In A Cruel Year, Cooking Mama: Cookstar Had The Kindness I Needed

This year was a complicated one for gaming.

For one, the triple A space made some meaningful growth in bold, interesting new directions. As hard as I am on big budget gaming, I’m under no delusion that those things aren’t important. The divisive and grim The Last of Us Part II will likely take a few years to percolate, but is almost guaranteed to have a lasting impact on this industry for a good, long while.

Stuff like that being made is important – I really do believe that. It’s important because we need a big, expensive, edgy title to vibe with, to tear apart, to approach on its own merits. We need that “big art” to exist. I know peers that I love and value might disagree with that, but this industry was born out of spectacle, and that spectacle continues to be what drives this whole enterprise. Without it, there wouldn’t be the cracks and crevices that form for more interesting titles to grow out of and blossom into beautiful gems of their own.

However, 2020 was the year that made me something to myself: I don’t think we can keep this up. As horror stories of developer abuse arose out of Naughty Dog, CD Projekt Red, Ubisoft, and countless more, I started to have more and more apprehension that this industry can continue in its current form. Yes, I can see the love and care put into Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Marvel’s Avengers, and I do like those games, but what cost does my enjoyment come at? Can I truly embrace them while tales of woeful developer treatment comes out of the former, and shoehorned service game elements completely undermine the value of the latter? I’m not so sure anymore. If my enjoyment comes at the cost of human suffering, it becomes harder and harder to encourage its creation. Because we can’t keep doing this. Powerful people shouldn’t get to tell others that their life is worth less than the art they want to make.

“This cannot continue.”

So, what do we do then? Unfortunately, I’m not sure. I’m an industry observer – someone tasked with reporting on, praising, lambasting, and prodding fun at gaming for clicks. When it comes to managing a team of hundreds, spending millions of dollars to market a game, and ensuring that game gets the widest reach it possibly can, I’m clueless. Sure, I have ideas. I have principles. But I don’t actually know what I’m talking about in that arena – I got a useless English degree from one of those dreaded liberal arts schools, y’know? However, there is one thing I know about, and it’s something I think more could benefit from letting guide them.

It’s respect.

In the production of art, the utmost care should be given that you aren’t putting something evil into the world. From the development of that art, to the art’s intent, to the packaging of that art… respect is imperative. Without it, you taint the art – you make a glossy and expensive monument to human suffering, you sell something to people that may hurt them, and you make certain people feel a little more afraid to exist. From top to bottom, the ones that call the shots (CEOs? CFOs?) need to look at their employees and their customers not as means to an end, but the end itself.

So, in 2020, what stood out to me were the games that seemed, to me, to care the most about respect. In either a narrative capacity, a mechanical sense, or in elements of their production, I mostly judged what I played this year by a metric based in how respectful I felt they were. So even if I’m almost on Prestige II of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, I still think less of it due to how much harm I feel it puts into the world. That said? Activision’s continued good treatment of its employees, at least based on most reports, should absolutely be a model to follow.

I digress. In a year where my government locked kids in cages and gassed protestors, where a global pandemic brought out the worst facets of humanity, and where establishment politics took precedent over human life, I found the most comfort in games that showed us a better way forward. Games that gave me hope that we can be better to each other, and that art can help us get there. That doesn’t mean softening its bite – I mean, Christ, horror is my favorite genre – but rather ensuring that bite is sinking into the right flesh. It’s a lot different to be cruel to bigots than to, y’know, an entire race or gender, y’know? It’s why I’m fine with Zombie Army 4 letting me shoot Hitler into bloody, fleshy chunks – that fucker deserves it. If you’re going to punch, make sure you picked your target carefully.

But for me, it was a game that didn’t throw any punches that impressed me the most in 2020. A game based in a love for its fanbase, fueled by a commitment to ethical treatment of its developers, and intended to encourage kids and adults alike to engage in one of the most sacred arts of all: cooking. Cooking is a universal language of care and love, and to capture its essence so perfectly in a video game is one of the most impressive things that someone can do to me.

That’s why Cooking Mama: Cookstar is my “game of the year,” as it were.

1st Playable’s fantastic soft reboot of the perennial “middleware” (seriously, stop saying “shovelware”) franchise captured everything that made the early entries such riveting successes in the DS and Wii’s heyday. In its dozens upon dozens of recipes, Cookstar fine-tunes mechanics that had long since fallen into disrepair in recent entries, and manages to succeed at being a smooth and enjoyable experience that avoids the ugly pitfalls of far too many minigame compilations.

And while I do understand critiques that Cookstar relies too much on repetition, I’d argue that’s part of its appeal. As somebody who cherishes cooking as part of her day-to-day life, I can tell you that there’s a lot of repetition in it. Stirring, slicing, searing… there are an unlimited number of uses for these and countless other skills in the kitchen, and for a cooking game to accurately capture that experience, repetition is necessary. Much like it’s tough to make a racing where you don’t race, or a shooter without any shooting, you really can’t make a genuine cooking game without the slow, methodical, repetitious rhythm of preparing a meal.

That rhythm, too, is one that Cookstar understands so well. Every aspect of a meal, no matter how seemingly trivial, is turned into an active experience in this game. This is true to life, from my experience – even the act of putting a lasagna in the oven and setting a time is riveting when you put your heart into it. By breaking down meals into handy steps, showing them come together piece by piece, then allowing players to sit back and enjoy their creation in a simple photo mode, 1st Playable captures the steady dedication and care it takes to prepare a good meal.

There are other elements here, too, that propel Cookstar to the top of my list. Yoko Nishino’s wonderful return to her iconic role, after years and years of recycled sound bites. An entire vegetarian mode that’s kind and inclusive to families that don’t eat meat. Unlockable outfits for Mama and customizable cookware, plus a legitimately tough post-game challenge mode. Beyond my own bias as a cook, this is just a legitimately well-produced and robust experience that can be enjoyed by casual players, kids, and even the hardcore set such as myself.

In a cruel year, where I felt more burnt out by this industry than ever, games like Cooking Mama: Cookstar kept me going. Made with with love and good intent, it’s the kind of art that I valued the most this year.

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  • Avengers
  • Cooking Mama
  • Assassin's Creed Valhalla
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War

Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.

She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.

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