Sure thing, video games are far from being realistic, because you can’t have fun and adventure without a fair share of genre conventions. All the same, developers like to implement familiar and recognizable elements into their projects to enhance immersion, so that players could believe in the world of the game. That regards both recognizable elements of the environment and some more prosaic things — like virtual food and meals.
An appetizing and palatable meal is not only an eye-candy. Developers strive to give a gameplay meaning to bread, and fruit, and vegetables, so that players were motivated to eat regularly. But what do edible items do in different titles? How do studios make meals a part of their gameplay? We’ll tell you about all these things and more in this piece.
WHEN CHARACTERS ARE INFLUENCED BY WHAT THEY EAT
All video games are rooted in a number of conventions — otherwise a lot of mechanics would simply cease to work. The same approach relates to virtual food. IRL any meal has an impact on the human body: it stills hunger and quenches thirst, enhances mood and gives you weight. Such an approach has several variations.
Dog food in Wolfenstein
In most cases, developers make the simplest choice: they turn edible items into a form of first aid kits or elixirs. A character eats an apple they found and immediately gets a boost to their health or mana. One may find such an approach in almost any genre — from simple metroidvanias and platformers to complex and elaborate immersive sims. In Psychonauts, candies work this way, and meat in Gothic, roasted rat and piece of bread in Dishonored, eggs in Resident Evil, and alcohol in Shadows of the Damned. Sometimes, this mechanic works as a funny reference, like the dog food in the Wolfenstein series.
At times, studios try to assign more functions to edibles. Sometimes, food would bring a bonus. Such techniques were in use in the times of early consoles. In Pac-Man, the game often spawns cherries, bananas, oranges, melons, and strawberries. If players manage to get them in a limited time frame, they are rewarded with a large amount of bonus points. In Super Mario Bros., the orange-yellow mushroom temporarily enlarges the user, the green one gives a bonus life, and the flower enables shooting. The devs of Kirby`s Adventure encourage eating enemies, which rewards players with abilities of the defeated opponents. In TES: Morrowind, a number of foods give effects of rare potions, like resist common disease. In The Long Dark, fasting for several days raises stamina.
Pizzeria in GTA: San Andreas
In The Sims, Fable, and GTA: San Andreas, meals change characters’ appearance. For example, if CJ eats too many burgers and pizzas he will grow overweight, lowering his speed. To work off excess weight, he would have to visit a gym and train hard.
Meals, set properly throughout levels, also perform artistic functions. An abundant feast or a meager ration enlivens the environment and works for the ambiance, stressing elements of the visual storytelling. At royal feasts, Geralt from The Witcher enjoys various dainties. The Kyrati dictator from Far Cry 4, Pagan Min, denies himself no delicacy. Chocolates, coffee, wine, and cigarettes scattered around locations not only improve the health bar, but outline the aesthetics and philosophy of BioShock. The Talos I space station can boast about thirty types of edibles — from the quest tomato to caviar.
Far Cry 4
The plot of Mad Max is set in post-apocalyptic Australia. Cataclysmic events turned vast territories into a blasted desert, where only the strongest survive. Almost nothing is left of the world we are used to — especially, no grocery stores and no food courts. That is why Max Rockatansky is bravely chewing dog food and maggots washing them down with a sip of water from his flask.
The provisions available in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are meager and consist of sausages, bread, canned rations, and vodka. This plain diet signifies that there is no place for frills and comforts in the harsh reality of the Zone. Moreover, it reveals the mindset of the local artifact hunters. Stalkers are so desperate they are willing to suffer any discomfort and feed on the most primitive provender. Dodging the bullets of the army and the gangsters they dream to hoard enough money, survive, and then get the hell out of the Zone to enjoy all the blessings of the civilization. Besides, such a menu provides the games of GSC Game World with an ineffable flavour characteristic of the CIS countries.
The known world of Dishonored consists of a chain of islands and a landmass called Pandyssia — all other parts of the planet are covered with the Great Ocean. No wonder that the population is engaged in different fishing and sea activities. The technology of Dunwall relies heavily on the whale oil. Corvo Attano encounters a number of rare treats like canned whale meat, Pratchett jellied eels, and brined hagfish.
The radioactive Wastes of Fallout are not for choosers, so everything edible goes straight to your bowl — from gecko meats to bloatflies. The pre-war foods are highly valued, for example, boxes of noodles and Nuka-Cola. In The Binding of Isaac, all foods are designed and named in the most unappetizing way. The player finds spoiled milk, a raw liver, the sad onion, a bucket of lard, rotten meat — and they give health or bonuses. All these choices deepen the unique style and actual themes adopted by the game’s designer Edmund McMillen.
Sometimes, eating a special virtual food may give you achievements. Where Spiritfarer actually demands from the player to unlock all meals, the Sleeping Dogs would just recommend it. It does not bring any deeper gameplay or new mechanics, but makes finishing the game a longer process.
The numerous farm games are obviously focused on all things farming. The player develops their plot, turns up the soil, looks for seeds, attends to plants, waters them, weeds out, and reaps the harvest. The resulting fruit and vegetables go directly to the tables of the protagonist of the Stardew Valley or Sims.
HUNGER AND COOKING
Another way to tie foods to the gameplay is to employ hunger mechanics. Commonly, developers add a special bar or indicator for the player to keep an eye on. Players have to look for food regularly, cook meals and eat them. Otherwise the character either starves to death or gets a nasty lowering of their skills or attributes. Such mechanics are commonplace in survival games like Rust or ARK: Survival Evolved.
Sometimes, gamedesigners make it more difficult, for example, with food spoiler timers or making some items toxic. In The Long Dark, predators’ meat whoops up the chance to contract intestinal parasites. In Don’t Starve, foraging is an important part of the gameplay encouraging players to advance and explore the map. The character may hunt, forage, and cook. The meals are to be eaten while still hot, because it may spoil if stored for long and become harmful.
As a matter of fact, there was a plan to include hunger mechanics into S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky too, but the developers did not manage to whip it into shape and had to explain the constant satiety of the protagonist in the game lore. According to it, Scar’s nervous system has mutated so that he no longer needs bread and sausages.
Resident Evil Village
Another side of the mechanics is cooking. Usually, it is introduced as mini-games producing an illusion of preparing an actual meal. The emphasis is placed on time management, so that the meal isn’t overcooked and the order is fulfilled in time. Another element is choosing proper ingredients: if you mix up the bun, the patty, and the salad the client in likely to be disappointed. The choices are alternated with repetitive actions like dicing and stirring.
In some cases, cooking is similar to crafting — making a single item from a set of ingredients. A lot depends on the developers’ approach in making the recipes simple or rather complex. Often, understanding the intended meaning of an item is a tantalizing task. Good thing that in Divinity: Original Sin logic is okay, and potatoes become mashed potatoes. In Resident Evil Village, there are six recipes for meals raising different traits from health to armor. Half of them require basic ingredients, but the others demand unique components that can only be found once.
Another category is cooking games where making meals is the basis of the gameplay. In projects similar to Cooking Dash, the protagonist has to become an all-round worker of a diner to accept orders, make meals, and bring the bills. Overcooked adds cooperative play to the concept turning a simple idea into a funny pastime. VR looks promising from this perspective because it turns the most tedious tasks into an entertainment. Even now, there are several good titles, and the level of realism is going to increase even further.
FOOD AS A RESOURCE
A number of games use food as a resource to be sold, bartered, or given freely. As a present food works like any special artifact raising the loyalty of a companion or a NPC, in order to get access to special quests. Other options include Karma boosts, healing a party member, and reputation raises. These variants are commonplace in RPGs like the Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls series.
This War of Mine
In My Time At Portia, you can improve relations with the citizens by giving them something tasty and edible. You have to learn their tastes in the dialogues beforehand. In Deus Ex, bums would give you information in exchange for drinks and chocolate bars. In Anno, several classes of population may be hired only if you have the required type of provisions. To hire and support an army in Total War or WarCraft, you have to build special buildings.
The plot of This War of Mine is unfolded in a war struck city. The story is focused not on professional soldiers but ordinary citizens who just want to survive. Under such conditions money lost all value and everyone turned to bartering. Food is one of the most precious resources, and you have to find or cook it first. It can be both sold and bought at an exorbitant rate if hunger strikes. Otherwise the morale and power of the party would hit the floor leading to a defeat.
FOOD AS A SYMBOL OF THE GAME
In particular cases, the most characteristic foods become a symbol of the game when one or another peculiarity makes a meal popular in the fan community.
Sweet rolls and skooma are made throughout Skyrim. The antagonist in the Portal game motivates the character with a promise of a cake that does not exist, and includes in its recipe such inedible ingredients as cranial caps. Dante from Devil May Cry enjoys a pizza in between slaughtering demon hords. A lot of people would like to have a taste of a sandwich of the Heavy from Team Fortress or a crab rangoon from Far Cry 4 because they look so appetizing. Another highly dreamed of foods are the meals made by cute cat cooks from Monster Hunter: World. The designers of Final Fantasy XV spent hundreds of hours to create realistic foods.
BioWare has put all their huge love for cheese in Dragon Age. Alistair is fond of it, and often mentions it in the dialogues. The corners of the Internet are brimming with fanfics about the relations of the character and the dairy product. Different locations boast large heads of cheese. In Inquisition, the heights of Crestwood hide the shield named the Wedge of Destiny, which looks like a great cheese wedge with a knife in it.
Dragon Age Inquisition
A separate group consists of games made to advertise. Major companies are targeting the gamer audience and producing titles with their product license. At different times, we’ve seen projects from such giants as Pepsi, McDonald’s, KFC, and 7Up, and Death Stranding has made back its budget through advertising even before the release. Some of those games make long hours of immersive gameplay, although most of them are just clones of other popular titles.
There is some stretching in calling alcohol an actual food, but video games use it on a regular basis. Drinking alcohol is usually accompanied with varied effects to simulate the inebriety. The protagonist may womble and reel, the vision may double, the skills may be lowered, and playing is becoming increasingly difficult.
In GTA IV, after partying with his brother Roman, Niko has to return home and that becomes a quest in itself. In Bulletstorm, you may find full bottles to drink or break. Both actions give a certain amount of experience. There is no gameplay effect for this choice except for moral one. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., vodka removes radiation from the body. In the Witcher, several quests are only available to Geralt when he is drunk.
There are many ways to introduce foods into the gameplay properly, so everything depends on skills and talents of developers as well as on the chosen genre. Surely, with the technological advances, studios will find new ways to surprise the player with food and meals. And for now — the players can only cook their favourite meals according the recipes from the Web.