Clint Hocking recently wrote a piece for Edge, republished on his website, in which he called out fashion design games for not living up to their potential. These games don’t get at the true essence of fashion design, but instead act as an easy sell to pre-teen girls who need a game to play on the DS while their brothers are hogging the TV playing Call of Duty.
I’m not a fashion designer (my wife would append “by any stretch of the imagination” to that), but I have been known to cook on occasion. I love to experiment with new ingredients and dishes beyond that of the classic Midwest casserole. When I’m eating that amazing Creole scallop soup at the fancy restaurant downtown, I’m already thinking to myself how I could recreate it at home. Cooking provides me with a playground to experiment and challenge myself.
So any cooking game worth its salt should be able to capture these elements of experimentation and challenge, right? My first foray into the world of cooking games was at a friend’s house playing Cooking Mama on the Wii not too long ago. For those of you not in the know, Cooking Mama’s gameplay consists of a series of WarioWare style micro-games that attempt to simulate the motions you’d go through in preparing a given dish.
And going through the motions is exactly what you do. Need to chop some carrots? Waggle up and down! Need to stir the pot? Waggle in a circular motion! The game scores you based on how proficiently you waggled and decides whether the particular dish you were making is a success or failure depending on this score. I swear, skillet frying more than two ingredients without burning anything is nigh impossible. As a party game, Cooking Mama is actually quite a bit of silly fun for a little while as people race to see who can dice veggies fastest and, in the process, throw out their arm. Plus it’s got a cute aesthetic, complete with “Mama” handing out Janglish encouragements such as “Geddeeen betttttahhh!”
But it’s not a game that is about cooking.
So what’s the essence of cooking–of being a gourmet chef? I’m a game designer, so I can’t claim to know all it takes to be a chef, but from my own adventures–not to mention my religious watching of the Food Network–I can make an educated guess at some of the key elements. The first things that come to mind are knowing how to work with individual ingredients, knowing which ingredients compliment each other well, and knowing the audience that you’re cooking for. There’s also technique in preparing the food, timing everything correctly, and the ability to multitask. Not to mention the more creative side such as plating aesthetics, creating a a cohesive “story” for your meal (beginning, middle, end), invention of new dishes, and reinterpretation of classic dishes.
Cooking Mama touches on maybe 2 of those elements (technique and timing), but you may just as well be chopping up and combining twigs and glue.
But there is a game that I’m playing at the moment that happens to share a lot of the same ingredients as the above list. Can you guess what that game might be? That’s right, Starcraft 2! If you’ve ever watched any of Day9′s Starcraft 2 analysis, you’ll quickly hear many of these terms mentioned as keys to success in Starcraft. Instead of working with ingredients, you’re working with in-game units. It’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your units. Unit compositions, like flavor combinations, are another important factor. If your opponent is going mass marine, opting for infestor/baneling to stun them and then blow them into juicy delicate bits is good to know–just like knowing a little heat such as cayenne pepper can kick those dark chocolate truffles up a notch.
The parallels go on from there. Mechanics are a huge part of Starcraft–cleanly executing your build orders, ‘macro’-ing well, ‘micro’-ing well, etc.–just as technique is foundational to cooking. Actions Per Minute (APM) is how Starcraft players measure their ability to multitask and it’s easy to see how that term could be applied to cooking a three course meal. Timing pushes in Starcraft refer to key windows of time when it’s advantageous for you to march your forces out to battle (such as when an upgrade finishes). Timing “pushes” in cooking happen when you need a particular ingredient to be ready at a precise time in order to be properly combined into the larger dish.
I’ll leave drawing the rest of the comparisons between Starcraft and cooking as an exercise for the reader, but hopefully you get the picture.
So why aren’t cooking games more like Starcraft? The obvious answer is that party games are pretty easy to make, reasonably fun to play with friends, and sell pretty well. But Cooking Mama doesn’t teach us anything about cooking, does it? Cooking, like Starcraft, is deep and interesting because, if you keep at it, you’ll be acquiring new techniques and new mastery your entire life. And the great thing about video games is they provide a sandbox for experimentation and learning. You don’t have to worry about going broke to buy white truffles for that new dish you wanted to try or starting the kitchen on fire!
Now I’m not saying that you should go and create a total conversion of Starcraft 2, replacing the units with fruits and vegetables. My challenge to any budding game designers reading this would be: if you’re making a casual game about a topic such as cooking, first, make sure the game is actually about that topic, and second, don’t be afraid to be inspired by some of the tried and true ludic elements from existing genres such as the real time strategy game.
So with this in mind, I can’t wait for the first cooking game that gets it right. Oh, and you get extra credit if you add multiplayer to your cooking game so I can Iron Chef it out with my friends.