Once upon a time, my mother found herself forced to bring my brother and me to her office, and she’d plunk us down at an unused terminal and boot us up with the classic Windows time-idlers of Minesweeper. I took to them like an addict: here was an opportunity to do what in life would take thousands of feedback-free hours: master a skill. In this case, I quickly learned some logical tautologies, realized that this computerized game had no real consequences for failure, and gamed the odds and the system not so as to beat the game each time–random luck could always play the stinker–but so as to finish as quickly as possible, thereby putting my younger brother in his place. (Yes, I was–and still am–a competitive asshole when it comes to games.) Perhaps there was a real, life-applicable skill to be learned from Minesweeper, but that didn’t concern me. It was a short and sweet game that could be mastered to the millisecond, and there was something dangerously Zen about the whole affair: life faded away when you played (which is probably the last thing to say when dealing with mines), and you lived purely in the moment. It, above all else, kept me occupied.
Which brings me to Cook, Serve, Delicious, in which I have invested the last twenty or so hours of my life, and can conceivably see myself returning to week after week, even if I’m far from a master. You see, I can’t cook, and I know this. I also know that the quick-time events of Cook, Serve, Delicious will not make me into a better cook. However, both involve following directions precisely, and whereas actual food preparation is a timely and costly affair that requires various utensils, everything you need about Cook, Serve, Delicious is right there. It’s once again life, distilled into a deadening gameplay loop: see a task, learn a task, complete a task, and optionally master that task. We are drawn to be perfectionists, especially as the difficulty forces us to always adjust our aims upward.
Though you can choose the main items to serve on your menu, placing between four to eight of them on the menu at a time (depending on how many stars your restaurant is), the game starts off simply enough, with deep-fried dishes requiring only timing, and simple recipes for the humble pretzel or one-spigot beer being a matter of pressing the right button. Even more complex dishes, like soups, are manageable, teaching you the basic technique from a limited supply of ingredients before later allowing you to upgrade and intensify the difficulty. There’s a learning curve baked in–excuse the pun–and it also provides the compelling hook. Each successful day brings a new slew of upgrade offers in your e-mail, as well as various satiric challenges, such as appearances on Iron Cook or the dangerous Hungry Games. As you advance, you’ll even learn to juggle relationships with your food, wooing people with your food and then romancing them with texts madly typed out while placing the twelve layers of a proper lasagna.
But what kept me coming back was the fact that I could see a marked improvement each day in the way I “cooked.” Kebabs, which seemed impossible at first, were actually logic puzzles that, once solved and memorized, could be solved more swiftly than a Rubik’s cube. My body instinctively paused before prepping each burger or pasta on the menu, so as to make sure that I’d have time to complete the orders after the initial thawing completed. I stopped counting the number of times I’d seasoned a steak or tenderized a chicken; I knew them by heart. And as my body internalized these things, the game recorded them, and it was all so easy. The gamification and self-improvement was clear, and there was no reason that I couldn’t be applying these things to an exercise routine, or to actual cooking, but then again, I realized that I liked Cook, Serve, Delicious precisely because it served no point, no greater good. It was a way for me to bridge the gap between a day at work and a night at play. As with Minesweeper back in the day, it was exactly what I needed.