Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, professor and videogame researcher Melissa Kagen invites us into the virtual kitchen to talk about cake and its discontents.
Videogames are full of cake.
Princess Peach bakes multi-tiered, cream-and-strawberry thank-you cakes for Mario when he saves her. Super intelligent AI GLaDOS rather famously promises the Portal player that cake (and grief counseling) will be waiting for them once testing is complete (but the cake is a lie—or is it??).
Dozens of time-management games with titles like Real Cake Maker 3D Bakery, My Bakery Empire: Cake & Bake, and Cake Maker: Purble Place Pastry Simulator proliferate across PC and mobile platforms, involving an alarmingly vast selection of color, shape, and frosting choices, which the player must balance against an irate collection of customers. The originator of this subgenre—2006’s sprightly, colorful Cake Mania—features a young entrepreneur named Jill serving individually-prepared cakes to an endless stream of identical, red-jacketed lads who wait, more or less patiently, for her to make and box their orders (there are also other customers, but the lads are the calmest and most pleasant). Cake Mania, downloaded more than any other casual game in 2006, was based on the (even more wildly popular) Diner Dash from 2004 (which was itself inspired by the 1984 arcade game Tapper, in which you’re a bartender serving Budweiser, and, yes, the game was partly sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, why do you ask?). The point is, at time of writing, there are 362 entries on Steam when I type in the search term “cake.”
Minecraft has cake.
Zelda has cake.
Even Resident Evil 7: Biohazard has a cake, albeit a cake that explodes and tries to kill you.
The preponderance of cake across gameworlds is not 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 get cake. By this point in gaming history, games about almost everything exist, in so many varied and random combinations. While this multiplicity provides one of the few delights of this hell era, it can be overwhelming, and it’s nice to return to something as calming as sweet, pixilated, icing-covered carb circles. For example, there is a phenomenally amazing and weird game called An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs (2021) with decodable signs in an alien language and 2D stock photos of pettable dogs spread throughout a barren transport center. And lo, before we’re even out of the tutorial screen: cake.
Cake. It grounds us. It feeds us.
Actually, it doesn’t always feed us, which is something particularly interesting about videogame cake. Cake in games often serves as an enticement rather than an edible foodstuff. 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 backroom of Aperture Science Enrichment Center—the cake is a lie! The cake is a lie!—alerting us to GLaDOS’ nefarious intention to kill us once testing has concluded. But when we’ve escaped the testing chamber and killed GLaDOS instead, we are treated to a candlelit shot of a Black Forest cake, surrounded by Aperture equipment. Is the cake not a lie after all?? We love it.
But consider: does the player ever get to eat that cake? Or even interact with it at all?? Hell no. We were promised cake, we received none, the cake was a lie, everybody go home.
This is more common than it seems. In games, the cake is (I’m going to go ahead and say it), a lie more often than not, in the sense that our player character quite often doesn’t get to eat it. We might be motivated to accomplish a task based on the expectation of cake, which no character ever gets to eat. We might craft cake after cake in a manic frenzy, trying to please a demanding patron or friend, but none passes our own digital lips (not even the mess-ups, which must be thrown away in games like Cake Mania or Overcooked!). Cake in games is rarely a thing to be consumed. We cannot (not even sorry, you knew this was coming) have our cake and eat it too.
But in some beautiful instances, your player character can both craft and eat their cake. In The Legend of Zelda: Breathe 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. He can eat it and gain 1 heart of health, plus a bonus yellow heart. I remember scouring Hyrule for the necessary Tabantha wheat (only available far into the northwest quadrant), unreasonably excited at the prospect of this meal, losing far more hearts in the process than the eventual cake provided. So, let it be clearly stated, there are crafting games in which a player can craft and eat cake for some form of sustenance (Minecraft cake falls in this category too).
And yet. And yet. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that videogames are full of the promise of cake than the actuality of it. Because (and I am sorry to be the one to tell you this), you are an embodied creature and therefore you will never eat a pixel. The closest you can get is when your character eats pixels. If human edibility is fundamental to the basic reality of cake, which I’m going to declare it is, then I *think* all videogame cake is, if not precisely a lie, then most of the way towards (ahem) a Baudrillardian simulacrum.
I make no conclusions. The conclusion 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 PhD from Stanford, and her first book, Wandering Games, comes out October 2022 from MIT Press, and is available for preorder now. She likes biking, eating vegan food, and accumulating notebooks. You can find her online at her site and on Twitter.