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Order Up!

(Zoo; US: 22 Jul 2008)

Authentic, Kinetic, and Frenetic

There seem to me to be two main types of simulation games. 


On the one hand, there is the broad-based simulation that is usually systemic in nature.  In other words, games that attempt to simulate systems (economic, domestic, etc.).  Chiefly, these games tend to be termed “god games” as they offer a near omniscient perspective on a game world that is manipulated by the player.  The games that I am thinking of in this category are things like SimCity, The Sims, Zoo Tycoon, and The Movies.


On the other hand, there are simulators.  These simulation games seem to be more precisely focused and less systemic in nature as they tend to be interested in allowing a player to experience a particular form of activity through a simulatory experience.  These are games like the now nearly ancient Flight Simulator or, more recently, a game like Cooking Mama


While the highly technical and almost sterile functionality of the original Flight Simulator may seem a very different game experience than the manic insanity of Cooking Mama, I don’t think that these two games are far afield in what they attempt to do for a player.  Flight Simulator was an effort to allow earthbound players an experience akin to real aviation with all the complex instrumentation and physics of such an experience represented as authentically as possible.  While the cartoonish and goofy Japanese aesthetic of the Cooking Mama series may seem to defy a serious attempt at authentic representation, nonetheless, through the very physical experience provided by the Wiimote and DS stylus, the game does make an effort to provide a close approximation of the kinetic experience of cooking.


Chopping, stirring, and flipping all become very “felt” experiences by the player, if only because the physical motions required to complete a recipe are very much akin to the kinds of actions necessary to actually cook.  To be frank, with a control yoke and some pedals (as many hardcore Flight Simulator players insist are necessary to experience that game correctly) a very similar kinetic authenticity is provided.  Even without such accoutrements, though, a computer screen that allows a player to check up on the various meters and dials on their “plane”‘s instrumentation panel and the ability to fiddle with computer instrumentation also provides some level of kinetic authenticity.


Both the systemic simulation and the more overtly simulatory style of game both share some limitations as experiences.  The “god game” is fairly alien in its indirect experience of a simulation.  You can run a city, or a household, or a zoo, or a movie studio without ever really getting your hands “dirty”.  There is no kinetic appreciation of daily activities as you remain in an aloof managerial role in most of these styles of games.  Simulators, on the other hand, lack the broader perspective.  Where and why are you flying to various airports in Flight Simulator?  And who on earth are you cooking for in Cooking Mama?


All of this brings me to Order Up!, SuperVillain Studios’ recent effort to take the simulator aspects of a game like Cooking Mama and add to them a broader frame and purpose much like the systemic simulations mentioned above.


The Wii, of course, provides a very powerful means of making simulators rather kinetically authentic.  I myself have complained about getting tennis elbow as a result of the Wii Sports experience.  Indeed, Cooking Mama has only made its appearance on Nintendo systems because of the Wii’s and DS’s unique peripherals.  Thus, Order Up!‘s exclusive appearance on this system is no surprise.


When it comes to physically simulating the activity of cooking, the system has proven itself a good one to do so.  Order Up!‘s dominant gameplay is very much in the vein of Cooking Mama with players attempting to execute and approximate various actions on the Wiimote like chopping, slicing, flipping, and so on, in order to complete recipes.


What complicates Order Up! is that besides executing these dishes as perfectly as possible, there is a broader systemic simulation that gives the reason for cooking some purpose.  As a chef, the player works in a variety of restaurants (a diner, a Mexican restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant) taking a series of orders as patrons arrive.  These patrons are represented by cartoonish stereotypes and frequently have particular tastes that can be catered to that can lead to bigger tips.  The two fat guys like gravy and sugar, the Texan likes Barbecue sauce, and the Hispanic woman likes her food spicy.


This aspect leads to a slightly different gameplay approach to the cooking simulator than Cooking Mama in that executing multiple dishes at once requires frantic multitasking (drop the fries into the frier, throw a couple of eggs on the grill, and dredge a chicken for three different meals at once so that they all come out hot to the customers at the same time) that Cooking Mama lacks.  Additionally, though, is the added pleasure of cooking for a systemic purpose.  Your restaurant’s financial and critical success is built on a customer base.  Thus, between rounds of cooking action, you also need to concern yourself with the appearance of your kitchen, upgrading your equipment, hiring new staff, and acquiring stars to achieve five-star restaurant success.  More simply put, you both know who you are cooking for and why you are are cooking.


Adding to the satisfaction of a grander purpose than mere kinetic appreciation of cooking is some witty dialogue, several clever satirical moments, and stylish character designs.  As a result, Order Up! ends up providing a much richer experience than many simulators often do, and does Cooking Mama one better.  Any fan of sims, be they systemic or kinetic, will likely find a great deal to enjoy here. 


Simulation this kinetic and this stress-inducing does have it downside, though, as it can cause some fairly strong memories to arise.  I had a few flashbacks to my high school years as a drive through cashier and a carver at a buffet.  Anyone who has worked as a short order cook before may find the game to be too frenetically and horrifyingly familiar. 


Perhaps the truest test of a simulation’s authenticity, though, is this: Does it have the ability to really make us feel like crying over our simulated onions?

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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