Welcome to Closed Readings! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors delve into the weird little moments in pop culture—from books to music tracks to viral internet hits—that have crept into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, created community gardens and have refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time, professor and video game researcher Melissa Kagen invites us into the virtual kitchen to talk about the cake and its discontents.
Video games are full of cake.
Princess Peach bakes multi-tiered strawberry and cream thank you cakes for Mario when he saves her. Super intelligent AI GLaDOS quite famous promises the Portal player that the cake (and duel advice) will be waiting for him once the trials are complete (but the cake is a lie, isn’t it?).
Dozens of time management games with titles like Real Cake Maker Bakery 3D, My Bakery Empire: Cake & BakeY Pastry Chef: Purble Place Pastry Shop Simulator proliferate on PC and mobile platforms, meaning an alarmingly wide selection of color, shape, and frosting options, which the player must balance against a collection of irate customers. The creator of this subgenre, the lively and colorful 2006 cake mania—features a young businesswoman named Jill serving individually prepared cakes to an endless stream of identical boys in red jackets who wait, more or less patiently, for her to prepare and pack their orders (there are other customers too, but the boys are the quietest and most pleasant). cake maniamore downloaded than any other casual game in 2006, was based on the (even more popular) Diner Dash from 2004 (which in turn was inspired by the 1984 arcade game pickguard, in which you’re a bartender serving Budweiser and, yes, the game was sponsored in part by Anheuser-Busch, why do you ask?). The point is that, at the time of writing, there are 362 entries on Steam when I type the search term “cake”.
Minecraft has cake.
Zelda has cake.
Even Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has a cake, even if it’s a cake that explodes and tries to kill you.
The preponderance of pastel in the game’s worlds isn’t terribly surprising, explosions notwithstanding. Cake is delicious, universal, and semiotically clear: a generic positive signifier indicating care, comfort, and celebration. You have done well, my friend; now you have cake At this point in gaming history, there are games about just about everything, in so many varied and random combinations. While this multiplicity provides one of the few delights of this hellish age, it can be overwhelming, and it’s nice to go back to something as relaxing as ice-covered, pixelated, sweet carb circles. For example, there is a phenomenally amazing and strange game called An airport for foreigners currently run by dogs (2021) with decodable signs in a foreign language and 2D stock photos of petting dogs scattered around a sterile transportation facility. And lo and behold, before we leave the tutorial screen: cake.
Pie. He ground us. It feeds us.
Actually, it doesn’t always feed us, which is especially interesting about the video game cake. The cake in games often serves as an incentive rather than an edible food. the notorious Portal cake, the cake that launched a thousand memes, was rumored to be a lie. A former test subject scrawls it on the wall of a back room at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center—The cake is a lie! The cake is a lie!—warning us of GLaDOS’ nefarious intention to kill us once the tests are over. But when we escape the test chamber and kill GLaDOS instead, we’re invited to take a photo of a Black Forest cake by candlelight, surrounded by Aperture crews. Isn’t the cake a lie after all? We love it.
But consider: does the player ever get to to eat that cake? Or even interact with him at all? Hell no. We were promised cake, we didn’t get any, the cake I was a lie, everyone home.
This is more common than it seems. In games, the cake is (I’m going to go ahead and say it), a lie most of the time, in the sense that our player character often doesn’t get to eat it. We might be motivated to perform a task based on the expectation of a cake, which no character gets to eat. We might create cake after cake in a manic frenzy, trying to please a demanding patron or friend, but none pass our own digital lips (not even mistakes, which must be thrown away in games like cake mania either Overcooked!). Cake in games is rarely something to consume. We can’t (not even sorry you knew this was coming) have our cake and eat it too.
But in some beautiful cases, your player character can create and eat their cake. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), Link can conscientiously acquire ingredients from all over Hyrule (Cane Sugar + Goat Butter + Tabantha Wheat + any fruit, nut, carrot, or monster extract) and combine them. Presto change-o, cake. You can eat it and gain 1 health heart, plus an extra yellow heart. I remember searching Hyrule for the necessary Tabantha wheat (only available in the Northwest Quadrant), unreasonably excited at the prospect of this meal, losing far more hearts in the process than the final cake provided. So let’s be clear, there is are crafting games where a player can craft and eat cakes to gain some kind of sustenance (Minecraft cake also falls into this category).
And yet. And yet. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that video games are full of promise of the cake than the reality of it. Because (and I’m sorry to be the one to tell you) you are a creature incarnate and therefore you will never eat a pixel. The closest you can get is when you character eat pixels. If human edibility is central to the basic reality of the cake, and I’m going to state that it is, then I *think* all video game cakes are, if not precisely a lie, most of the way to (ahem) a Baudrillardian simulacrum.
I don’t draw conclusions. The bottom line is cake.
And also probably not cake.
Melissa Kagen researches and teaches interactive storytelling, TTRPGs, escape room design, immersive performance, and critical game studies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She got her Ph.D. from Stanford and her first book, wandering games, comes out October 2022 from MIT Press and is available to pre-order now. He likes to ride a bike, eat vegan food and accumulate notebooks. You can find her online at her site and at Twitter.