Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Bribe GM with Food (6/30)

We're almost at the end of theme week 1. I have no idea whatsoever as to the theme of week 2.

Tonight I'm going to cheat a little bit and write about games. And food. games and food. games with food! It's actually something I've been thinking about for a while, food (and other necessities) in gaming. At first blush, it's textbook simulationism, really: in real life you have to eat food or somehow get nutrients into your body or its game over. I was even going to say as much, but it struck me not too long ago that that's a very limited view. There's a lot of potential for narrativist use of food in gaming as well! I remember that in a D&D game run by Etarran, he described in elaborate detail this spiralling restaurant table, where the further in you went, the more you paid and the better you ate. And indeed some of the players ate there, but it was never "where are your characters going to eat tonight?" so much as "are you going to engage with the world?". Or I can imagine a very roleplaying heavy game in a medieval court, in which banquets (and doubtlessly poison) play a very important role, but for their social - rather than nutritional - aspect. And of course, one must remember that food is one of the easiest ways to bribe your GM to let you take that super-broken feat.

Some videogames that take the simulationist route with food are STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, The Sims 1-3, The Ship (I think?), and...the Oregon trail, I guess?. I guess food is also a healing item in STALKER, but you can and will get hungry and die of hunger if you're not careful in game. Maybe our generation was so traumatized by the Oregon trail that they decided never again to force a player to eat to survive in a game? I think perhaps that no one has thought of a compelling reason why food for food's sake would make a game more compelling. Think about it: Videogames tend to convey information by way of sight and sound. Sometimes touch if you have force-feedback. Food is taste, smell, and texture. There's essentially no overlap, unless you can figure out how to make an xbox controller rumble like you're holding a sandwich! STALKER doesn't even have an animation or sound effect for eating, and I think it's fairly obvious why: slowing the game down for food would likely be intolerable, even to a player hardcore enough to want to have to eat in a survival-horror game. There's just no possible REWARD for taking the time to eat. And don't give me this "but NOT DYING is your reward!" crap, either - that's the kind of game design philosophy that leads to quicktime events! Shooting a gun in a shooter is fun not because it helps you live when your enemies are dead; it's fun because there's visceral feedback. If you can't provide that, then go for some kind of intellectual fulfillment ("I outflanked/outwitted/outfought him! How daringly clever of me!"), but if neither is attainable, just leave it out. And that's what most game designers seem to have done.

Food as a nonessential stat boost shows up in a couple more places, like Bethesda RPGs, really. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines if you think blood=food (also =mana in that game, hence why it's not in category 1). Or any RTS which has "food" as a resource. Alchemy is a pretty important part of Morrowind, and I realized once when I was crafting potions out of "kwarma eggs" and "saltrice" that I wasn't really brewing a potion so much as making fried rice! Remember when I was talking about rewards in games? A cooking/alchemy mechanic which rewards patience and study with stat boosts is a pretty good way to give players both intellectual and visceral pleasure from doing food-related things in a game. Especially if killing some enemies gives you ingredients ("woohooo! dog meat!"). There are two food-related quests in Mass Effect 2, which reward you with XP and ingratiate you with some minor characters/members of your crew. The food is entirely inconsequential by way of game mechanics, but having Shepherd bond with Dr. Chakwas over a bottle of brandy is one of my favourite moments in the game...and one of Shepherd's most human. As much as the whole "stat boosts" thing bothers me in a game like Fallout 3 (it's too lighthearted for the dire tone of the world, especially when you compare with something ACTUALLY dark *coughSTALKERcough*), I think that on the whole it's a reasonable compromise (I think Etarran may have even given characters some minor bonuses for eating at that cool restaurant, now that I think about it). The world seems all the more real for having food in it, but the player is rewarded for being engaged, rather than penalized for being negligent. On a final note, Team Fortress 2's Sandvich, Bonk!, Crit-a-cola, and Dalokhs bar are pretty much the embodiment of "food-as-stat boost", but they're weird in that they occur in an intentionally stylized gameworld where no one even NEEDED to ask "where's all the food?" in the first place.

Food as decoration or pure flavour is probably in a lot more games than I remember. Counter-Strike has a map with fruit-filled market stalls, there are watermelons in Half-Life 2 (and the Vortigaunt chefs from Black Mesa East! Squeeeee ^^!), You have to knife a watermelon in the tutorial for CoD4...I'm sure you've seen it. There are, after all, a lot of games that don't really need to include "sustenance" into their respective paradigms. It doesn't really add much to the run-and-gun shooter, after all. But there's sort of a trend toward treating more and more objects as "real" in a gameworld. Physics are all the rage now, but I can't imagine that's the be-all and end-all of it. It seems funny to think that every game might someday include an eating mechanic...but perhaps stranger still is the molecular-level simulation of matter that will let you shoot a gun with ultimate fidelity, set fire to whole forests, hurl boulders, run through grassy fields, watch the sunset over the ocean with the sand running over your fingers...but won't let you eat?


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