Telling stories through the dishes we love

Food. It’s one of the most quintessential parts of being alive, so it only makes sense that we would find a way to include it in a medium like video games that often tries to replicate real life.

Ever since the early days of gaming, food has been a way to get health or energy back. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about video game food has to be the meat you find in the walls of a spooky castle in Castlevania, or the hilariously anachronistic gyro and fries you can pick up in Hades. It’s something that can seem really silly on the face of it, and the way we use food for health in video games has been memed and parodied to death. Admittedly, it is very funny to imagine your character in a game stopping in the middle of a scuffle to shove fourteen wheels of cheese into their face before diving back into the fight.

But when you think about it, is there any other analogy that works better? I don’t think so. Food is our fuel, it’s what gives us energy to do the things we need to do — a simple, given fact of life that is still somehow easy for me to forget on an almost daily basis.

Cooking is the name of the game

Video game food icon Cooking Mama
Cooking Mama: Cookstar.

While food remains an important mechanic to most games out there, we also have games that place their entire focus on food. Take the classic and beloved Cooking Mama series for example — there’s literally nothing else to do in those games except make food. You’d think it would get too repetitive or boring after a while, but Mama always finds new ways to keep it just as interesting and challenging as trying to make food in real life.

As someone who has had varied success on their journey to learn new recipes and make nutritious-enough food so as not to drop dead one day as an adult fending for myself, it’s interesting to have games that turn what is usually a struggle for me into an enjoyable gameplay loop. Although, any Cooking Mama connoisseur can attest that the game can be equally as challenging, so maybe it’s a little too true to life there.

Tell me a story…with food

A food quest in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

My absolute favorite, though, is when games use food as a storytelling mechanic. This is less common than just using food as a health supplement, but we still see it fairly often in games. One of my favorites includes Stardew Valley, where food becomes the center of multiple holidays in the game, and is also a core way to “get to know” your favorite villagers and endear them to you.

Another game that comes to mind is Breath of the Wild. Some of the adventures I go on in that game have nothing to do with saving Hyrule, but instead finding the ingredients I need to make the perfect, most delicious-sounding meal. There are even quests that involve bringing someone food they like, or gathering ingredients for a favorite recipe.

These stories may seem small up against the epic, heroic backdrop of saving the world, but I think they reflect on our humanity in a really sweet way. I’m sure there are tons of other games out there that have equally engaging storylines surrounding food, I just need to search them out. Food is in many ways at the heart of how we interact with each other and the world, so having characters interact and bond over food reminds me of how special those interactions can be in real life.

Venba: a story of food and family

Cooking a meal in Venba

That’s what gets me so excited for games like Venba, an upcoming narrative cooking game that is being featured at this year’s Tribeca Games Festival. It centers on an Indian mother who immigrates to Canada with her family in the 1980s, and “will cook various dishes and restore lost recipes, hold branching conversations and explore in this story about family, love, loss and more,” according to the game’s website.

The cooking gameplay makes it look like a spiritual successor to Cooking Mama in certain ways, but the addition of the narrative in parallel with that cooking mechanic is what has me the most excited about Venba.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about Indian culture, but what I do know is that food is a very important factor. I’m not only looking forward to playing Venba, but also learning more about food from another culture, and how that food ties into the family dynamics of first-generation immigrants. Of all the games coming to Tribeca this year, I think it’s safe to say that Venba will be one to look out for.

If the goal of telling stories is to help us all connect and understand what it means to be human, food is a natural extension of that. It will always be fun to consume foods in-game to replenish health or receive a buff, but I love the idea of highlighting our relationship to food within game stories, rather than always using it as a means to an end. We have some great games out there that incorporate food into their narratives, but I’m looking forward to seeing more food-centric stories in games.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

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