This week we’re diving into the legacy of food in games starting with Pillar one: Food used as a buff or as a source of healing.
The video game industry almost immediately associated food with two key game mechanics: Food could be used to powerup your character or it could be used to restore your character’s health.
As we talked about before, eating the right dot in Pac-Man gives the player the power to consume ghosts. This is an example of food being used to “buff” the player character, granting a form of invincibility or enhancement to the player’s standard abilities.
In the first Super Mario Bros, the concept of eating mushrooms serves as both a buff and a source of healing. One mushroom makes Mario bigger, which means he can take an additional hit without ending the level, and another kind of mushroom grants an extra life, giving the player an additional chance to run the level before reaching a game over screen.
A year after the release of Super Mario Bros, the world met Simon Belmont in the first installment of the Castlevania series. Soon, players around the world got a taste of wall meat, a mysterious dish hidden beneath the bricks of Dracula’s castle. If Simon is low on health, the meat restores a portion of his hit points.
From the 80s to the present, food has been used this way in countless games.
This basic idea of food restoring health persists even today in sometimes comical ways. The Elder Scrolls series has leaned so hard into the idea of food restoring hitpoints that the hero’s ability to pause time and consume several cheese wheels mid-combat became a meme during the height of Skyrim’s popularity. And fans of the Resident Evil series might remember the healing properties of eating a large black bass. Whole. And raw. After it’s been stuffed into one of your pockets through hours of zombie survival.
RPGs have used food as a source for hitpoints and other buffs for most of the video game history, which is likely a result of the influence of the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, and that becomes more influential if you consider potions to be a form of food. Potions, after all, are consumed, and many games give the player the ability to brew potions from collectible ingredients.
Potions in Final Fantasy were essential to surviving unforgiving 8-bit dungeons, and they were of similar value in Diablo. Without potions, your dungeon crawling career could come to an abrupt and painful end. In both of these games, potions are discovered or purchased. They are just another tool in your inventory rather than a deep system in their own right.
Breath of Fire II, a Super Nintendo era RPG, made the process of cooking a strategic choice. If players took the time to collect the right ingredients by exploring the world, stopping at various fishing holes, and tracking wild game, they could use a variety of recipes to arm their party with items that not only restored health but also buffed a variety of stats. While not explicitly described as potions in the world of Breath of Fire II, the products of your recipes served many of the same purposes.
Ultima Online, released in 1997, featured an alchemy system where players used magical reagents to craft potions that could heal hitpoints, cure poison, provide night sight, or boost one of the player's stats.
The Witcher series also picks up on this thread with a potion crafting system but introduces a few key changes. Unlike a game like Diablo or Path of Exile, potions in the Witcher cannot be spammed mid-combat. The player needs to plan ahead and manage potion toxicity, making the creation and use of potions a strategic choice with pros and cons.
The idea that eating can have a drawback is not new in the context of overall video game history, but the more arcade-like experiences of Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros were so dominant in the early years that innovations in other corners of gaming were not met with as much fanfare even if they were important.
Nethack, a rogue-like first released in 1987 that still has an active community to this day, introduced cannibalism as a mechanic. If a player eats a corpse of their own race, they suffer a penalty, and even if it is not of their own race, the player has to be mindful of eating rotten meat. Furthermore, certain creatures such as leprechauns or nymphs have the chance of giving the player “teleportitis,” a sickness that randomly teleports the player. This ability can eventually be controlled with the right gameplay choices and character development, so what begins as an apparent penalty for eating can become a transformative game mechanic, changing how the player navigates the world and overcomes challenges, but we’ll talk more about that idea later.
Early Fallout titles treated food as a source of hitpoints like most RPGs of the era, but with the release of Fallout 3 came the idea of contaminated food. Eating the wrong foods or drinking from the wrong water supplies added to the player's “rads,” a unit of measurement for radiation levels. Rads negatively impact stats and can eventually lead to player death, and were a part of the first Fallout, but the idea of food being a source for rads changed how players made choices around eating, especially in the higher game difficulty modes.
It’s worth noting that the Castlevania series eventually acknowledged the perils of unrefrigerated wall meat and introduced rotten meat in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Rotten meat reduces hit points instead of restoring them, but like in Nethack, the right player choices can turn rotten meat into the most powerful healing item in the game.
Speaking of powerful food items, we cannot forget about rare candy in Pokemon. Where most uses of food-based buffs are temporary, rare candy instantly and permanently advances a Pokemon to the next level. In Pokemon Red and Blue, the first installments of the series, the power of the rare candy was initially balanced by its scarcity, but players soon discovered an item duplication glitch that involved surfing on a particular beach to encounter a glitched Pokemon known as Missing No. While duplicating rare candy meant a quick way to max out an entire roster of Pokemon, the discovery of Missing No. fueled playground rumors and fan theories for years to come.
Some of us are still pushing that truck near the S.S. Anne.Food as a powerup, because of its cornerstone role in video games, was one of the earliest design discussions when the idea for Bite the Bullet first began to sprout, but that idea was just the beginning of the chewing.
In next week's blog, we cover pillar two: Food as a Simulation.