perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

Hunger and Choices

☰ Table of Content

So about that hunger thing

I’ve complained at length about Minecraft. I’ve also mentioned that Astroneer in particular is one of my favorite ‘survival’ games because it gets rid of the busywork of hunger.

Recently I was thinking about hunger mechanics again, and since then I’ve played a lot of Valheim and Vintage Story, both games that have food mechanics I actually kinda like, and it got me thinking about that hunger thing. There’s no such thing as a bad mechanic–all game mechanics have a context in which they actually work. Tank controls were a product of their time, a result of developers not really being sure how to handle navigation in a 3D space, but they still had a context in which they were good for the game–when the difficulty of controlling the character is the point. So, let’s apply that logic to food mechanics. What’s the right context for hunger as a mechanic?

Interesting gameplay comes from interesting choices.

It might seem obvious in hindsight, but it bears repeating: Gameplay is ultimately a series of choices. If you want a game to be interesting to play, you have to have interesting choices. This doesn’t mean mechanically deep choices, per se–there are interesting choices to make in games that lean entirely on their stories–but those choices are interesting, they’re just interesting because of characters and story tension instead of mechanical depth.

With that in mind, my complaint about hunger in Minecraft comes into sharp relief: Hunger in Minecraft has no interesting choices to make. Either you eat food or you die; either you have a farm setup that can produce enough food-value, or you don’t. The most complex farming method consists of two steps and is only slightly less automated than the simplest farming method, neither farming method can be fully automated because there’s no way to auto-plant seeds and only limited ways to detect when a crop is ready to harvest, and the only real choice to make is how much time you’re willing to spend on your food supply. You aren’t even given the option to disengage from the mechanic–if you don’t eat, you starve.

So how come Vintage Story is different?

On the surface, Vintage Story’s food mechanics are very similar to Minecraft’s, in that you HAVE to farm SOMETHING in order to survive. You can subsist on berries for a while, but ultimately, you really do need a stable long-term food source.


The similarities end at the surface. There are multiple important layers to Vintage Story’s food mechanics, but I’m gonna focus on food preservation and crop rotation to make a point. Hunger in Minecraft is a mechanic you are forced to engage with, through the penalty of starving. Hunger in Vintage Story is the same. However, how you acquire food is a much more complex question in Vintage Story, with many more choices to make.

Here, hunger acts as a threat, and food acts as a mechanically complex response to that threat. The interesting part isn’t the fact that you need food, it’s the question of how you’ll acquire and maintain a food supply. You’ll need to build a cellar eventually to keep your food fresh; what’s your plan for doing so? Will you plant carrots or onions this season? Meals can be prepared with the right types of ingredients once you’ve fired some pottery, and keeping them in the cellar makes them keep even better–but different meals will spoil at different rates, and you might be better off keeping the grains uncooked until you’re ready to eat them, because grains in a storage pot can last years. Tallow is extremely valuable because you can make permanent light sources with it, but you can ALSO use it to seal a crock of food and make it last even longer–which is more important to you in the moment: light, or food preservation? Will you even need to preserve the meal for that long, or are you going to eat it within a day?

Not all of these choices are strictly important choices–making a basement is basically a necessity for good food storage. However, many of these choices ARE far more interesting than just “starve or don’t starve”. They all play off of each other, creating both a sense of progression in how you handle food, and a series of meaningful decisions to make about where your next meal is coming from.

Contrast Minecraft, where there’s no real difference between eating a loaf of bread and eating a steak, aside from the steak providing slightly more sustenance. Food doesn’t rot, crops don’t deplete the soil, and most of the more complicated meals simply aren’t worth crafting, so there’s no reason to grow more than one kind of crop.

And what about Valheim?

Valheim’s gonna be my core example for the other half of this ramble, but it’s worth noting that Vintage Story does a certain amount of this as well: You can also create mechanically interesting hunger mechanics by making the choice of which food to eat more directly impact the game.

Valheim’s hunger system…isn’t. Valheim does not have a hunger meter. Instead, the thing food provides is stat buffs. Food can increase your health and stamina caps, making you better able to take hits and capable of more work without stopping to breathe. The catch is that you can only have three food items in effect at a time, and you can’t eat fresh food until the existing foods are at least halfway out of duration.

In Vintage Story, hunger was a form of pressure to make you engage with the farming and food-preservation mechanics. In Valheim, the food system is technically completely optional–instead, the urge to interact with food comes from being rewarded for eating varied meals. Vintage Story has a similar concept, in that you gain bonus health from having a balanced diet–each food item falls into a category and fills up a meter for that category, and if you fill up all five categories, you can almost double your health. Breath of the Wild also comes to mind–different ingredients in BotW give different buffs, so having a variety of ingredients on hand means you can have a variety of bonuses for different situations. Some Minecraft mods do similar things as well, rewarding you with extra health if you sample a wide variety of foods (or making a lack of variety give diminishing returns).

The goal is choices.

You want players to be making interesting choices. That’s how you get engaging gameplay. Hunger and food can be useful tools for this. I suspect that hunger can replace direct combat as a ‘softer’, more long-term source of danger and conflict. In order to do this, you need to bring mechanical depth to the table in how the player can solve their hunger needs. If you can’t do that, you should avoid using hunger as a mechanic, and instead focus on interesting rewards for eating food.

Update: 2024-04-16

<< Hold