mean just the conventional sort as alluded to above. In 2004, stealth title extraordinaire Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took things a step further: Set in a Cold War-era jungle, the game sees protagonist Naked Snake relying on local flora and fauna to survive. Which means he has to hunt and eat snakes, crocodiles and the lot. The player is left to figure out the effect of various foods on Snake, and also to ensure that ‘use by’ dates are taken very seriously. Food poisoning is a very real threat, as you can find out for yourself when the remastered version of the game arrives in the near future.

Best Performances By Food In A Supporting Role

By the end of the 2010s, the three categories of food as a gameplay mechanic were firmly in place. It was becoming increasingly clear that studios and developers were roping in experts to design the most exquisite food ever seen in gaming. And when I say exquisite, I mean it even got actual chefs attempting to replicate the dishes in the real world (see here, for example).

Yakuza 6. Courtesy Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio and SEGA


Among those that elevated the form, the Yakuza (or Like a Dragon as it is now known) series by Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio turned food from a prop or consumable into a key part of its world-building. And it’s not just the droolworthy images of food either; the Korean yakiniku restaurant Kanrai, fast food joints Smile Burger and Wild Jackson, and the ramen store Kyushu No 1 Star are as iconic a part of the fictional district of Kamurocho as the characters who frequent them.

The idea of using food as a part of world-building was taken to new heights by 2016’s Persona 5, in which the protagonist Joker lives in the attic of a café for the duration of a game. He not only learns how to brew the perfect coffee and make a delicious curry, but also that the philosophy behind them is more than just the ingredients that go into them.

And then there’s the behemoth of a genre that is ‘cosy gaming’. The outstanding Stardew Valley went a long way in showing that even the tiniest pixellated versions of food can still be appetising. But it was Animal Crossing: New Horizon — dubbed by some as the official game of the COVID-19 pandemic — that really leaned into the idea of making food a living breathing part of the game world. From adorable fruit and vegetables to an assortment of mouth-watering dishes to be assembled, the game nailed the visuals. It went a step further in allowing you to build and decorate elaborate kitchens, restaurants, coffee shops and snacking outlets. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Courtesy Nintendo


From sustenance to being part of the foundation on which to build worlds, food in gaming has certainly come a long way. But from most accounts, we ain’t seen nothing yet: With virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality improving in leaps and bounds, being able to actually touch virtual food isn’t all that far away. And the first stop on that journey is checking out how Final Fantasy XVI (that released on June 22) improves upon the tasty delights dished out by its predecessor.

The writer tweets @karanpradhan_