A video game about food would seem at first glance to be a redundant sort of simulation. Unlike the experience of running over innocent bystanders in a stolen police car, or travelling through the frozen tundra in search of dragons, there are few serious consequences be had when eating a sandwich. Yet food has been a small but important part of video game culture ever since PAC-Man explored the loneliness of living a vegan lifestyle whilst being pursued by ghosts.
More and more though we see food play a pivotal role in the mechanics of gameplay. The Fallout series sees it’s protagonist wander through a strange post-Soviet wasteland, not unlike a giant Aldi, picking through rubble to salvage out-of-date irradiated cola. Again, not unlike being in an Aldi.
As a game it rewards the hoarder’s mentality and encourages you to adopt the sort of laissez-faire attitude towards expiration dates that shocks you when you return to your parent’s home and find a fridge full of rainbow coloured ham.
On the surface games take a utilitarian approach to food – you eat to restore vital life-force drained from attacks by goblins or, like Mario, to try and bulk up and get hench to impress some distant princess. Increasingly though there is such attention to detail in the varieties of in-universe food, a gamification of the act of consuming itself, that eating is more than a way to regain lost energy – it’s a way to learn about the world you’re in and a means of shaping your morality. In Skyrim to learn about the properties of various herbs, plants, and animal matter you must first eat them. Daisies, giant’s toes, glowing mushrooms must all first be munched to reveal their magical properties.
Fallout allows you to make arguably the most radical of dietary changes and resort to cannibalism. Like admitting an all vegan dinner party that you’re sometimes partial to veal parmigiana it’s a decision fraught with danger as judgemental waste-landers will seek to food shame you in a hail of bullets if you’re caught indulging in long-pig. Other than human flesh the food in Fallout is largely a homage to post-war atom age America – TV dinners, processed mac and cheese, Nuka Cola (Coke writ large). This was the time branding really took over in the kitchen and Fallout imagines a world where even nuclear apocalpyse can’t quell people’s desire for breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks.
More than any recent game The Witcher III is a universe full of diverse cuisines – from raw wolf’s liver to mutton curries to grilled chicken sandwiches there’s pretty much something for everyone. As in the Grand Theft Auto series alcohol consumption will impair your character’s motor skills but like the meat-space we exist in drinking also makes you cooler and allows time to pass more painlessly.
Booze is such an integral part of the culture of the game that a whole expansion pack Blood & Wine was released this year centred around political intrigue in a wine producing region that was an obvious proxy for the south of France. Whole quests were centred around locating rare vintages and learning basic vineyard management by eradicating giant centipede infestations with an enchanted sword (in The Witcher there’s no Monsanto around producing pesticides to mutate away all the bugs and small children). By the end of the story you’re basically a magic Paul Masson with one foot in the chateau and the other in the troll slaying game.
It exists as one of the most fully realised fantasy worlds ever created and you can choose either to delve deep into the rich and rewarding storyline, or like I do, largely ignore it and barge unanounced into peasant hovels to steal away their baked potatoes.
Baked potatoes, like bottles of fine wine, will take up a large proportion of your inventory. There’s nothing quite like breaking away from battle with a quarrelsome ogre to gorge yourself on baked potatoes and restore your precious bodily fluids. Slash, hack, run away, eat a jacket potato, repeat. Brian Harvey would find himself right at home in the world of The Witcher, a magical environment where you can safely indulge in baked potatoes without lapsing into a coma.
Gamers even have their own attendant food culture – luminous energy drinks, powdery cheese crisps, Pocky sticks. There was even a brief time during the 90s when flat foods were popular – the idea being that they could easily be slid under bedroom doors by parents or carers while their charges played Super Metroid and gradually developed rickets.
Video games and food provide different pleasures yet parallels exist – there’s a similar gradient in terms of mastering either, it’s generally easy enough to be considered adequate but true proficiency is attained only by those willing to sacrifice sociable hours and personal hygiene. In a world where the difference between virtual and physical space is increasingly hard to pin down it makes sense that our food will soon be coming served in binary.