As someone who is both a food editor and lifelong video game enthusiast, I've predictably played a ton of food-themed games. Over the last year, games have kept me excellent company, serving as a satisfying and consistent way to pass what I'll refer to as "time." I revisited the food-centric games I previously loved, like Stardew Valley, Overcooked, the eerily realistic Cooking Simulator, and every last Cooking Mama. I've cooked my way through Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Final Fantasy XV (whose food imagery is stunning), and World of Warcraft. But when I popped recent release Sakuna: Of Rice & Ruin into my Switch a few months ago, I felt genuinely connected to the food I was interacting with on the screen for the first time.
In this farming, friend-feeding, and enemy-pummeling role-playing game, rice is king, and you happen to live on a paddy. Oh, and you've never grown rice before. Additionally, you're a harvest goddess coming down from quite the hot mess of a sake bender (see: "& Ruin"), so the stakes are pretty high.
Rice plays an essential role in the progression of the game, to the extent that I can no longer cook my favorite grain in any form without first studying it for the primary attributes in the game—hardness, polish, and aesthetic—and when it's cooked, for its stickiness and aroma. Every minute decision you make in the paddy influences the quality of the final yield, from the time of day you plant meticulous rows of seedlings to the precise percentage of water in the field during growth cycles (taking the rain into account, of course), to the weather when you thresh and hull the kernels.
Responsible stewardship of a bucolic rice paddy on a serene albeit demon-infested island means balancing farming with advancing the main story. And to do it without the rice you've grown and eaten is a fool's errand, because eating rice (and food items made with rice, like congee, dumplings, mochi, vinegar for pickles, and your beloved sake) is the only way to strengthen yourself enough to battle the never-ending supply of meat in the form of crazed rabbits, sparrows, and boars impeding your path to glory. Staying on top of weed-pulling, bug-plucking, fertilizer cultivation, and the delicate balance of flooding and draining the paddy will all contribute to a favorable harvest, boost your farming skills, and propel you along the storyline.
It's not just the meticulous tending of the field that connected me in a distinctive way to the rice I was growing. Once harvested and dried, it's on you, as manually as can be expressed with a Switch controller in each hand, to take up a traditional threshing tool known as a kokibashi and pull each stalk through to remove the kernels. Prepare for some repetitive motion that is not altogether unpleasant and definitely gives a sense of satisfaction once complete, and more of the same if you choose to polish off the hull by pounding it in a mortar to produce white rice (although, as in real life, brown rice has its own set of advantages).
I usually play one season at a time, from planting seedlings in the spring to processing them at the beginning of winter, which is just enough tilling, weeding, cooking, enemy-bashing, grappling up a mountain with an enchanted scarf, and foraging for garlic and herbs to reset my brain. Midway through a session, I'm likely to make a real-life pot of rice, around which I've constructed a simple dinner like Korean marinated beef or an easy shrimp stir-fry. I actively enjoy how the rice sounds, smells, and tastes the whole way through (seriously, playing this game while the aroma of steaming rice wafts from the kitchen, anticipating dinner, is the only way to play), and the whole experience has thoroughly reinvigorated my love for rice in all its varieties and forms.
And no, that rice doesn't have a magical backstory, but that rice doesn't need to because I'm not really fighting possessed rabbits, just garden-variety boredom that—a year into staying home 98 percent of the time—can occasionally interfere with my sleep cycles. After a couple of evening hours with Sakuna and company, I sink into an extra-deep slumber and enjoy low-stakes adventure dreams.
And for those who wish to forgo the enemy-bashing part of the story entirely and simply farm, gather, shore up your storeroom, and cook to your heart's content, you couldn't pick a more beautiful place to do it. According to the game's creators, a great deal of research and development went into simulating a realistic, serene visual experience that draws from interviews with members of the farmer-led Japan Agricultural Cooperatives group.
The effect is wonderfully peaceful. You can feel the feathery rice shoots brushing your ankles as you walk through the cool, damp paddy that's your ticket to ultimate redemption, bringing home mushrooms to preserve, foxtail millet to simmer into a fortifying porridge, acorns for a simple soup, and the first tea leaves of spring to enjoy around a table with friends. Well, I'm off to bed.
Have you played any fun food video games recently? Let us know in the comments, we're always game!