Eating in a game should mean more than just food

Eating is a significant expression of culture and socialization. Specific dishes like birthday cake, Thanksgiving turkey, and movie popcorn have their own traditions associated with them, and sharing a meal with a person or group is a way to forge a bond through common experience and conversation. Food has been used in games as a set of items that give buffs to stats and relationships, but it could become a more significant world-building aspect in RPGs—something that goes beyond survival.

I appreciate games that go to great lengths to have history and lore, but in a game, I don’t want to have to sit down and read in-game books to feel like I’m in another world. Good world-building immerses a player without overtly telling them “hey, I’m immersing you in this history and stuff!” Think of the dreamlike spiritual realm called the Fade in Dragon Age. Players in the game learned the most about this realm not by reading about it, but by experiencing it.

The Fade is an extreme example of an imaginary world people experience. It has its own set of rules that were different from the regular world; you had no inventory and gained skills only usable in the Fade. Different cultures also follow sets of rules, but the everyday culture of fantasy RPGs is often disappointingly similar to our own cultures. I want to feel some culture shock when I play an RPG, not like I’m in some modern retelling of medieval-renaissance Europe. The details of everyday life, like how food is prepared and when certain dishes are eaten, are areas where the unique culture of a fantasy world can shine.

Eating has its own section in Patricia C. Wrede's world-building questions

Food is present in many RPGs, with varying degrees of in-world cultural relevance. Most RPGs have healing items, but often when food is a healing item, it is merely a different name for a common healing effect. This ends up making it difficult to find what you need in your inventory—it’s much easier to remember one name for one type of healing item. In order to make the variety relevant, food items should be differentiated from each other in some way.

Food in Kingdom of Loathing is complex and funny, but is more about stats than a regular mealtime

Some RPGs make food have strange side effects or buffs (NetHack, Kingdom of Loathing). While initially interesting, this treats food as a guess-and-check puzzle, and does not take advantage of the social and cultural implications of the food. Combining weird buffs may be an interesting minigame; I’m more interested in how food can express relationships between game characters and the game’s world.

Persona 4 is guilty of the many-names-for-potions approach to food items, but it also has instances where food can play a meaningful part in understanding Japanese culture and building friendships. Since the setting of Persona 4 is modern Japan, it reflects modern Japanese culture rather than a fantasy culture, but it’s an easy place to start. Some nights in Persona 4 you have the option to spend your evening making lunch for the next day. The time you spend making the food represents a real sacrifice of your limited evening time as it does in the real world. While you’re preparing the food, you’re quizzed on how to prepare it. I’ve prepared potato salad many times, but I didn’t know that in Japanese potato salad, the potatoes are usually slightly mashed, so I chose an incorrect option in preparing this dish. It was a wonderful moment where I realized the game’s culture was different from what I was expecting.

In a game with a fantasy culture, the correct way to prepare a dish should present itself before the player is quizzed on it, which leads to “how can I include information about food without giving the player a recipe book?” In Tales of the Abyss, you discover recipes lying around and from talking to other people. Wouldn’t it be great to take this a step further? Maybe to repay you for some fetch quest a villager could have you over for dinner (taking you inside a normal person’s home, where you can have other relevant cultural details, like the games children play or folk songs), where they make fruity meat, and you can see a picture of what you’re eating. Depending on your cooking skill, you might be able to discern the parts of the dish: “it tastes like lemon and grapes in a gravy.” Or you could ask the villager, who then describes the process to you, which you need to go back and interpret yourself in your crafting system.

Additionally, the context of food preparation can be a medium for character development. Tales of the Abyss allows you to choose which party member will prepare the dish. Depending on their skill, others may comment on the deliciousness (or grossness) of the food. Games have used food as a giftable item to express your affection for a character, but what if you could take this further? Say one of your party members is from another country in your fantasy world, and you go to the trouble to make a dish from that other country. For me, this kind of use of food could interact with the ways RPGs already develop relationships and characters in a way I as a human can relate to.

There’s still a problem with fantasy food. If it’s too removed from food we’re familiar with, it won’t be as satisfying to make a dish. Does trig-geetz salad sound all that appealing? Maybe it’s unrealistic to have foods we’re familiar with in other worlds, but a reference to something we’ve eaten before can help players think of foods as possibly tasty. I would like to see weirder dishes that exist in our world. Instead of sushi or pizza, acorn-flour flapjacks or fried frog legs can give an air of exoticism without being completely outside the player’s frame of reference. Fantasy RPGs could learn a lot from survival games with creative recipes. Dead Rising 2 has a few bizarre drink combinations, where drinking onion milk makes zombies avoid you. Maybe a fantasy world could have similar strange combinations.

Food is still unrealistic in most games. The bread in my RPGs never goes moldy, and I can carry feasts around with little worry that I’ll squash my pears. At some point realism becomes annoying rather than fun. But if developers paid as much attention to the culture and food of worlds as they do to their combat, they could make richer worlds.


  1. IcePotato

    !!! this is basically my tumblr in blogpost form!

  2. TB_Love

    I’ve loved the few games that have played with deterioration and expiration dates with food.
    Dragon’s Dogma did some interesting things with it. All produce and meats have three stages of life – fresh, sour, foul. You can buy containers in the game and combine them with vegetables and meats to preserve them at particular stages and some quests even encouraged you to do so. One quest asked you to have 15 Sour Ambrosia Meats which takes an awfully long time to complete because you rarely find sour meat simply lying around in the world. You needed to deliberately hunt fresh meat and constantly check your inventory to catch the stuff at “mid-life” and preserve it before it turned foul. Even more amusing was the economy seemed to actively support foul meat and vegetables over fresh produce – they both sold at a higher price.

    • TB_Love

      I guess they really like cheese in Gransys? :p

    • Rachel_Helps

      @TB_Love whoa, interesting! There’s one version of Harvest Moon I played where food gradually gets less fresh over time, so you have to store it in a cool place and use things fairly quickly (and it also makes out-of-season, fresh items more rare). It’s not always a bad thing, but it seems like in some games it could just be a pain.

  3. BigShellEvent

    Oh yes! I found the food skit in Tales of Symphonia one of the better examples. All the characters have their preferences, like any Tales games; but what happened here was that Colette noticed that she no longer disliked some food early in the game. They had a discussion about whether it’s an adult paletter change, until later on the game’s actual message was that she was losing all her sensations as part of losing her humanity. That got me by surprise, and it was one of the little things hidden as part of story telling that I really liked.

  4. CraigBamford

    Really enjoyable piece. Might even fit into the discussions about character-building and socializing in games, too. Game-makers often seem to struggle to find those “quiet” moments where the relationships between characters can be expressed and developed. Why not over a meal?

    • CraigBamford

      (That said, I actually love in-game books. Yes, the act of reading a book in a game cuts off momentum. But, sometimes, a slow moment or two ain’t a bad thing.)

  5. mortimasiv

    This is exactly the reason that I’m almost always obsessed with food details when I DM pen-and-paper RPGs.  I don’t make my players follow my rules, but I usually encourage them to actively engage the realities of eating / sleeping.  The world and the experience are indubitably enriched.  
    Love it.

  6. psientist

    First, this website is a very tasty bonbon sandwich!
    Combat physics reign supreme in fantasy RPGs, even though the realization of combat physics is usually a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that only almost captures what we think fighting a centaur should be like. As human omnivores we know how eating physics tackles the task of sandwich-eating: bread factories, cold-cuts, industrialized/organic farming, cows warming the planet with their farts, mothers waking early to pack a brown bag, Jared, deli’s, etc.
    A mmo-rpg has the infrastructure needed to tackle world-spanning food physics. Could food prepared and consumed in a pub have a longer lasting, more nuanced effect on a character’s stat? Could character’s only carry snack food/trail mix or learn to recognize edible plants in explorable zones? Could farming and food gathering be enough to be considered a hero by the NPC actors and could that hero definition be accepted by other players?
    Lastly, this site is a bonbon sandwich with a side of sparkle fries

  7. qwallath

    Excellent point! The key to making immsersive RPGs (and other worlds), if that’s your aim, is to pay attention to the obvious, the things you might overlook. Eating and drinking can be some the great joys in life (our sources of revulsion), and that can be exploited on a very emotional level. All you need is some good descriptions.
    Just noticed for the first time this week that there’s a merchant in Planescape: Torment who sells a selection of outlandish foods, and you can just try them out for the heck of it – no effects at all. And of course the magic candies!
    I keep mentioning this, but I always love the fact that in Baldur’s Gate, there are over a dozen kinds of gemstones. Of course their primary use is to turn them into cash, but simply that they’re there and that there are variants is a lovely touch of detail, and easy to implement. Of course, their use as ingredients in item enchantments is also present, and nice.

    • mortimasiv

      Of course, Planescape: Torment is a slightly ironic example, since your avatar probably doens’t need to eat.  But I was actually playing PST the other day, and I totally agree!  It’s actually a superb playground filled with “fluff” that completely enhances the experience.

  8. Snakester95

    @AMGitsKriss Man, I always laughed about how in Dishonored I just ate about everything I saw, because it was a quick simple thing.