Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thought for Food

Games that tell stories borrow a lot from movies (and other forms of storytelling that precede them). Many people have even criticized the games industry's inability to escape the traditions, conventions, and vocabulary of the movie industry, but that is not what this post is about. I want to talk about the stuff that movie directors have that game designers still haven't stolen from them, but should. I'm talking, of course, about food.

Food fulfills one of our basic needs as living organisms. The way we acquire, prepare, and eat our food is usually deeply ingrained in our personal and cultural identities. We eat food for a myriad of reasons: nutrition, celebration, religious practice, and so on. We grab some munchies when we sit down to watch a movie or play a video game. And we see the characters in film and television do the same.

The point is, we (almost) never see game characters eat food. Sure, Mario may chase mushrooms, but it's not because of the peculiar tastes of Mushroom Kingdom cuisine. Game characters, generally, only do "amazing" things - they leap tall buildings, fly spaceships, dual-wield plasma rifles - but they never take the time to sleep, eat, etc. When they do, it's always for utilitarian reasons, and so the joy of finding a mushroom stems from its usefulness as a power-up, and doesn't resonate on an emotional level.

Storytellers in other media have long realized the strength of food as a symbol and as a plot device. In Peter Jackson's take on The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the viewer is treated to a disturbing scene (pictured above) in which the Steward of Gondor demonstrates his penchant for at least of a few of the seven deadly sins while scarfing down a private feast in the presence of his timid but loyal servant. In contrast, in the early minutes of Disney's Aladdin, the titular character sings a three-minute piece of musical plot exposition explaining that he "steals only what [he] can't afford." It is not until just after this scene, however, when most viewers really connect with the character; Aladdin is about to celebrate by eating his half of the loot - a loaf of bread, his meal for the day - when he encounters two young children more in need than he is. He gives them the bread and the gratitude they show is something anyone watching can relate with.

As a storytelling device, food can show us that a person is greedy and hedonistic, impoverished and hungry, or good-natured and generous. What a character eats and how they eat it can be a window into their personality and personal history, and make them seem that much more human. So why is it that more game characters don't do us a favor and take a lunch break?


  1. It gives a lot of options to an adventure-type game. Say, if you want to usurp the monarch in a city, you could undermine him by giving food to the city's poor, sparking riot.

  2. This is a really good point, and I think as aspects of games such as graphics and visual appeal come to a dead end (ie, the graphic cards can't get much better), games may rely more on storyline in order to sell. This could be really important to future games.

  3. Good point, I definitely think this applies to RPG-type games. First person games, though, it might not work so well. On the other hand, it would be pretty awesome to see how Valve would approach Gordon Freeman eating a feast for Half Life 2 Episode 3.

  4. Hey now, I have plenty of memories of eating diamonds in Morrowind when trying to sell them to a vendor.

    Spending time to just eat or sleep in a game is just boring. Of course, if applied in ways that you speak of they can be used as tools to tell a story; however, you are not going to see someone just sit down and eat for a long time. It is actually kind of interesting. Try to think of a game that has the player eating for more than 30 seconds.

    I think food is best off just left as power ups and healing items. I don't want to watch my character eat. Even the mini-game in Castle Crashers bothers me.

  5. You're right, Mike, there's a reason we don't have mini-games for changing clothes or going to the bathroom, either. But I think showing the character eating, or showing that they DO eat, can be part of a story. I'm not suggesting it as a "feature" - that's the kind of thing you find in Fallout 3, where "food" gets translated into a gameplay mechanic necessary for survival. I'm talking about showing that the rest stop in the desert level gets the job done, but the inn in the nice town at the edge of the desert has the best home-cooked meals. Or showing a character's relationship with another character by having them meet for lunch, instead of any of the other locations they might meet in a cut scene.

    Just a thought.

  6. Play old Sierra adventure games. Eating as a plot device is pretty common. Then again, these adventure games were basically movie-esque narratives riding along checkpoints driven by the player's ability to mess around with every combination of items and scenery possible.

    Also: Lucas Arts. (Before they decided to be primarily Star Wars exclusive...)

    But I guess other than these, I see your point. I don't suppose you'd like to pioneer this field of game development? Wink wink.

  7. I think GTA: San Andreas already tried a very watered-down version of using food as a means for surviving...but you didn't have to eat very often, and it was more of a determinant of whether your character was "fat" or "in shape." At the very least, it did impact your sprinting stamina. It didn't really add very much to the quality or storyline of the game though.

  8. Exactly my point; a lot of games mention food, but few of them attach the kind of significance to it that we do in real life. In games, food (generally) increases or decreases your stats. In real life, food does that, but it also means a lot more, depending on the scenario.

    I have to confess that I didn't own a computer when Sierra and LucasArts' adventures were popular, so I'm unqualified to speak on them. I'm looking forward to trying a few of them out this summer, though.

  9. I think the problem could be that companies are afraid to hit the "food" and "sleep" categories for real, because if they do and they screw it up, it would look HORRIBLE for them. I mean, how could you recover from something like that? This is, of course, excluding games that have "food" as a necessary mechanic (such as a game where you are a vampire and therefore have to feed to live. It would be a pretty lame vampire game if you didn't feed on the blood of the living).

    Companies want to go with safe. Safe means done before. That's why every so often there's some über innovative game that skyrockets a company to the stratosphere, before they try to do it again and come crashing back to Earth.

    Basically, damn economy sucks. That's the problem.

  10. Funnily enough, Grandia pretty much does that, using meals several times for a " talk to all your party members to see what they think about the plot " thing.

    (and then there's the guy in Grandia 2 who becomes possessed by the tongue of the gameworld's devil figure, amplifying his greed with gluttony; the town he's already been screwing with with his greed is effed with even more when the tongue's demonness results in people being unable to eat anything except a root anyone else wouldn't eat if they were starving.)


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