Hungry -- Why Play?

I too am flummoxed by the Japanese food obsession. Most of those who would even care probably point to “Iron Chef” as the obvious media exponent, although actual food stuffs from Japan prove better symptoms of this strange syndrome. Japan, after all, created the wonder that is Kobe beef and a million bizarre, sometimes amazingly delicious Kit-Kat bars with flavors as reasonable as hazelnut (which, I can say, are delicious), as odd as ginger ale, and as bewildering as Camembert cheese. If those who would even care also guessed that this bevy of esoteric, often seasonal Kit-Kats played into the Japanese love of collecting, they would probably be on the right train of thought.

The food obsession actually extends not only to TV, but to Japan’s (possibly) largest cultural export: video games. A cursory glance at GameFAQs reveals no “Iron Chef” video game of Japanese origin -- it might well reveal a bit about the shoddy research I put into an average blog post -- though Cooking Fighter Hao attempts to capture the same sort of silly atmosphere in the anime/JRPG style typical (pre-Disgaea) of its developer, Nippon Ichi. Still, food pops up in games where it has seemingly no business.

My first baffling experience with the Japanese food obsession came from Star Ocean: The Second Story, a Tri-Ace developed RPG that I spent inordinate amounts of time breaking, usually in competition with RockManXZ24 (one of our contests involved obtaining one of the best weapons available before the post-game content during the first half of the game, before the second CD). The Star Ocean series’ claims to fame include a few interesting, sometimes time consuming systems, one being the option for the party characters to learn a craft and create items. Alchemy, chemistry, weapon and armor forging seem de rigueur, but one of the first available is... cooking.

As a less than critical teenager, this felt odd, but not insurmountably so, and I took to the task of turning one of my characters (Rena, the female protagonist and walking cliché) into a master chef with as much gusto as one can while engaged in as solitary an experience as playing a two-disc Playstation Japanese RPG. The first few attempts ended in frustration, usually in the form of a “wilted salad” or a “spicy cake.” In order to make a character proficient at any of the item creation options, the character must have right the skills and the talents. The talents are either randomly assigned or randomly unlocked, and the skills bought with ability points gained after a level-up. So I did what any kid with enough time and the inclination to do so would: I played through countless random battles in order to unlock the skills, one of which was “Kitchen Knife.” That skill gives a “Strength x 20” bonus, which would have proven useful if I used that character to attack, ever.

The dishes I eventually created in the game probably made me into a food-nerd, at least to the point that I once thought I would use the “food and food products” category on this blog for more than complaints about energy drinks and the foul marketing campaigns associated with them. I knew what a risotto was and had a vague idea about sea urchin and abalone, but found items like konyaku, ichinogi, and steamed aspic intriguing, if sometimes scary and unappetizing.

Perhaps the great triumph of Star Ocean: The Second Story’s cooking system is how appetizing it made little clumps of polygons and textures seem, thanks mostly to the accompanying descriptions. The game inspired me to actually try cooking, although my attempts to make my own orange soda and risottos never really turned out. Thankfully, doing so in a video game was easier and more fun than learning to carefully measure my ingredients and time my cooking, and it restored my HP and MP on various occasions. Give me a break; I was thirteen.

Star Ocean, for what it is worth, never really made me hungry; that honor goes to Odin Sphere, the 2007 side-scrolling brawler cum RPG from George Kamitani’s studio, Vanillaware. The game’s gorgeously animated and highly detailed 2D graphics generated a lot of hype, but the game’s item management system (and slowdown issues) made more than a few eyebrows arch after its release. I love it, personally, if for no other reason than Café Pooka and the Pooka Kitchen, where the player can order dishes made out of items bought or found during the actual gameplay.

The graphics, as previously stated, are stunning, and the illustrated food looks more delicious than the real French dishes they’re based on. Neither the dainty eating animations nor the gorgeous environmental graphics, with their warm color schemes and ambient motions, hurt the effect, although I could do without the repetitive, squeaky saccharine quality of the voice acting.

Part of the game’s appeal is its evocation of faerie, and the dreamy quality of the eateries fits right in -- if Alfheimr has restaurants, they look like this -- but they serve a more utilitarian purpose too! To increase a characters hit points in Odin Sphere, he or she must eat, and preferably only the best, most expensive foods. Why? I didn’t know, but apparently, saving the world from intergalactic wizards or from a convoluted pseudo-Ragnarok requires the gastronomic development of a true epicurean. The twilight of the gods can wait until I've finished my pork chops. And will Expel and Need please stop careening towards each other? I'm trying to brew some sake, but it's never truly dry enough for my tastes... and my MP is low.

But y’know, I think the Japanese have it right. I would not pay a cent for a wasabi flavored Kit-Kat or watch a single episode of “テレビ朝日/Ai no Apron,” but at least the Japanese respect the inherent goodness of food. I wince at the snobbery shown to certain regional cuisines; I despise the pervasive notion of food as caloric fuel almost as much as the prevalent use of food and eating for self-gratification rather than pleasure. Food unites humanity in a more dignified manner than what we do with it biologically (especially towards the end), and Tri-Ace and Vanillaware, whether consciously or otherwise, recognize that saving the world requires good eating.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but unless Dragon Age 2 recognizes the glorious nature of bottom fermenting yeast and parsnips and mutton, I shall resign myself to the fact that at least one section of the occidental world just doesn’t understand food. It’s the same one to which Gamer Grub and Mtn Dew Game Fuel were marketed.

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