Pressure Cooker, released on the Atari 2600 in 1983, put players in the shoes of a short-order cook in the middle of a frantic kitchen. A hamburger conveyor belt captured the feeling of being in the kitchen during a rush of customers with orders flying in and chaos rapidly descending on the kitchen staff.
The trend that Pressure Cooker began persisted through the decades of games to follow. Even non-cooking games gave a nod to the impact of Pressure Cooker. Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, for example, featured a mini-game where Roger Wilco has to work a shift at Monolith Burger, an alien food court attraction. Burgers speed by on a conveyor belt and ingredients have to be assembled in the correct order to count as a point in the game.
In 2004, Diner Dash picked up on the Pressure Cooker legacy with a front-of-house perspective on the world of restaurants. Playing as Flo, the player must seat and serve customers and do so quickly and efficiently to earn enough money to advance to the next level. The innovation that Diner Dash brought to the world of food games has more layers than a wedding cake. Focusing more on time management and strategies around efficiency was a significant shift in gameplay, and Diner Dash was one of the earliest games to leverage the downloadable game model.
Diner Dash download numbers were reportedly as high as 500 million by 2010, and the series has continued through a variety of platforms and sequels. In part due to the success of Diner Dash, mobile app stores are now filled with food-themed games. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver even tried releasing his own cooking game for the Nintendo DS, though some critics felt that calling it a “game” was a bit too generous for what was a cooking guide in a Nintendo DS wrapper.
First released in 2016, Overcooked stirred together elements of arcade gameplay and management simulators to create a co-op cooking experience. Level layouts change with each stage as do the challenges presented to the player, creating a fast-paced and often zany experience for a player to tackle with their chef friends. Overcooked has won and been nominated for several awards throughout the gaming industry for what its gameplay accomplished.
While several game designers, like the minds behind Diner Dash and Overcooked, explored the world of food through a restaurant theme, other designers took a different approach and looked at what a game might be like if it focused on the production of food.
The earliest expression of farming in games might be Gopher for the Atari 2600. Released in 1982, you play as a farmer protecting his carrots from a hungry gopher. If you catch a seed dropped by a pelican flying overhead, you can even plant replacement carrots.
The real turning point for farming in games, however, came in the 1990s with the release of Harvest Moon. In this game, the player inherits a farm and works to restore the farm to its former glory, planting crops and caring for livestock. Along the way, the player can explore the nearby town and interact with its residents to complete various quests.
Harvest Moon was a surprise hit that spawned a followup series of Harvest Moon games released for various platforms. Today, Harvest Moon is perhaps best known for inspiring the creation of Stardew Valley. Bearing many similarities to the first Harvest Moon in overall feel and gameplay, Stardew Valley features a grander world, deeper farming systems, more developed characters, a variety of sidequests and minigames, and an ongoing stream of updates that improve gameplay and add new content.
To date, Stardew Valley has sold a reported 10 million copies and is likely the most successful farming game of all-time.
Stardew Valley may be the king of farming games, but it is not alone. The Farming Simulator series, first launched in 2008, strives to more directly replicate the real-world practice of operating a farm. Though it may not be as mainstream as Stardew Valley, the player base for Farming Simulator is so loyal and engaged that it spawned its esports league. The grand final of the league will be held at FarmCon 2020 with a prize pool of $280,000.
Whether food is a simulation or an inspiration for something more fanciful, the link between the real world of food and game design is clear. As part of our process for creating Bite the Bullet, we wanted to have a deeper understanding of the extremes in that world.
In next week’s blog, we’ll discuss pillar three: food as a transformative mechanic.