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Iron Chef in a World of Monsters and Magic

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"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." --Brillat-Savarin

Cooking and video games never seem to mix. At best, these games distill the art of cooking down to its most rudimentary tasks: chopping vegetables, grilling meat, or boiling water. Who wants to play a game about boiling water? These simple actions don't allow for the creative spark that so characterizes great cuisine. Video games have found so many diverse ways to burn, boil, chop, fillet, and otherwise butcher a human, so why can't they do the same for an eggplant?

Trinket Studios, a trio of game makers from an independent games collective on the Chicago outskirts, is looking to do just that. Their game--Battle Chef Brigade--aims to capture the intensity of today's cooking competitions and blend it with all the spellcasting and dragon slaying of the fantasy role-playing genre. I recently caught up with these three to learn more about their plans for Battle Chef Brigade's culinary combat, and to learn whether this game can get right what so many others have squandered.

An early mockup for Battle Chef Brigade. Mina (center) is playing with fire while her two sous chefs cook up a storm.
An early mockup for Battle Chef Brigade. Mina (center) is playing with fire while her two sous chefs cook up a storm.

Trinket Studios' promise for Battle Chef Brigade is "fantasy Iron Chef." If all goes according to plan, you will be able to enter the battle pantry, slay a dragon, and bring its tasty meat back to the kitchen for preparation. Afterward, your pan-seared, herb-crusted fillet of dragon will face tasting and judging by a panel of experts. It's a three-stage cooking contest that will let you experience the thrills of creature combat alongside creative cooking.

The underlying concept for this game has been stewing in the minds of the Trinket Studio team for years. "The three of us would always be watching the food channel while taking breaks," said artist Eric Huang. "It was just on all the time, and all of us love food, so it just sort of came from there." Shows such as Chopped, MasterChef, Yakitate!! Ja-pan, and the legendary Iron Chef have all helped shape not only the rules of this game, but its colorful, energetic style as well.

Stove tops here don't run on wood or gas. They're powered by magic.
Stove tops here don't run on wood or gas. They're powered by magic.

"Right now the plan is to make Battle Chef Brigade a sort of 2D action game mixed with platforming and plenty of big, scary creatures to get ingredients from," said Tom Eastman, president of Trinket Studios. "We've been playing a lot of Samurai Gunn and Awesomenauts at the office, and those are both great examples of the action we're after. We haven't nailed down our style of combat just yet, but the prototype has plenty of monster slaying."

All this monster slaying will go down in the battle pantry. Like the rest of the game, the battle pantry is a work in progress, but the team has several ideas on how this arena could function. You may be able to snack on collected items--instead of bringing them back to your kitchen--for a quick boost in power, or jockey against other chefs who invade the pantry for the best ingredients. When your pouch is full, you will return to your kitchen and turn these disparate items into a delicious dish.

For Trinket Studios, letting you put your own spin on a recipe is extremely important. Good food follows a checklist, but great food knows when to deviate. "We're currently finding a balance between predetermined recipes and adding your own personal flair," said Eastman. "For instance, you can make a pie--and that's not especially complicated--but in that pie you could add fruit or meat or make it into some weird fruit-meat-seafood pie. We want to allow that, and then have the judges give you points. We don't want you to just be locked into predetermined recipes."

Designing a game that can accurately assess the merits of a fruit-meat-seafood pie has been a tall order for the team. While most cooking games simply score you on how well you can slice a carrot, Battle Chef Brigade wants its judges to consider the totality of a dish. Was your dish well executed? Does it have a nice presentation? Do all of your ingredients pair well together? "At one point we had this massive chart showing how every piece of food paired with every other piece of food," said Huang. "Now we're trying to figure out a way to present that to players in a way that makes sense."

Battle Chef Brigade's esteemed panel of judges.
Battle Chef Brigade's esteemed panel of judges.

Battle Chef Brigade's food pairings are pulled from a combination of real-world ingredients and high-fantasy foodstuffs--from water and flour to eyeball eggs and unicorn horn shavings. This combination of real and imaginary has many advantages for the team. "The fantasy wrapper lets us have ingredients that people don't know intimately," explained Eastman. "We can say that dragon meat is tough and people will accept it, whereas if you have a chicken, people know what that's supposed to feel like." This is a cooking game after all, not a cooking simulation.

"We figure that the more real-life recipes we have, the more assumptions people will have about how things are made," Huang added. "We don't want people having to question why the judges didn't like their mom's lasagna recipe, or their grandma's apple pie. If you're dealing with new ingredients, then everyone is on the same page, whether you're a professional chef or just a kid. You're all learning this new world together."

Since starting work on this game, the team has learned a lot about the science behind their favorite dishes. This has led to some serious--perhaps even philosophical--questions as they struggle to codify so many different foods. "We have a lot of white board scrawlings that people could mistake for the rantings of a lunatic," admitted programmer Ben Perez. "There's stuff like: 'What is pie?' or 'How can you act on butter?' or 'Is a sandwich a tier-four recipe?' Hey, when you think about it, sandwiches are pretty complicated if you have to make the bread from scratch."

Trinket Studios wants a diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own unique skills, abilities, and recipes to try out.
Trinket Studios wants a diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own unique skills, abilities, and recipes to try out.

Learning their way around a kitchen has produced more practical benefits for the team as well. "After going indie, we now need to save our money, and cooking has therefore become way more important in our lives," Eastman added. "I figured I needed to learn how to cook, and we have all been cooking together and improving. It's really fun opening a recipe book and thinking about the systems involved in creating a single dish. It makes us appreciate the chemistry of cooking all the more."

Looking ahead, Eastman, Huang, and Perez are hoping to have a playable Battle Chef Brigade appetizer ready for PAX East ahead of the game's proposed release date on PC and consoles later this year. It's an aggressive schedule, meaning the heat is definitely on for this small team. Thankfully, Trinket Studios understands what makes the culinary arts so appetizing, and their mix of creatures and cutlery has got me excited for the main course.

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