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.
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.
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.