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?