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Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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Tuesday
Oct272009

The Way to a Man’s Heart

If you missed Morrowind, one of the observations you make when starting The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the sheer number of discreet objects in the world. Every shelf is loaded with books and every table set with candles, plates and goblets, each of which can be picked up or taken. It occurs to you to proceed in the normal role-playing game way, gathering everything you can get your hands on, but it quickly becomes apparent that, much like the real world, most items are a burden to carry and basically worthless– certainly not worth the trouble of stealing them and reselling them later. So you spend most of the rest of the game not paying attention to these things, treating them as the background art they seem to be. It is probably only incidental that they can be moved and dropped like other, more important objects.

After dozens upon dozens of hours in combat against monsters and beasts in dank caves and crumbling stone ruins, you may realize you have earned enough money to purchase a house and furnish it (every major city has exactly one empty house, each of which which charmingly remains on sale until the player buys it). I was not particularly in the market for a home– there is no real gameplay-facing benefit for owning one– but I decided to do it anyway because I had more or less played the rest of the game to exhaustion.

But when I walked inside my new house, I saw it all completely differently– for there was my stout wooden table, lit in a warm amber glow, and my food: a loaf of rustic bread and a wheel of artisan cheese accompanied by a bottle (or two) of country wine. I experienced for a brief moment a kind of domestic reverie, of the sort that furniture sellers live or die by their ability to enkindle within us, imagining the simple, elegant lifestyle that we are tempted to believe lies just a couple more purchases away. I sat down– another feature of the game completely useless up until this point– and simply admired the scene for several moments, Jeremy Soule’s tranquil strings floating over the top. I might have even taken a deep breath in real life, a kind of contented sigh– even though I could not actually eat any of it, and the wine, I knew, would only debuff me.

 * * *

The foodstuffs of Fable II are all edible, however, and their effects are so pronounced I probably took more care with my diet in the game than I did with the one in my real life at the time. I began as most do: not really paying attention to what I was putting in my mouth. I had work to do, after all– saving the world and such– and cheap meat pies were as good as anything to keep me going. I came around as most do, too: suddenly noticing myself vastly different than I had used to be. When did I become so paunchy? When did my skin become so sickly and gray? I did some quick research, began scrutinizing the nutritional information on all the foods I came across, and went on a strict vegetarian diet. I was on a new mission: to slim down again. Saving the world would have to wait until I looked good enough to do it.

But if teleporting around the globe in order to buy up a rural shop’s supply of celery every morning sounds not particularly fun– well, it wasn’t. Fable II makes losing weight easier and faster than it is in the real world, of course, but cannot do much to make it entertaining, because its central conceit of food is that it becomes us, as it does in real life. Its effects are cumulative; your choices have long-term consequences. After I reaching my goal weight I stuck mostly to purified water and tofu– surprisingly easy to do when the food is all virtual and all you ever see of it is icons. Fable II’s comically exaggerated world, where one piece of fatty food could make you noticeably bigger, forced me to pay attention to what I ate, but once I realized it, I felt no temptation to eat anything bad.

* * *

Vanillaware probably could have worked in an element of food-related temptation if they had wanted to, but they don’t. Their take is mostly one of indulgence, in keeping with their voluptuous interpretation of the world, with its lush vegetation and curvy female characters. In both Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade, dishes are lovingly detailed, steaming hot, looking delicious. They are not just a restorative and a character strengthener but a kind sensual joy in their own right. Odin Sphere gives us a restaurant lined with pots and pans, a roaring cooking fire off the screen, where entrees from an extensive menu are served steaming-hot to your character, seated at a table. He or she will dig in carefully, it so that it lingers in a half- or quarter-eaten state, before finishing with a unique, character-specific animation (the dark warrior burps quietly; the fairy licks her fingers).

Muramasa shows you your food in first-person, slid over the table towards you. You will watch as each piece of nigirizushi is picked up and dipped carefully into the soy sauce on the side before it disappears out of the frame and your character’s voice exclaims in delight, as every bite of tempura is consumed, as onigiri is fashioned from a clump of rice, a rectangle of nori delicately folded over one side. Full-frame, two-dimensional animations for every piece of food– from udon noodles to roasted fish to mochi cakes– aren’t the sort of thing that comes cheaply, and yet clearly a large amount of the developer’s limited resources were dedicated to these. Someone decided that instead of another playable character or more stages, the player ought to get a detailed recreation of the experience of stopping by a roadside stand and getting a bowl of hot soup.

* * *

Food items have long been a staple in games as a healing or buffing agent, but aside from their use as a mechanic to alter stats, or as a metaphor around which to wrap a standard puzzle game, the majority of development teams don’t seem to ever consider trying to capture the powerful emotional quality that food can have: sausages grilling outdoors on a bright summer day, rich stew cooking in a pot at home while it’s dark and stormy outside. So as games continue to catapult forward in their sheer intensity, and as we make noise about their need to incorporate other notions of high drama– great joy and deep sadness, abiding love and inconsolable loss– I reserve a special fondness for games that can communicate some of the fine and subtle texture of life in its everyday sublimity.

Reader Comments (7)

Nice piece, and I wanted to add a quick props to the ramen stand in The World Ends With You, as well as the vast quantities of junk food you can suck down. Maybe because of your youthful metabolism, they don't seem as harmful as in Fable II.
October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChris Dahlen
@Chris:

I definitely agree! I wrote a ridiculous lot about The World Ends With You, with ramen as a central metaphor (here):

http://minify.me/?mxmqy3

@Matthew:

Food-sharing is powerful, simply because it's so difficult to humanize an NPC properly. If you're looking for other examples, check out Lost in Blue and even the much-derided Infinite Undiscovery. LiB makes sharing food mean something because it's so god-awfully difficult to acquire. Infinite Undiscovery features a strange picnic/cookout mechanic where the party sits around in a circle and one member whips something together in some weird kind of crock pot bubbling in the center of the group. Fairly certain the buffs from eating a food item (as opposed to a potion) go to the whole party in ID, but I may be wrong. Good stuff!
October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Ferrari
One of my favorite distractions in Dead Rising was looking for and trying all the different kinds of food that were available in the mall. It started as a quest for the "Gourmet" Achievement, but it quickly became a comparative study. I was amazed at how little nourishment an apple provided, when compared with, say...a jug full of dairy creamer.
October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew
I find it interesting that both Dead Rising and The World Ends With You have been already mentioned.

TWEWY's depiction of ramen was so appetizing that it inspired me to find real, Japanese ramen restaurants in Los Angeles. And I literally can't enter a grocery store's produce section without thinking of Dead Rising and getting the Gourmet achievement. Munch munch munch.

The Ultima games -- up until 8 -- made food a major gameplay element. Your characters could starve to death, and party members -- especially in 7 -- would be vocal about when they were hungry. In Ultima 2, the early gameplay is all about finding enough gold to buy enough food to keep from starving to death.
October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlex
Great article, long time reader etc...

Just wanted to give a quick mention to GTA IV. Nothing beats pulling off a meticulously-executed detour to burger shop in the middle of a highs-speed police chase to top up health.
October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
Great post. Another one that springs to mind is Persona 4 -- whether it's the odd things that turn up in the fridge from time to time, where eating them can boost your courage, or the bottomless bowl challenge at the restaurant which manages to capture remarkably well that "want to finish the meal but can't quite fit the last mouthful..."

Also, your companions would cook for you -- which felt somehow remarkably special.
October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRichard
This may not fall within the same category, but I still find something oddly endearing about breaking open a wall in a game like Castlevania and discovering a fully cooked turkey leg inside. Just think what a utopia we would inhabit if only real walls were full of such delicious surprises - we could end world famine using a wrecking ball (although it might exacerbate the global housing problem, so I suppose there's always a tradeoff to consider).

Interesting to hear you mention that Fable II failed to make the act of losing weight into a compelling experience. For me, that speaks to a deeper flaw with the whole 'aesthetic change as consequence' concept that Molyneux seems so keen to employ. It just seems inherently superficial to me in most cases, regardless of whether it's used as a reflection of diet or morality.

Actually, a well-realized exercise mechanic might help make the whole thing more fun. I think it was Metal Gear Solid 2 that allowed you to raise your arm strength by doing pull-ups, which actually had subtle gameplay repercussions as it enabled you to hang on to ledges longer. Perhaps these sorts of mechanics work best as minor, optional touches rather than a central element you're forced to micromanage (I have heard that GTA: San Andreas is particularly onerous in this regard, but from Paul's comment it sounds like GTA IV might have found a better balance).

Then again, once you find yourself playing a game where you are exercising in order to slim down your avatar, you really have no excuse left not to be playing Wii Fit.
November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJamey Stevenson
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