If your interests strongly coincide with mine–that is, if you not only like food and history and narratives but you also like video games–then you might like to know that Memory Insufficient has an entire zine dedicated to the topic. Brought to my attention by Games and Food, a Tumblr I stumbled across and linked to when I was trying to process the dog-eat-dog spectacle of Tokyo Jungle.
The essays in Memory Insufficient cover several different games–some familiar to me, some not–and gaming environments that arguably reflect scenes of eating you might find elsewhere in pop culture: comfort, family, hunger, etc. I don’t think I gave it much thought before the Tumblr and the zine, but there are numerous examples of food in games that fit well into themes I recognize from books and films. Particularly in games that heavily feature dialogue and characterization, you might see food used to represent social belonging (such as when Tali and Garrus commiserate over dextro-based alien foods) or difference (such as the ubiquitous Bethesda sweetroll, which becomes a tool of mockery in the hands of Fallout bullies and Skyrim guards). Some games may reflect our own cultural preoccupations with food: I didn’t remember this from my playthrough many years ago, but Games and Food notes that Dreamfall‘s Zoe frequently comments on the origin and authenticity of the foods that are available in her corporatocratic world. The Fable series has a running joke about chicken-chasing which evolved into a lengthy cinematic scene in Fable 3: the opening sequence enacts a slapstick journey (reminiscent of The Little Mermaid‘s kitchen scene) that follows one chicken’s fruitless bid for freedom against the backdrop of steam-era Albion’s exploitative labor, dubious food factory practices, and low quality of life for the poor. Later in the game, there is an optional quest to release chickens from a pie factory; the chickens are clucking a freedom anthem.
So scenes of food, eating, cooking, or hungering can be as commonplace and varied in video games as in other media. But there are several kinds of food tropes that are endemic to modes of gameplay and not often seen in noninteractive media. I don’t have a large sample base from which to draw my conclusions–I tend to play a few favorite games over and over again rather than try out a range of products–but I did get happily lost in the rabbithole that is TVTropes.com, which names many variations of familiar patterns across all media. I think it worthwhile to differentiate between a poisonous mushroom and a merely disappointing power-up, as TVTropes does, but it also appears to me that most food interactions specific to gameplay could fit into one of the following categories.
Power-ups and poisons
Like the cake and potion Alice encounters in Wonderland, some gameworld food has the ability to expand or subtract your character’s abilities. The difference is that in order to access special powers that affect gameplay, the player has to work within a game’s puzzles and challenges: power-ups are not just set on tables and neatly labelled, they must be dropped by defeated enemies, liberated from a hostile environment, or saved up for and purchased from an in-game store. Mario’s mushrooms are the obvious example, but of course this trope is so common that I was unsurprised to see defeated enemies drop entire bowls of soup in Dust: An Elysian Tail. I suppose the category of power-ups could include items that replenish health or hit points–more on that below–but I am thinking more of foods that confer special abilities or enhancements on the player. Poisonous food objects of course do the opposite, and discourage blind frantic looting; for example, sometimes you get so busy grabbing drops from destroyed buildings in Rampage that you start shrinking into your puny scientist form before you realize your giant lizard just ate a neon sign.
Some consumable food objects may have both positive and negative effects: in Fable 2 & 3, most food replenishes health and may have other benefits, but everything except celery and rare magical foods cause your character’s waistline to expand.
Feeding the meter
When I was first mulling over Tokyo Jungle, I thought I hadn’t encountered a similar game in which eating was so essential to gameplay. This turns out not to be true: I had completely forgotten about Gauntlet and its range of delighted exclamations about eating.
In Tokyo Jungle and various editions of Gauntlet, hunger acts like a timer that increases the challenge of meeting the main quest goals. Unlike the standard health bar that remains static unless the player is wounded, hunger means that the health meter must be continually replenished by food looted along the journey. In some games it can be a means of keeping a player moving forward; Tokyo Jungle‘s Darwinian twist is that your postapocalyptic pet has to attack and devour other animals that you pass when you’re going to look for a mate.
Then, of course, there is The Sims. The hunger meter in The Sims is less out of place than in a fantasy dungeon crawl like Gauntlet because the point, after all, is to simulate life. You encourage your Sims to eat, sleep, groom, and go to work if they want to achieve larger goals such as buying a house, convincing another Sim to get married, or climbing the career ladder. If you don’t, the Sims will get hangry, make bad decisions, and do poorly at work or school. As one does. Unlike the games mentioned above, it’s extremely difficult to starve in The Sims–if you let the hunger bar get too red, the Sim will drop everything and autonomously rummage in the fridge, eating burnt waffles or ice cream out of the carton if s/he lacks the skill to cook. (As one does.)
Window dressings and stage business
Revisiting Games and Food, I saw that the blogkeeper noted that Skyrim was the game that first inspired him to start a food and games blog. In Skyrim, food is everywhere: every table from the hermit’s cabin to the jarl’s banquet hall is set with dinnerware and strewn with meats, breads, cheeses, bowls of soup. You can find cuts of meat in the barrels of bandit caves and sweets stacked on bedside tables. You can cook a few things, yourself, if you have the right ingredients when you see a cookpot. Yet, this food isn’t so much functional as environmental: you can eat and gain some benefits from foods and alchemical materials, but an adventurer can avoid an arrow in the knee far more effectively on an all-potion diet. Besides, many players find that it stretches credulity to pause during a dragon fight and hastily swallow twenty carrots and or salmon steaks to recover lost health. On the other hand, the food of Skyrim is beautifully rendered and arranged, and that level of detail arguably adds realism and depth to the player’s experience of the medievalish and Nordish world. (Like an absence of pumpkins in Tolkein’s Middle Earth.)
Food practices and commerce can go a long way to build worlds in any medium, so it’s not uncommon for games to feature locations like shops, bars, and markets where you can stock up your inventory or meet and mingle with NPCs while learning about the gameworld. What elevates this kind of window-dressing from scenery to gameplay is when, even if the food doesn’t create any or much of an effect on your character, your character has the ability to affect the food. I would include trade items in this category, like the fruits of Animal Crossing or the crates of tea and crabs you may encounter in Fable 3. I would also include foods that create a little sidequest action: I’ve been on a months-long Mass Effect jag, so I’m thinking of Sargeant Gardner’s special ingredients or the occasional foodless “dinners” Shepherd takes with select companions. And I’d definitely include the food in Elderscrolls worlds, which can be moved around, knocked off of tables, and collected like any other clutter. I particularly love this image, borrowed from another Games and Food page: a player collected sweetrolls from throughout Skyrim and stored them in one of the display cases in his character’s home. (Might as well, since the buggy cases can’t seem to hold my showy Daedric weapons.)
Although I am not very familiar with either, I think Fruit Ninja and Candy Crush might fit in this category as well. In these games, the manipulation of food objects is a major element of gameplay, and the food imagery contributes to the overall gaming environment or tone, but players do not explicitly interact with the food in ways that resemble real-world practices of eating, cooking, etc. If the candies are replaced with jewels, it’s the look and feel of the game that changes, not the mechanics.
Many, many in-game dialogues and cutscenes employ other common food tropes–I’m thinking of Portal‘s infamous cake, which exists only in narrative, and of course the examples in my second paragraph. But as far as gameplay is concerned, I can only think of one other category of food trope: no food gameplay at all.
I’ll eat when I’m dead
Some heroes just don’t need to eat.
You could argue that this a more general trope, not specific to interactive media: the Daniel Craig version of James Bond also doesn’t need to eat once he has evolved into a killing machine. But games without food provoke some interesting questions: why isn’t there food in this game, or why isn’t food embedded in gameplay? Because the mechanics would need to be specified: how would the playable character eat? Is it enough to simply walk into the food object and absorb its power, or is some Pac-Man chomping action required? If food is kept in an inventory, will it stack or spoil? How much is it worth in health points or gold points? Justifications would need to be invented: what would the food do in this story about dragons or aliens or war, would it add to realism or world-building or player abilities, how would it make sense in the gameworld?
When you start asking those questions, it’s easier to see food in games as the product of labor and intention, something worth examining, not merely a trivial detail.
I’d be delighted to hear from other gamers on the virtual scenes of eating you’ve encountered!