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Dig in! Exploring Cooking Mechanics in Games
Every day this week, Game Developer is serving up a feast of interviews, deep dives, and more digging into the evolution of Cooking in video games.
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The Unrealized Potential of Cooking in Games

Cooking is such a universal activity that it is no wonder why it is featured into so many games.

Leonardo Ferreira, Blogger

June 7, 2024

7 Min Read

Cooking is probably one of the last leisure activities that we can do for its own sake; firstly, cooking is something that most of us kind of need to do in order to, you know, eat, so it is kind of a necessity. But it can also be a creative exercise, and one that, exceeding the eventual domestic disaster, will always give a satisfying result; a result that will improve your skills and knowledge for the next round.

Once you know the basics, cooking can be a sandbox of experimentation, as you learn new methods, ingredients, spices, and so, it is not unlike a game. Maybe that’s why so many games use cooking systems in the first place, either as subsystems that give texture and flavor (heh) to a digital world, or transforming the act of cooking into a dextrous challenge of skill.

Cooking in videogames usually come in two forms; one is simply by combining the ingredients the player acquired while exploring the game world, which can then grant specific bonuses for the actual gameplay portions, like in Breath of the Wild and the Monster Hunter series; or can later be used for other gameplay purposes, like giving gifts based on specific characters tastes. like in Stardew Valley and its wholesome brethren of similars.

The other form is more involved, and is featured in games in which cooking is the main course (heh), and it is abstracted into a series of micro-interactions of timing and skill. The best example of this is the Cooking Mama series, in which the preparations of each dish consists of a series of simple control motions, with some generous grading at the end.


Often this involves the micro-management of several tasks at once, like in friendship-tester Overcooked or the OG casual king Dinner Dash; there is a almost neurotic zen to be found in keeping as the lots of plates spinning at once, hence is why the DD formula still spawns very successful clones in the mobile market to this day.

Other games are more involved in gamifying nitty-gritty of food preparation; the wonderful series Cook, Serve, Delicious combines strict time management with a large variety of micro-interactions to learn, and can be quite a challenge in the higher levels play; meanwhile Battle Chef Brigade combines different genres into a stew (heh), like action platformer and match-3 puzzler, in order to abstract its core experience of anime Iron Chef, tough its individual mechanics falter due an excess of complexity and jank.


(I should also mention Cooking Simulator hyper-detailed facsimile of a professional cook experience, though like most of those PlayWay published sims, the game mechanics feel less abstract and “gamey” to be interesting to a design discussion; it's still pretty fun though, and can be even educational for people who don’t know their pots from pans)

As a sucker for a videogame cooking system, I think I get the appeal of both approaches; while just combining ingredient to assemble a predetermined recipe can be tedious, I once did every single available recipe in 2D sci-fi minecrafter Starbound, mainly because the gathering of ingredients complemented so well the game loop of exploration, even though that game had no end goal for that system beside the requisite stat buffs and rather easy achievement.


In fact, a lot of cooking games tend to be repetitive; the Cooking Mama series lack of challenge and more concrete goals than cooking for its own sake feels like a waste of some rather intricate systems, which eventually doomed the series and tragically led to Mama getting in some shady bitcoin business. And as much as I love Cook Serve Delicious, doing the same micro-tasks over and over again is more like a light simulation of a taxing service job than lovingly elaborating a home meal. It should be of note that its most recent iteration, Cook Serve Forever, does an interesting experiment with the formula, even though it made series fans rather salty (heh).

Though there are plenty of other examples that budding designers can look to: the recent critical darling Venba combines an emotional story of immigrant diaspora with simple cooking mechanics that heightens its themes. Cooking is Venba feels more like a puzzle than a challenge, with little of the time pressure similar games have, but the act of following or diverging from a recipe highlight the cultural aspect of food in a way pretty much no other game does.


Meanwhile classic PS1 RPG Suikoden 2 had a notorious cooking contest sidequest, one that made use of its large cast as judges; each with different, unique tastes that had to be accounted for when choosing the recipe. The gameplay consists of just selecting a recipe and mashing Circle, but this sidequest arcane ruleset and surprisingly emotional twist and turns made it a fan favorite.

Finally, Order Up! is a game for the Wii which made perhaps one of my favorite spins on the genre. It combines simple Mama-esque motions with the Wii Remote  with DD-style time management; but the fun part is that you eventually get clients that have special tastes, like overdone, raw or spicy food. Cooking in that way only adds a bonus, so it's not obligatory,and integrates with the cooking mechanics in an interesting manner; for instance, an overdone dish needs to be removed just on the cusp of burning, which adds interesting wrinkles to the gameplay.


This last example highlights what I feel most cooking games lack; the creative element of preparing food. It’s rare that cooking games allow for the improvisation that is so satisfying when preparing food in real life, like swapping ingredients, improving the taste of a dish by choosing the right spices, or trying unusual ingredient combinations, like a pinch of salt in a dessert. In most of the examples we went through, the path to the final dish is usually a straight line with a binary win state; you either prepare or fail your dish, with no nuance in between.

Several games could be spiced up (heh) by having different sorts of goals, and allowing for player creativity in the same satisfying way as choosing the right build in an action game or RPG can be; what would be a dish that could satisfy the palates of a vegan and a meat-lover? Can you combine elements of dishes of different cultures without losing their essences? Where is the game that simulates the experience of making an accidental masterpiece with leftovers and gumption at 4AM?

Cooking is such an universal activity that it is no wonder why it is featured into so many games, and there is no shortage of interest in that intersection, considering the amounts of recipe videos, and even the many cookbooks dedicated to video game food; but  it still feels like unexplored territory in many ways.  Successful games like Diner Dash and Overcooked perfected influential yet very particular mechanical interpretations, but I feel that we still lack THE cooking videogame, one that could launch an entire new genre by itself, and even get some people off DoorDash by enticing their curiosity about real food. So let’s get in the kitchen, game people!

(Also yeah I have been watching Dungeon Meshi and wondering why no game properly combined dungeon crawlers with cooking I mean c’mon atlus just reskin Etrian Odyssey that would take like a week guys you’re leaving money on the table)

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