I started cooking out of necessity in my second year of undergrad, when I moved out of residence. So I started off with things that would minimally impact my time for more important things, like school or WoW raiding. I mean, the time investment in making better food just didn’t seem worth it. If I really wanted something particularly delicious, I’d just go out and buy something. All I needed out of my own skills was to be able to create enough to sustain myself and go meet up to try and down Vashj to save the World of Warcraft to save the world. And study, I guess.
But then, I eventually got tired of doing that. Or rather, I got tired of eating the same thing over and over and over again. It sounds like a brilliant idea at first, to min-max your cooking like that, but there’s only so much you can do with limited skills and constraints on your resources. Not soon after, I quit WoW for unrelated reasons and I took some of my newfound free time and to learn how to cook. It turns out cooking has the dual benefits of being pretty fun and improving your quality of life because you’re not eating crap every day. It’s the difference between cooking to not starve and cooking because it’s fun and to make something tasty. Nowadays, I split my meals evenly between buying because of time and trying to cook new things. It feels great to successfully make a thing.
The first time we’re introduced to Asuna after the real story (read: vol. 1) of SAO starts is after Kirito is trying to figure out what to do with a delicious rare rabbit that he can’t cook. Kirito mentions offhandedly that cooking is a pretty useless skill, so who in the world would max it? After all, what’s the point? The food that you eat isn’t real and if you’ve got time to waste on cooking, you should be putting more effort into levelling and clearing. Well, it turns out Asuna would, but why? Why would Asuna, famed progression raider/frontline clearer, max cooking?
Remember, when we first saw Asuna in Aria of a Starless Night, she was chewing away on crappy bread until Kirito shared that cream to put on it and make it less awful to eat. Look at her attitude when she comes across Kirito lazing around in A Murder Case in the Area. Her attitude is familiar: why is he taking a nap when he should be levelling and clearing? Why is he doing pointless things when he has something way more important to do? It’s this little anecdote that sums up her attitude to life in SAO until she met Kirito, which she relays to the fisherman. Before, she was caught up in working relentlessly to achieve her freedom. But a person can’t do that indefinitely and at some point she realized this. And so she maxed cooking. Why? Because she likes cooking. And she likes it because she’s finally learned to enjoy her time in SAO.
It’s kind of interesting that something like the sense of taste would get translated into SAO. And apparently, high-level food drops taste better. There’s not much that we know about how food actually works in SAO, but given Kirito’s flippant dismissal of it, it seems like it doesn’t really serve that much purpose. Or maybe the return on investment in spending the time to level it up isn’t worth it.
In contrast to SAO, there’s WoW, where food does have some slight benefits. I remember back when I was progression raiding in WoW (during TBC), cooking was a pretty useful thing to max out for the food buffs. By the time TBC rolled around, Blizzard had overhauled the buff system for consumables so that the total number of buffs you could get was limited, in order to bring down the exorbitant costs of raiding. You could have either one flask buff or two elixir buffs and one food buff in addition to those. For me, it was the Blackened Basilisk’s 23 extra spellpower. Farming basilisk meat in Terokkar to cook myself was way cheaper and easier than buying Blackened Basilisk off of the AH.
But my favourite modelling of how food works in a video game is in The World Ends With You. There’s not much cooking in TWEWY, but there is a lot of stuff to eat. The neat thing about it is that, like WoW, eating isn’t strictly necessary, but eating could confer some useful perks. How it works is a lot more involved than WoW’s simple consumable and buff effect, though. For one thing, the rate at which you can consume food is limited. You can only eat so much at a time. Your characters have different tastes which affect the effectiveness of the buffs you get. And you get temporary buffs, which are kind of like increased productivity from having eaten well, and permanent buffs, which are kind of like the long-term nutritional benefits of food.
Of course, again, SAO doesn’t seem to have much of that. It does do one interesting thing with food, though, and that’s bothering to translate the sense of taste at all. The obvious things, like carrots and fish, probably taste like you’d expect them to, but then you have things that don’t have a one-to-one correspondence between SAO and the real world. You have things like Asuna being able to somehow engineer something that tastes like soy sauce.
So maybe food doesn’t really have any game mechanical benefit beyond filling a meter, but there’s still taste! How taste functions is interesting, because while hunger is governed by meters and internal mechanics, taste is something that’s purely personal. The game is telling you that you’re hungry and you need to refill you meter. But it’s you who really wants a friggin poutine with crisp hand-cut fries and the squeak of fresh cheese curds covered in gravy.
This goes back to the main question that Kirito, Asuna, and most of the players stuck in SAO are dealing with. Do they have time to be enjoying life when they should be working their hardest to escape? For me, this question isn’t that alien even though I’m not trapped in an MMORPG. It’s really easy to ask myself whether I should be cooking or blogging when I’m still stuck on a problem I can’t solve or if I’ve still got studying to do.
Working tirelessly for a few days might be fine, but when you start coming up to two years, it gets tiring. It’s doable, but it comes at the cost of not enjoying anything you do. Both Kirito and Asuna seemed prepared to do this at the beginning of SAO. Over the course of the story, they realize that they can’t and don’t want to. And so they try to make the most of their time in SAO and taking the time to enjoy things.
This is a big reason for why they’re cool with playing VRMMOs after they get out of SAO. The expectation that we have is that they’d be so traumatized by the experience that they’d never want to put on a NerveGear again. But to Kirito and Asuna, it’d mean denying a part of their life and experience because they tried to really live while they were there. And of course, it’d be doubly meaningful for them because it’s how they met each other.