In its most superficial forms, video game food has its place. A giant ham, whether it’s consumed whole there and then, or tantalisingly rubbed over your sweaty, rippling musculature, will undoubtedly make you feel better—it just will. Likewise, a can of energy beverage will totally boost your reaction times and pain threshold upon its contents dripping down your gullet and into your churning stomach. Which is fortunate, because you’ll need the added spryness to avoid cracking your head on the kitchen counter when the inevitable heart attack arrives, as your innards evacuate your abused body through a series of slightly less painful hernias. Beyond these and a couple of other instances, video game food is rubbish.
It normally occupies the role of placater; constantly wrestling for control with a hunger mechanic. Like weapon degradation and encumbrance, hunger has no place in civilised society. All of these things seek to derail whatever fun is taking place and force you to stop and fanny about in menus. With the possible exception of sharpening your weapon (to maintain damage output) mid-battle in Monster Hunter, which I’ll admit does add to the tension, ‘depleting meter’ mechanics are just an annoyance. They offer nothing but a mild, momentary distraction from your current task.
Food, or whetstones, or whatever else we choose to call them, all do the same thing. They refill a little hourglass that then immediately starts ticking down again. In a game with lots of stuff going on—i.e. a fabulous diversity of moving parts—we just end up hoarding the item we need to keep the sand topped up. In those survival games that are inexplicably super popular nowadays, hourglass flipping is the whole thing. In both cases I cannot abide it. Either as a minor roadblock to progression or the core of an experience, I just don’t see the point in expending my genuine energy to refill and maintain my computer self’s pretend energy. Chopping down trees to make a fire, to cook a pig, to eat a ham, to allow me to do it all again isn’t my idea of a good time. As might be clear already: I like my pork treats to arrive fully-formed, that way I can spend all my time dreaming up increasingly greasy ways of introducing them into my body.
My annoyance runs deeper, though. Beyond them being tragic wastes of time, depleting meters and their effects, and hunger in particular, are just plain inaccurate. Take that most blindingly of-the-moment game, The Sims, as a perfect example—though this applies for pretty much any food mechanic going. Little digital Leigh becomes really, really whiney if he’s so much as a tad peckish. He throws strops worthy of legitimising infanticide as he gurgles all over his anachronistically multi-storey home, moaning to anyone who’ll listen that he hasn’t been allowed to make a hoagie in the last ten minutes. If I do the right thing as his legal custodian and leave him to tire himself out, he’ll soon dramatically throw himself through a wall and drop dead. Digital Leigh is a stunted, entitled little brat and I’m glad he more often than not expires from neglect and starvation. One day I’m certain I'll produce one made of sterner stuff, and he’ll certainly thank me when he’s an older, wonderfully well-rounded member of society—just like I’ve finally been able to do with my own parents.
The little Leighs shouldn't drop dead from an afternoon without food, and they shouldn’t start feeling hungry again the moment they wipe the spittle from their collective chins with that final morsel of omelette. That isn’t how big Leigh works. He is perfectly happy not eating for about 18 hours as long as there are better things to do, which there normally are. He’s like this because the human body is riddled with a nuance that no amount of steadily decreasing meters on a screen can ever hope to replicate. Yeah, maybe my ability to work a bar decreases towards the end of a 15 hour shift, but I don’t collapse into a puddle and frolic with all the other liquids down there on the floor. No. I run over the road for my 20 minute break, drink two pints and smoke four, maybe five cigarettes, chew some gum, use the bathroom and get back at it.
All these things have, in descending order of importance, proved useful in the past for a little pep-up. But none is vital, and it’s this that video games never choose to convey. The illicit beers and the cigarettes weren’t necessary because I was a puckish problem drinker who’d die without them—the way a depleting meter would portray it—they were a hard-earned moment of respite from a crushingly mundane job. They were me thumbing my nose at a management hierarchy I had no respect for, and a means of holding onto some semblance of self-determinism. These are the sorts of reasons most of us eat, drink, smoke—consume. Not to avoid some near-death exhaustion and follow it up with a sudden and complete resurrection.
If you’re playing a video game you haven’t a clue what starvation feels like. But then that’s maybe why so many of us are thrilled by a simplification of a fairly nuanced, painful process. ‘Look: my video game is adding depth and challenge!’ When really we should be saying ‘this is a massive waste of time and actually fairly disrespectful to the many people who, right this second, are genuinely starving to death around the world. God, I, along with this video game exploitation of human suffering, am terrible.’ And while you’re at it with epiphanies: you should probably let ‘the boy’ out of the basement, if he’s not already dead from ‘learning to be a man’, that is. I guarantee he’ll thank you when he’s older.