We’re getting into hibernating season up here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means it’s time for feasting. The crops are ready for harvesting. The cornucopia is assembled. What are we eating (in games)?

Don’t think, just answer: any food from a game of your choice appears in front of you, perfectly edible, right now. What is it?

Zainabb Hull: Sweetcake from Oblivion. The low-poly, Bundt cake-esque shape just looks so damn delicious. Not to be confused with sweetrolls, which also look tasty but, like, they’re not pointy cake.

Melissa Brinks: I have literally had the Portal cake—I live in Washington within driving distance of the bakery that inspired it—and I want it again. I would also like something savory, but the cake is what came first.

Sara Davis: I want to know what kind of cookies Sten had in Dragon Age: Origins that blew his Beresaad mind.

Have you ever cooked a game food? What was it? Was it good?

Sara: Aside from the Jewels of Misrule? I borrowed The Elder Scrolls Cookbook from a friend before the pandemic; I still have it. The best recipe I’ve made from it is, perhaps surprisingly, S’jirra’s potato bread. Who was S’jirra? I don’t know her, but her potato bread is an easy and delicious way to use up leftover mashed potatoes.

Zainabb: I haven’t properly cooked any game food yet, but S’jirra’s potato bread sounds excellent and combines my two favourite carbs: potato and bread.

It’s only technically game food because it’s been featured in game adaptations, but the closest I’ve come to cooking game food was that one time I made lembas bread. I was expecting it to be stodgy, but it actually came out really well. It tasted great, and the texture was more biscuit-y than bread-y; sort of like a cross between cake and shortbread. Maybe one day I can bake the legendary pointy sweetcake.

Cooking in games: is it good? Is it bad? Tell us more!

Sara: There’s an episode of Sword Art Online about this. The characters, who are trapped inside of an MMORPG, can buy food from merchants or loot ingredients from defeated creatures and cook the ingredient drops by summoning and tapping items on an in-game menu, which transmutes drops into chopped and prepped ingredients. A character with maximum cooking skill complains that cooking is much more boring this way than in real life, although her meals seem to provide the players enjoyment as well as status buffs.

I’m inclined to agree; in most games that I’ve played, cooking is just a matter of selecting menu ingredients and sometimes waiting for your avatar to prepare them. (This is excruciating in The Sims, when inexperienced cooks tend to freak out while their eggs burn.) But then I really got into making coffee, tea, and cocoa in Coffee Talk. The barista system is not very complex, but there’s a puzzle element in that your customers may make vague requests (something bitter, with milk in it) or ask for specific drinks that you haven’t learned how to make yet, and you have to make your best guess using the meters that indicate how hot, sweet, bitter, or cool your concoction will be. Most of these challenges are easy enough, but I didn’t realize how hooked I’d gotten on customer satisfaction until I failed to make teh tarik correctly. Myrtle the sports orc was very brusque with me, and I was devastated.

Standing nearby trees with the Temple of Time in the background, Link leans over a fire pit with apples. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo, 2017.

Zainabb: I really enjoy cooking in games, even when the mechanics are super simple. Sara’s absolutely right, sitting through The Sims’s cooking animations is painful, but I love making the finished dishes! In games where you “craft” recipes from a list of specific ingredients, like in Cozy Grove, I find it satisfying to gather and prepare the ingredients, and to receive a beautiful pixel meal in return. I also like the “dump everything in a pot and see what happens” mechanic of games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild—it feels like slowly putting together pieces of a puzzle.

I haven’t played Coffee Talk yet but the simulation-style mechanics that Sara outlined also sound like, uh, my cup of tea. Cooking simulators satisfy me in the same way as crafting mechanics, but the more involved gameplay feels like you’re actually participating in the cooking. Although it became stale fairly quickly for me, Cooking Mama was one of my first (and most anticipated) games for the Nintendo DS back in the day, and I’ll always spend twenty minutes on one of the Cook, Serve, Delicious! games when I have the cognitive capacity for their rapid-fire instructions.

That touches on what doesn’t work for me about cooking in games—these mechanics are rarely designed for people with executive dysfunction. If I have to craft recipes, I struggle to remember what ingredients I need for any given recipe. As a result, I’ll either hoard ingredients, taking up valuable space in my inventory, or forget about them if I’ve placed them in a separate storage space. If there are too many recipes to choose from, or ineffective ways to organise them, I’ll feel overwhelmed and I’ll only be able to randomly pick a recipe to make—not super helpful if I want to cook a meal with a specific attribute, like a healing or antidote dish. In comparison, cooking simulators are usually streamlined and you rarely need to worry about inventory, but on fast-paced games like Cook, Serve, Delicious! I can struggle with coordination and remembering the order to do things in.

Melissa: I love cooking in games. I’m often disappointed because the mechanic itself can feel boring, or only certain combinations result in food that really does anything beneficial—looking at you, Breath of the Wild—but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to do it. Searching for ingredients in BotW was one of my favorite parts of the game, even though I found cooking itself to be a bit underwhelming; I wanted my culinary experiments to stand up to essentially min-maxing my food, which they did not. Oh well.

I don’t know that I’ve really found the perfect cooking game yet, but I sure do sink a lot of time into Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!. As I wrote in my review, the chaos and overwhelming nature of it are somehow satisfying to me. The more stressful the day I’ve had in real life, the more I (no pun intended) relish playing through the frenetic levels. It’s less about inventiveness and more about accuracy, but still—just like when I was a Starbucks barista, I love the feeling of perfectly executing someone else’s recipe.

What function and/or fun does cooking and eating bring to games?

Sara: I regret to inform you all that I wrote an entire dissertation on the function and pleasure of food in modern and contemporary American literature, and unfortunately have way too many thoughts that are cumbersome to convey in a concise and clever roundtable! Nonetheless, here are a few notes that are just as true of games as of books:

  • Food imagery is rarely neutral: it’s either enjoyable to see, taste, and smell, or it’s gross. Delicious or disgusting, or some uneasy combination of the two.
  • Food can symbolize identity and belonging: there are foods that we eat because they remind us of home, or because we value how or where they are made, or because they are traditional for our community. And there are foods we avoid because we reject what they stand for.
  • Although the processes that bring food to the contemporary table are often made invisible, food nonetheless alludes to the context that produces and delivers it: climate, labor, trade, and more.

So, in games as well as literature, food is excellent for world-building and character development. But because games are interactive, food often serves a practical function. It can have a status effect, like a power-up mushroom or a poison. It can feed a meter in games where time ticks down between meals, such as The Sims or Fallout 76. Or you can just pick it up and move it around. In my view, playing with your game food is another dimension of worldbuilding: in Skyrim, for example, all the sweetrolls piled up on a jarl’s banquet table tells us something about the world; kicking them onto the floor tells us something about the player’s role in that world.

Okay! Lecture over! But what makes food such a rich topic is that this outline barely scratches the surface of what is appealing, repulsive, satisfying, or frustrating about food in any given context. And so I am very excited to see other examples from other games!

A screenshot showing a family of Sims gathered around a dining table.

Zainabb: That’s so interesting, Sara! In particular, that makes me think about the process of producing food in games like Breath of the Wild, where your character is essentially doing all of the labour, from harvesting or hunting to preparing and cooking, and finally eating. Nonetheless, the player isn’t necessarily encouraged to consider their impact on the world around them; resources are usually infinite and our character is entitled to those resources simply because the player requires them, which kind of replicates the real-world invisibilising of food production processes.

Outside of the practical mechanics that Sara mentioned, cooking in games serves as a way for players to connect with (virtual) food and, in some cases, communal experiences of eating—for example, by bringing or serving food to NPCs, or by sharing a meal with your party. In real life, I despise cooking (and I have… a complicated relationship with eating but that’s for a different roundtable). My disabilities make cooking difficult so I rarely do it—it stresses me the fuck out and it’s rough on my body. In-game cooking can be stressful, but overall, it’s easy to control, it requires no actual preparation (or washing up), and the presentation of even the weirdest dishes is always better than I could ever manage in real life.

Melissa: I sincerely cannot wait to read your dissertation, Sara.

When I think of food in games, one of the first games that actually comes to mind is World of Warcraft. I didn’t actually do cooking when I played—it’s not really an ideal skill for a rogue, if I remember correctly, and, like most crafts, it’s actually pretty boring to execute.

But! But! Exactly as Zainabb mentioned, the communal experience of eating in WoW is still so lovely to me. Before a big raid, someone with the cooking skill could finesse up a bountiful feast that would bestow all kinds of buffs on a raid party, and we’d all have to sit there momentarily, watching our characters go through a goofy eating animation. Raiding is such an exciting part of the game, but a feast forced us to take a moment of idleness before we could get started. Even if the moment itself was brief and you couldn’t see your avatar in the mess of 20 other people, the concept of eating and feasting with your party was so nice—all the characters gathered together, nourishing themselves before taking on the impossible. Maybe I never did down Arthas in Wrath of the Lich King, but I remember the moments of pause before starting the raid when we’d all gather around, our avatars’ hands moving one single model of bread to their mouths over and over again, giving us more strength than we had before.

Sara: You just made a poem out of that goofy eating animation, and I love it.