Cooking is an art. Cooking is a chore. Cooking is meditative. Cooking is a necessity. As college students trying to find time to feed ourselves between homework, hangouts and hangovers, our relationship with food and cooking is always changing. I personally find cooking to be a fun hobby that also happens to help keep me from starving. I often use it as a way to blow off steam or procrastinate working on a project due the next day. It’s a creative outlet in which my only limits are my own tastes and my grocery budget.
During my free time, I usually find myself scrolling through recipes in the New York Times Cooking app or watching old episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” YouTube chefs like J. Kenji López-Alt and Adam Ragusea are some of my favorite creators on the platform, and sometimes I even find myself watching reviews of microwave TV dinners. I love immersing myself in the world of cooking, but there’s one genre of food content that I can’t stand: cooking games.
I have to give a fair warning to anyone who played Flash games as a kid on sites like “Coolmath Games” or “Addicting Games.” There’s a chance that I’m about to bruise your nostalgia. There’s something that I’ve always been afraid to confess because of its potential to paint me in a negative light.
I hate “Papa’s Pizzeria.”
Not just “Papa’s Pizzeria,” but his “Freezeria,” his “Burgeria” and his “Wingeria” too. The whole damn series. Not that there’s much difference between any of the titles. Each game boils down to you preparing customers’ meals exactly as they ordered them as quickly as possible. They become glorified McDonald’s simulators that prioritize speed and perfection, just like “MasterChef” or the litany of Food Network cooking competitions. While I understand that some people like playing games with that kind of pressure, the “Papa’s” series helps to define the genre of cooking games as stressful and competitive.
I’ll admit, it’s a bit silly to get worked up about a Flash game ruining my love of cooking. But the formula of the “Papa’s” games carries over to a lot of other games in the genre. One of the most popular examples is the “Overcooked” series, which adds an extra layer of multiplayer chaos to the equation. This can — and has — led to some great shouting matches that end in controllers being thrown and friendships being jeopardized. Another popular cooking game series, “Cooking Mama,” varies the formula a bit by making you complete timed mini-games for each step of a recipe. There’s some charm to this approach, and it does attempt to teach some basic kitchen skills in a fun way. There are some enjoyable elements to these games, but they don’t quite give me what I’m looking for in a cooking game.
To try to figure out what really bothered me about all of these cooking games, I picked up “Cooking Simulator,” which gives you a virtual kitchen with real-life physics. You can chop, pour, fry and blend a full suite of ingredients and create all sorts of dishes. At first, this seemed like the game I had been waiting for. I had a virtual environment where I could experiment as much as I wanted without having to worry about going shopping or doing the dishes. For the first hour or so it was fun to mess around with the game’s physics and throw around tomatoes and sausages. I learned a few things from the recipes as well, like what goes into a borscht and what herbs pair well with a broccoli soup.
However, it was soon clear that “Cooking Simulator” was just as focused on perfectionism as the “Papa’s” games: The game’s campaign is all about delivering perfectly cooked dishes to your customer as fast as possible. Its sandbox mode — which gives players unlimited time and no instructions — loosens up a bit by allowing you to choose what recipe to cook. However, you are ultimately judged on how perfect your dish is. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if you enjoy cooking competitions you’ll appreciate how the game emulates the precision and timing needed for those environments. But I’m not looking for a stressful take on something that I enjoy doing in real life.
So, do any good cooking games exist? Or am I just a picky bastard? The latter might be true, but I didn’t get my high standards from a cooking game. In fact, it’s a game mechanic in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” that does cooking right. At first glance, cooking food in the game seems pretty simple — you choose a few ingredients that you’ve collected while exploring, throw them into a pot and wait while a fun little jingle plays. After a few seconds, you get a dish that gives you some health or buffs one of your stats for a few minutes. Out of my 110 total hours in the game, a good chunk of them have been spent messing around with this.
While cooking is pretty common in video games, it takes on a new depth in “Breath of the Wild.” In games such as “Minecraft,” it’s a survival tool: Cooking a raw piece of chicken will increase the amount of hearts it gives you and remove the chance that it gives you food poisoning. Other games like “Red Dead Redemption 2” make it a type of item crafting, providing you with a recipe of necessary ingredients. “Breath of the Wild” does away with these limited approaches and rewards you for being creative. Discovering a new recipe by throwing some random ingredients together is still one of my favorite parts of the game. When you make a new dish, a special music cue plays and Link’s face lights up with joy. If I want to add some salt or herbs, the game lets me, and doing so adds temporary benefits like heat resistance or increased attack power. There’s a magic that comes with this freedom that I have yet to find in any other game.
The joy of discovery is what I love about cooking, and “Breath of the Wild” understands that perfectly. Even though you can mess up a recipe by adding something inedible, the result still gives you some health, just like when I add too much salt to a soup but still choke it down because it’s something that I created. If I don’t follow a recipe exactly, or if something doesn’t brown enough, my work isn’t a failure. I made it my way, and there’s an art in that. It’s time that more games recognize that art.
Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org