Stirring the Pot

Cooking, Compression and the Quotidian in Breath of the Wild

BotW_Link_Cooking

David is a writer, student and game-maker currently based in Toronto. Follow Adan on Twitter

“What if everything you see is more than what you see—the person next to you is a warrior and the space that appears empty is a secret door to another world? What if something appears that shouldn’t? You either dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than you think.” – Shigeru Miyamoto

I don’t much like cooking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I understand its aesthetical value—the imperative to scrounge together enough sustenance for basic survival, especially in the early game. However the more I played and more I discovered, the less novel it became, and the lofty rhetoric surrounding the game only made this dissatisfaction harder to swallow. “Get lost!”, “Turn off the HUD!”, “Figure it out yourself!” and contradictorily “It’s the first ‘real’ Zelda adventure, the other games were only legends, man” against “C’mon grandma break out the graph paper, it’s exactly like Zelda 1!” You’ve got total and absolute freedom to carve your own path… unless you go somewhere too cold or too hot or too windy or too rainy or come across an enemy too strong or, most damningly, don’t really love doing most of the 152 shrines littered across the map. Going in, I felt this odd pressure not only to play the game well, but to play it genuinely. But if Breath of the Wild is meant to be this uber-bildungsroman experience that caters equally to all players like a one-size-fits-all tunic, what meaning does that narrative take on when my journey really was all about the final destination?

It’s a little funny how Breath of the Wild gained its isolationist reputation, since canonically you are flat out given a smartphone and told “Hey listen, if you need any help just use this ‘enchanted’ device and you can obtain whatever knowledge you need no problem”. In his travels Link even seems to bounce around from tower to tower like a cellular signal. Regardless of whether this was meant to be taken meta-textually or not, the implication was seemingly lost on the many critics who pushed for a pre-ordained agenda of immersion and self-reliance over all else. Ironically, many of the very same outlets would go on to compile and publish external resources to make the game more accessible—such as starter guides, walkthroughs, shrine locations and cookbooks—the last of which isn’t included in a half-baked attempt to emulate the circa 2011 Minecraft experience.

Once you learn the gist of how recipes work in BotW it becomes just another tedious chore of inventory management, more like tackling an accounting exercise than a Chopped basket, since for any given set of ingredients there is a mathematically solvable ideal combination. “If Link has two apples and Zelda gives him three Moblin horns, how many hearts will he recover?” While this numbers game argument could be levelled against nearly any RPG (though since when is Zelda just any RPG?), for me something about the gastronomical theming added an extra layer of anxiety around meal-planning, nutrition and food waste unbefitting of an epic quest. Furthermore in spite of the massive menu of available options, there is surprisingly little room for culinary experimentation, since all status-effect buffs cancel each other out both when creating and eating dishes. I get why this is, to prevent overpoweredness (an unbalanced diet, if you will), yet I can’t help but think of how games like The Binding of Isaac or even Kirby Star Allies handle power-ups in a way that has capacity for both combinatorial depth and player expressivity. I would also be remiss not to mention Battle Chef Brigade, which marries together elements of RPG’s, brawlers, platformers and puzzlers in a way that comes across as a singular Iron Chef-y vision.

Operationally speaking, cooking in Breath of the Wild feels like as much of a disconnected distraction as visiting the fishing holes in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, though at least those served to reinforce the sword-swinging interactions and were largely optional, rather than forcibly tied to the core game loop. Of course with BotW’s open structure you could complete the game without ever once cooking, but that just bolsters my argument that it’s not a holistically designed feature, and more deeply that the game’s appeal is strangely split between buffet-style completionism and active avoidance of engaging with its scenarios. Somehow the old school way of healing yourself by mowing down overgrown patches of grass to find a symbolic representation of the human heart and absorbing it into your being was so much more elegant—even if it did produce a peculiar narrative space where shrubbery and pottery are not only abundant but must be compulsively destroyed. But to me that sort of bizarreness is the real magic of videogames, arcane and irreverent as it may be. The Zelda series may take place in a fantasy land of monsters and goddesses, yet it is these transmogrified vestiges of the ordinary—that the same unassuming glass bottle could contain some milk or a potion or a fairy—which make its world compelling.

 

A screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild depicting the interior of the Witch's House

Witch’s house in A Link Between Worlds

What I am by no means requesting here is a true-to-life meal-prep simulator, in fact I reckon that line of thinking is what led to the overwrought cooking system in the first place. Really what I want is a reduction. Now in any sufficiently advanced discourse you’re bound to come across somebody slamming something by labelling it as “reductive”. At the risk of paradox I would say this notion of “reductive = bad” is itself reductive. In the right hands reductivity can be a powerful tool, able toprovide clarity of focus. Videogames often appear reductive simply because videogames are reductions (like a balsamic, we’re still talking about cooking right?), that is they take aspects of our lived realities and abstract them into fetch quests, health bars, mini-maps and button prompts. Another way to say reductive might be “compressed”, and when it comes to computation compression is an extremely important concept, without which the modern internet would be virtually infeasible. One only needs to look at the miniscule size of the Breath of the Wild Switch cartridge next to the NES original for a physical demonstration of this long-term trend towards compressedness.

It’s a paradigm that may sound a bit backwards—the new incarnation of Hyrule is definitively bigger and better, isn’t it? Yet as the open-world genre has progressed over the past twenty-odd years, I and others have noted that the sorts of exploratory feelings they engender have subtly morphed from that of familiarization (the neighbourhood haunts of Shenmue and San Andreas) to that of futility. In the same way that cooking in BotW is more about micromanagement than mastery, these games are not really about the grandiose totality of their embiggened environments, even though they are often framed in those terms. Rather what open-world design accomplishes, if only semi-consciously, is to pinpoint and stress how small and insignificant we are comparatively, not only as in-game avatars but relative to the real wide world outside our doors. Most of the Earth’s oceans are unexplored, and so too is most of No Man’s Sky.

This is partially why I think there is immense bias against hints, tutorials, spoilers and an overall aversion to hand-holding—by cutesy companions or otherwise—even as livestreaming and fan wikis (the dirty secrets to Dark Souls’ success) become increasingly prevalent and crucial to games marketing and community management both at launch and in the long tail. Despite being a digital art form facilitated by various modes of connectivity, that same “link” for which Zelda’s protagonist is named, it’s believed by some that certain videogames need to be unplugged from the rest of the world in order to preserve their interior exteriority. We must “go in clean”, unsullied by any prescient thought, or else the purity of our play will be tainted. As much as I relate to this desire for secrecy and the unknown in games, and yearn to hear that revelatory little Zelda jingle (utterly unearned in some shrines I might add), it must eventually be squared with the fact that Skulltula Tokens in OoT were mainly devised to sell officially-branded player’s guides. Even nowadays, long after such things have become obsolete, no matter how many times we are doled out ineffectual armor or literal polished turds as punishment for our over-indulgences we can’t seem to take the hint that “doing all the things” yields increasingly diminished returns.

If there is any virtue to open-worlds from the vantage of the solipsist, it is that they scale back the unfathomable enormousness of existence so that it may be mentally compressed and conquered like a satellite image, allowing for hubris and humility in even measure. At the beginning of Breath of the Wild, when Link stands at the cliff’s edge as if modelling for a Romantic-era painting, it is both an acknowledgement of the sublime and a statement of intent to demystify it. For me however the allure of neo-Hyrule lies in the fact that while I may never see every nook and cranny of it, I know that somebody out there has. As methods of traversal, gliding and climbing absolutely deliver on this open-world ideal in a visceral, cathartic way—yet also make horseback-riding incredibly dull and impractical, which is a mite sad given how it too once gave that feeling of exhilaration in games past. The quotidian is not abandoned entirely in Breath of the Wild; it’s still there in all the chasing of critters and bombing of rock piles and yes, even those polarizing Korok seeds. However I must say that these instances almost always present themselves as resource-grinding first and foremost, rather than their own intrinsic reward. In this way the act of cooking does not take the quotidian and make it transcendent, but takes the magical and makes it practical.

 

Link's house in Twilight Princess

Link’s house in Twilight Princess

Link's house in Breath of the Wild

Link’s house in Breath of the Wild

The cumulative process of loot-acquisition expresses a cultural infatuation with the self-sufficient, ultra-capable, bootstrapping hunter-gatherer/lone-wolf archetype, but in truth plays out more like the gratuitous pack rat hoarderism of the bourgeoisie, with possessions devoid of any sentimentality; ownership but no real reason to want other than to have for the sake of having. It feels worth mentioning that BotW is the only Zelda game in which Link must go out and purchase a house instead of already having one, which ends up being this barren unhomely space whose only function is as a glorified trophy case. And admit it, if Nintendo released a sequel that did not either dramatically expand upon or reduce the scope of the game-world a la Majora’s Mask (not talking gameplay mechanics or narrative gravitas, just sheer landmass) the lack of appreciable change would most likely be ill-received. Sometimes less is more, sometimes more is more, but the exact same is definitely less.

While I marvel at the boldness of the direction Breath of the Wild took, and I’m glad that it did, if hyper-selectively (and reductively) judged based on its merits as a cooking game, then I truly believe something like Cooking Mama is far superior at crafting play which actually resembles making food. They are both rinse-and-repeat approaches no doubt, but at least in Cooking Mama an attempt is made to reproduce the tactility of the endeavour through the unique affordances of the DS touchscreen. There is a mimesis in all of the chopping, tossing, slicing, kneading, pouring and stirring motions performed with the stylus, and more importantly a sense of accomplishment from completing tasks in a logical order. Simple as they may be, these mini-games are undeniably about the experience of learning to cook a recipe, boiled down to its lowest common denominator—not fully representative but certainly an amuse-bouche, a taste. Much like how the recent Minit condenses the formula of classic top-down Zelda to its irreducible quintessence, Cooking Mama perfectly encapsulates its source material; it only takes a few seconds to become “Just as skilled as Mama!” Conversely in Breath of the Wild you drop a bunch of random things into a big empty bowl and somehow against all common sense it manages to cook itself, no intervention required. Even if the end result is unintelligible, unnourishing mush that wasn’t really worth the time and resources put in, Link’ll eat it up with a smile as if gluttonously asking for seconds. After all, what are we as players if not consumers?