Cyber gastronomes – the evolving role of video game food

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By Neil Merrett

There is perhaps no more visible indicator of a society’s progress than considering how and what it eats.

In the UK alone over the last 70 years, the country has moved from a war-enforced national programme of rationing, to online delivery of numerous types of cuisine to your door within an hour. This is not to mention the broad choice of produce and products that can be purchased any time of year without fail on most high streets.

Granted the ubiquitousness of the all purpose supermarket and takeaway delivery has forced new challenges upon us involving obesity and disease. There is also the reported rise of food banks, where the public are asked to provide goods, toiletries and even pet foods to support those struggling to feed their families. Even a culinary utopia has to have a price.

On a agriculture level, suppliers also being squeezed to provide milk and other staples at higher quality and ever more affordable – yet perhaps unsustainable – cost. Millions of people are fortunate enough never to have to consider scarcity or even the origins of their fave foods, if you have the money, supply has been guaranteed for decades. How long this lasta remains to be seen.

Strangely then, a playthrough of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy 15 or the charmingly Japanese hand drawn hack and slash adventure Odin Sphere Leifthrasir is likely to tell us more about the nature of food and scarcity than a visit to the Deliveroo website.

There are obvious limitations to the role that food can play in a videogame when we crucially are not given the crucial component of taste. But as gaming technology progresses and evolves, food in a virtual world is becoming a much more complex prospect.

Take early pioneering videogames such as Castlevania, which used food as a means to top up and replenish the player’s single health bar that indicated how much damage could be taken before dying. This was often represented by a lifeforce rejuvenating Pork Chop that could be found hidden in breakable walls or a floor – seemingly cooked and ready for consumption off the bone.

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Move forward then to 2017 and the latest Legend of Zelda, with its somewhat rag and bone approach to rambling and adventure. This latest game in the populer series, where almost all its weapons are breakable, plays up the importance of foraging and trailing around dingy ponds to find prime cuts of meats and vegetables to survive an epic fantasy ordeal of scaling vast mountains and crushing demonic tyrants.

The open world nature of the game highlights the significance of both quality and quantity in food stock. For instance, do you throw away the the last few exotic mushrooms found atop a snowy mountaintop into a single dish that may give you a long-term positive effect on attack strength or defence?

Alternatively, you could use them more sparingly with common ingredients to have a more ready supply of meals for the challenges ahead – less is more when you may never again find that precious mountainside stash.

This concept is most strongly illustrated both in the game’s Eventide Island quest, where you are stranded on an isolated island, stripped of all your weapons and armour and previously collected food. A similar challenge awaits in the Master Trials downloadable content.

In both these quests, you are left with nothing other than a pair of undy pants. You have no weapons or other items and are therefore required to scavenge and forage food and other items to survive a number of battles and tasks to gain a reward, not to mention the odd cyclops battle.

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Here more than in the actual game, there are no shops or replenishing supply of forna to put together exotic meals. You are forced to create enough energy and health from fruits and vegetables that are on the island you arrive on. There are only so many ‘mighty bananas’ to collect in order to give the player a more fearsome sword swing – you must therefore make the count.

At a push, you can find pre-cooked fish being barbecued by unsuspecting enemies – the nearest this game gets to fast food – but every last dish and recipe is vital to making up for the next hit or mistake made by the player at the expense of their health.

This is food for sustenance, where survival relies on sometimes knocking together the most basic of recipes to survive and brace for an unknown number of challenges and battles ahead.

A less traditional approach of food is found in Final Fantasy 15. Here the outright health impacts of eating are replaced with strengths and status buffs that can make you stronger, smarter, or more immune to disease or ill affect for a limited amount of time depending on the recipes your friend and in-party chef can concoct.

At the end of a hectic number of in-game days, camping out can allow you to whip out a wok to pool together the various components of slain monsters. Here you can pull off the equivalent of a high concept corned beef sandwich, or a ramen made of of the mythical entrails of a magical creature.

The perfect ingredient may offer sufficient heat resistance or stamina to stave off death.

Alternatively, you may settle for the literal in-game pot noodle, which offers a handy temporary life affirming boost of health with the most minimal of ingredients.

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This is food then, both as a psychological, as well as physical necessity. That the latest console technology is also further down the road to providing photo realism and virtual reality in its graphics allows it to better convey the greasy, bubbling broth-y appeal of food that seems to stimulate taste buds even without the possibility of being eaten.

The increased complexity of gaming afforded by more modern tech is allowing games to be more ambitious with the importance of food not only to our health, but also wellbeing.

Odin Sphere Leifthrasir ties the game’s eating system, often supplied by a nomadic pig in a chef’s hat, to the process of levelling up a character that allows a player to grow stronger and gain new abilities.

Replaying levels to fight frustratingly toxic or magical creatures to gain rarer ingredients such as roots and herbs is then reward with pretty hand drawn confections and meals that are a key quality of playing the game.

Highlighting the value and scarcity of certain ingredients in order to make a perfect dish, adds appeal to the game. You are literally as good as your next meal. Yet, games are still unable to meet one of the most hugely important aspects of cuisine – taste.

On a purely visual level, food can  stimulate our taste buds and moisten the mouth in anticipation. But it may never fully cover what we desire from a meal.

Final Fantasy’s giant rideable chickens, known as chocobos, are unfortunately not a viable solution to starving in the arid, infertile regions of the world. Yet they can still make us appreciate the opportunity of being able to create a fantastic salad or sandwich with relatively affordable components.

Perhaps it is here, in highlighting the importance of food stocks, as well as its appeal to our eyes and senses, that videogames can play a significant role in how we view food and understand supply.

Nigel Atkinson, senior lecturer in food chemistry at Teesside University, suggests that the importance of food on a solely visual level is a complex issue, which reflects the huge variety of recipes and ingredients available to us as a society.

He noted studies where our traditional perceptions of food colour were played with in order to see the disconnect between our visual senses and taste buds.

“One classic study has diners eating a steak meal under low light conditions. They tucked in happily, until the lighting was increased and they discovered the steak was blue (non-tasting, safe food colour), the chips green, and the peas red. It is reported that some participants raced for the bathroom,” said Atkinson.

However, Atkinson also noted that even on this visual level currently managed by games, there were numerous influences, both culturally and sometimes politically, influencing what food appears on its surface to be edible. He said that these considerations were based on a number of factors such as colour, shape, cost, as well as plating, light and even noise in a room.

“We prefer food that is ‘naturally’ coloured, or at least what we are used to seeing (ancestral carrots are purple). Clear cola, and blue margarine failed as products. Green ketchup was a bit more of a success,” he said.

“We very much prefer food that is ‘fresh’ looking, no doubt for good reasons associated with avoiding food poisoning.”

Even with our advanced technology, gaming may never be able to fully replace the numerous benefits and the wider appeal of food and a balanced diet.

Yet with the increasing number of genres and complexities of games titles, ranging from a simplistic cartoonish handheld experiences such as Cooking Mama, to the more nihilistic survival of raw meats and alcohol in The Witcher 3, games may better reflect the complexities of pleasure and survival that food provides than a late night haunt to Tesco.

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One response to “Cyber gastronomes – the evolving role of video game food

  1. Great article, unique perspective, and certainly food for thought! The presence of food in video games is a longstanding tradition as demonstrated by the cherries in PacMan. And since, there have certainly been a number of games that have tried to move away from food as a resource; but, I think the reason it’s so popular is because it’s a universal symbol. You’re absolutely correct that food is cross-culturally synonymous with gaining sustenance and energy. That said, I think the evolution of food in games coincides with the evolution of the gaming demographic: From sweet, child-friendly cherries to comical turkey platters in the middle of a streetfight to detailed cuisine and ambitious product placement. Definitely a surprising topic~

    Liked by 1 person

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