The joy of RPG cooking: why games shouldn't abandon the culinary arts

Above: Skyrim's Advanced Cooking mod by Corpsehatch.
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This article was originally published May 2017.

I love to eat. This is hardly a secret. For the better part of a decade someone could have just tossed you my belt, and from that alone you could have deduced that my gut won many heated battles with tightly buttoned shirts. But somehow I got past that. I'm down eighty pounds after but a handful of months and getting thinner every day.

But my general love of food? It's still here. It always will be. My 'big meals' these days consist of little more than grilled, seasoned tilapia and shoots of asparagus, but one of the manifold beauties of videogames is that I can live out my fantasies of cooking and devouring sugar-packed pastries and fat-dripping rare steaks to my increasingly healthy heart's content. I've always had a soft spot for cooking in games, but now that my literal soft spots are melting away, I find that it's turning into a passion. 

In fact, it's become one of the things I look for in roleplaying games above all else. It's common to hear talk about how one of the chief attractions of videogames is that they let us become the things we want to be in life, but most of that talk centers on things like strength, confidence, or physical attraction. In my view, the best games let us excel at and spend time with relatively humble things, like cooking. Some people want to be mages with fireballs shooting from their fingernails. Me? I'd kind of like to be a fat Pandaren cooking chicken fried rice on a wok, all while chatting about nature and philosophy against a backdrop of sun-drenched meadows. World of Warcraft lets me do that, all without the dangers of tubbiness. For me, at least, it's a vicarious pleasure that works. 

You'd think a man who lives on the roads and crafts his own potions on the fly would know his way around a skillet.

It's not as if I spend my hours salivating over Burger Time or Diner Dash. I look for cooking as a complementary activity, much as it is here in the real world. I spent most of my time with Conan Exiles hacking at ungulates with stone blades chiefly for the pleasure of grilling their muscle into steaks over a cozy campfire for my friends. In Skyrim, I've enjoyed tinkering with Kryptopyr's Complete Alchemy and Cooking Overhaul and Corpsehatch's Advanced Cooking, both of which add a more realistic (and worthwhile) cooking experience compared to Bethesda's original vision. I even get a little sad when all these elements are missing. I replayed The Witcher 3 in its entirety recently, and nothing disappointed me about the experience so much as the realization that all this raw meat kept dropping from the endless swarms of wolves and that there was no way to turn it into deliciousness. You'd think a man who lives on the roads and crafts his own potions on the fly would know his way around a skillet. But nope.

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This passion for culinary creativity has its roots in real life. For two years at the turn of the century, I diced onions and guided grease as a chef at the Austin, Texas co-op where I lived, running a kitchen with industrial equipment and feeding dozens of fellow students between courses on astronomy and Latin. It's largely because of this experience that I've come to think of cooking and eating as an inherently social activity, and thus I find my greatest enjoyment of its digital counterpart in MMOs.

Single-player games might have more realistic cooking mechanics, but MMOs let you share your food with other people. Better than that, you can sell that grub. Hell, there's actual prestige. It's one thing to be proud of making a stash of Elsweyr Fondue in Skyrim that no one gets to see besides you and Lydia, but back in the day, it was quite another to be one of the few proud owners of the ridiculously rare recipe for Dirge's Kickin' Chimaerok Chops in World of Warcraft. I also love the apprentice-and-master dynamic surrounding the craft in Final Fantasy XIV. And much of the fun I get out of Elder Scrolls Online these days springs from roleplaying as a chef with all the rare recipes I've amassed over the years I've played, to say nothing I get out of the fun of surreptitiously scrounging around in crates and cupboards for choice ingredients while the guards are turned away. There's thus a sense of danger involved in cooking that Direnni Hundred-Year Rabbit Bisque or that Planked Abecean Longfin. It makes cooking exciting, and I wish more games followed suit.

Legion is a great expansion, but it's done much to hurt my love for one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Weirdly, some games have backed away from rewarding cooking experiences. To see me at my happiest, rewind a few years back to World of Warcraft's Mists of Pandaria expansion, where you'd finally me enthusiastically and dutifully harvesting my own food from my little farm and learning and mastering multiple schools of cooking. (To this day, I play a Pandaren monk named Chaofan, which means "fried rice" in Mandarin.) You'd find me making a fortune selling some of the better stuff on the auction house, and getting a kick out of setting up a noodle cart for my fellow guildies to grab a bowl of soup that boosted their stats for an hour. 

Cooking felt like a real profession for once, and it was arguably more rewarding than some of the more popular ones like blacksmithing or leatherworking. Today, in Legion, cooking mainly consists of waiting for a bumbling Pandaren chef to "research" recipes for you, and more than half the time he usually just comes back with burnt food. He's the one doing the discovery, not me, and it doesn't help that many of the recipes aren't even all that useful. Legion is a great expansion, but it's done much to hurt my love for one of my favorite aspects of the game.

Lately that especially hurts because, as a lover of fantasy, I find that eating and cooking whatever kinds of food suit my whims has became my own personal fantasy. Food isn't evil, of course: it's one of the few pleasures that truly unites us all. But never again can I afford to enjoy it like I used to without swelling out my gut and risking a few years off my life. In moderation, naturally, there's little worry about that in games. And right now, rather than taking memorable cooking experiences away, I'd like to see game developers make better ones. My heart—my stomach—yearns for it.