Food can also be a handy tool for worldbuilding, as shown by Cyberpunk 2077. While doing jobs across Night City, players can come across processed, synthetic foods like “Eezybeef” or the popular beverage “Nicola” (which is implied to have nicotine as a key ingredient). Meanwhile, outside the city limits, players can expect to enjoy “pizza” topped with roasted locusts and metallic-tasting filtered rainwater. Those distinct dishes showcase the disparity between the cultivated artificiality and rampant capitalism of Night City and the meager (but genuine) lives of the nomads who live out in the badlands. And the fact that real fruit can be sold to vendors at a much higher markup than most other consumables goes a long way to tell players how badly that world’s ecology has been damaged.
Persona 4, on the other hand, uses food as a way to advance its themes of human connection. The game treats communal meals as a window into the inner lives of its characters and their relationships. Players build social connections with their party through picnics, family dinners, or outings to the local ramen shop. Those meals not only offer vital moments to relax between difficult dungeon crawls but the chance to better understand those who fight alongside you.
Food can also be a way to shine a light on a character’s less pronounced traits. For example, in Dragon Age: Origins, players are able to learn more about their party members through conversation, though not every ally reveals themselves so easily. Sten, for instance, is of the Qun’ari: a culture that shuns emotion and sentiment in favor of stoic collectivism. Sten sees himself as a perfect example of that idea. He’s cold, he’s stoic, and he is in complete control of his emotions at all times. He also despises the player’s homeland of Ferelden. Its people are irrational and have no sense of duty. Yet, there is one thing he likes about that strange land: Cookies.
Despite his self-professed pragmatism, he still allows himself such indulgences. An indulgence that is most commonly associated with innocence and childhood at that. It’s a subtle, but brilliant little moment of characterization that adds new depth to what might otherwise be a factory standard “Big, grumpy warrior-man” archetype.
So the next time you’re enjoying a fresh-made sweet roll in Vvardenfell or some monster curry on the planes of Hyrule, take a moment to really savor the dish. Admire the quality of the game design and the well-seasoned art direction. Sample the flavor text, and consider how well this meal pairs with the game’s narrative. Because, like food, games can be many things to many people. A motivator, an accomplishment, a simple sensation, or a window to another culture. Both are made to be experienced and are often at their best when they’re shared with others. And like a skilled team of chefs, game designers work hard to create something that nourishes the mind and soul.