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Food in games
by Tora Teig on 04/29/11 01:11:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I am always looking for an excuse to include food with every activity (swimming, most profoundly -- is hopeless with food). I used to think gaming was too, when I started playing WoW some time back in the old days and I totally forgot to eat. But truthfully, I eventually remembered.

That's not really what I am going to rant about today. I am going to write about the relevance of food to a culture and how this sprouts a reliable universe for a story.

Like, take every book in the Narnia series and count the meals, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings. They eat all the time. All the time. One of the few commercial successes not entirely evolving around food must be Twilight, but then again -- they do eat blood*.

I'm not saying that including a couple of mealtimes in your story and your game will sell like hotcakes (or am I?). But I might be suggesting that at the core of life is sustenance, and at the edges of life is civilization of which the core is culture and what dwells in the soft, furry creature of culture is food! So at least to a plausible human universe the subject of a meal should come up.

I'm sure Enslaved: Odyssey to the West would have been a lot more enthralling if they had to hunt for food instead of just screaming and wanting to kiss all the time. On a side note I suppose if Tripitaka was to keep her scrawny figure -- eating bugs and clouds would suffice. Wow, that didn't sound bitter at all.

The thing is that cultural identity as well as our own personal identity as human is built upon preferences and habits that are reflected in all aspects of our lives. If that is how we sleep, when we sleep, what music we listen to, how we dance, if we pray, how hard we work, or in fact, what we eat. 

And together with mealtime comes rules and etiquette and tradition that makes the universe more and more plausible. You can learn a lot about a character or tribe or race from what they eat and how they eat it. Observation and storytelling melting together in a great big pot of potential.

Resting and eating is traditionally "downtime" in games, or a way to get upgrades, we all know eating mushrooms can give us certain benefits, like coming back to life when we die (1up). And there are games where eating is the sole purpose (like Pacman). But it is rare to find mealtime as a rewarding, interesting part of a game. That, even despite the fact that we are obsessed with food as rewards. When told the cake was a lie, the whole world shook from the sheer outrage. Not as much because lying is wrong, but because lying about cake is so wrong it violated an entire generation.

A meal can still be a reward, I quite like the concept of that. But enjoying it and learning from the culture of the meal should also feel rewarding. What is more hearty and comforting than a good meal with good friends? And why should this experience, as basic and universal as any human habits be so understated in games?

Food is identity and mandatory to a culture (at least of creatures that need food to live) and exploring and being creative on this concept should hold interesting rewards.

*On occasion. I wouldn't have the time either if I had such a busy schedule full of sighing and kissing and hand holding.

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Alan Mills
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Hey there

I love your idea of food being a major defining aspect of civilizations. Just had to say that first.

Couple of questions though. While it is true that characters being in the setting of eating works fine in books, why would this be a good place in games? To clarify i mean why should this be a part of game-play as opposed to just a cut scene. When players get to the scene where they have to eat the food what challenges do the players face?

What reward, other than story and character growth, does the player get? If like you said they get a simple bonus like more health or extra lives why would food become a core mechanic of the game rather than a potion or other power up.

Now that I've asked this questions I would also like to answer some of them and see what you think of my ideas.

If players have to do things like a formal setting where they have to select the correct fork for the correct dish, and also keep track of the conversations that are going on at the table. Players also need to show their hosts different levels of respect and recognize different customs in the kingdom they are in, such are the order food in eaten from the plate. All these things could make the act of having dinner a much more involved activity.

As players eat the food in this manner they could gain different buffs and debuffs that effect how others around the table, as well as after dinner, perceive them. This could be things like slurping spaghetti gives you a messy look and so a debuff, while having a mint after all other food could improve your breath giving you a buff.

What I'm trying to say is that rather than just focus of the food, we should focus on the activities, reactions and social stance of eating. The food may be a resource that players need to manage but the game play mechanics revolve around how, when and with whom we eat.

Tora Teig
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Thank you! Very interesting.

No, I think you are right. I suppose eating is usually a "static" acticity and very rarely challengig or rewarding (well, unless you have to eat soup with a fork, or getting rewarded through story) - so it is but the social part that keeps eating interesting. And very well put, I do love a good book - but the game has so many other premises that need to be seen to, like you said.

Wow, a formal banquet! I love that. And do you have your napkin on your lap, or do you have it tucked down your shirt like a bib? Did you pull out the chair for the lady next to you? Do you say prayers? Is your character a devout believer? Lots to work with!

There could also be an element of fear over it. Like, you know the soup is poisoned, but you don't KNOW know, for sure. So you can't say anything in fear of insulting the host, so you have to observe everyone around the table to see who's not eating the soup. -- And then use dialogue to ask them innocent questions to get to the bottom of it. "Are you allergic to leek, Mr. Walnut?" on which you have put Mr. Walnut on the spot! *GASP* And try to warn your friends without speaking, AND avoid eating soup yourself! Do you pretend to spill it? Do you scoop it on to the floor? Oh the challenges!

It would be harder around a campfire though, unless you had to wrestle your dinner on to a spit before cooking it. But then, again, the meal wouldn't be the interesting bit.

Could always slap on some very unsexy quicktime event of "tap A repeatedly to eat", but then I would rather go hungry to be honest.