Video games imitate reality, even when they’re anything but realistic. They allow us to immerse ourselves in two-dimensional universes, fantastical worlds or abstract visions. In the most surreal of these digital representations, the game would not be a game if it did not draw inspiration from physical phenomena, social dynamics and rituals, or our own ecosystem – the primary elements, the ‘chemistry’ of our planet.
Therefore, it was inevitable from the very beginning that nutrition – which is what keeps all animals on the planet alive – would become important in videogames, and that it would undergo a complex evolutionary process, transforming from the act of eating elementary foods to that of dining on sophisticated, elaborate dishes. It speaks volumes that a legendary videogame such as Pacman, invented in 1980 by Tohru Iwatani, is known in Brazil as Come-Come, or Eat-Eat.
In this iconic game, a ball with a large, triangular mouth has to eat other smaller balls spread throughout a labyrinth, while trying to avoid running into ghosts. This can be taken as an extremely reduced, but highly effective, representation of the intense act of eating as pure survival - a great post-modern metaphor for the instinct to obtain nourishment. Other special objects also appear in Pacman in the form of fruit: apples, cherries, oranges and grapes.
By eating these special “bonus” foods, which are challenging to reach, players earn extra points – imitating the real-life phenomena by which real fruit is digested and transformed into energy –which increases player gratification, and gives them the chance to improve on their own previous record. It’s as if there’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between the electronic character and the human being controlling it: the player provides food for Pacman, Pacman turns the food into points, satisfying the player, who then continues to try to obtain more and more food for Pacman.
There’s another legendary videogame from the 1980s in which the consumption of food is fundamental to the dynamics of the game, and to its successful completion: Super Mario, the mustachioed plumber, invented in 1985 by Shigeru Miyamoto, and who has since featured as the main character in a number of gaming masterpieces.
Super Mario’s favorite food is mushrooms. There are many different kinds of them, and eating them doesn’t just add extra points to your total, but has sophisticated effects which, by magically interacting with Mario’s metabolism, alter his physical shape and guarantee him special powers: red mushrooms make Mario bigger, white and orange mushrooms allow him to shoot fireballs, while green mushrooms provide him with an extra life.
Since then, the effect of food on videogame characters has become ever more complex and varied – so much so that it would take a cookbook hundreds of pages long to list all of these sophisticated recipes, the ingredients needed to create them, and the results that they have on the characters who consume them. Food plays a particularly relevant role in Japanese videogames.
It’s worth focusing on two of the most interesting modern Japanese videogames in which the act of eating is an important, determining factor for those who want to get far in the game: Metal Gear Solid 3, Snake Eater, and Monster Hunter.
Monster Hunter is a hugely successful series of games in Japan, despite being less popular in the West, due to the fact that playing it demands a truly devoted application of effort. No single strategic aspect of the game can be underestimated in order to hunt these colossal monsters, especially the food aspect: the meat of the creatures must be conserved, there are fish to be caught, vegetables to be grown, and mushrooms, seeds and honey to be collected.
At an advanced stage of the game, a kitchen staff made up of various anthropomorphized feline creatures prepare dishes for us, providing many different kinds of “power-ups” to the character eating them. Not looking after your nutritional levels and the rich variety of food at your disposal means Game Over, and managing your resources well is crucial to the game if you want to get ahead.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, the main character is a secret agent who has to travel through the jungle, and if he isn’t well-fed, he’ll end up slipping into a coma. As the game is set in a jungle, and our agent doesn’t have any kind of cooking equipment at his disposal, he has to eat what he can find: mainly reptiles and rodents.
Players must be careful, though: in the videogame, just as in real life, foraging in the wild for food could end in disaster – if your avatar eats the wrong thing and it turns out to be poisonous, he may vomit or lose consciousness.
And this is why, over the course of the most incredible adventures and virtual experiences that videogames offer us, it would be wise to keep an in-depth cookbook handy, one that provides information on the world’s different cuisines, along with an exhaustive list of vegetables and meat, so we can verify whether they’re edible or toxic. As the saying goes, ‘you are what you eat’. Even in video games.