Pandemic Ponderings & Bite-Sized Focus: Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!

So, the pandemic may finally be getting to me.

One is admittedly still extremely fortunate to be spared any significant impact – I’ve been able to work from home for the most part, the family is keeping safe, finances are fine for now and we’re able to have groceries delivered and support some local F&B occasionally.

But there’s something about the juxtaposition of the “almost at the finish line” and “serious calamity situation” stances in different countries and across different peoples’ level of risk and comfort that is doing a number on my brain, the sheer irrationality? or illogic? of trying to synthesize or make sense of it all.

Where I am, our vaccinations are Pfizer/Moderna but still limited in supply. So the age group able to get vaccinated is still 40+ currently, leaving anyone under 40 unprotected for now. Better than no one vaccinated, but not ideal.

What is not so good is that we’ve been catching some spread from the absolute unmitigated disaster that is the B1617.2 variant seemingly rampaging across India.

Vaccinated people are testing COVID-positive also – their symptoms appear to be less severe, but worryingly, their unvaccinated close contacts are catching it too. Even one-year olds. The transmission speed and contagiousness of this variant seems much nastier than the original.

Mind you, masking is mandatory over here, except when eating – which may be where some of the transmission was occurring, in crowded food courts and restaurants – along with possibly home transmission and perhaps less biosafety conscious individuals getting unknowingly careless with their mask routine.

Our nearby countries like Malaysia and Taiwan aren’t doing so hot either.

Singapore finally decided to shut the barn doors a week or two ago and entered yet another creatively named semi-lockdown, aka Phase 2 (Heightened Measures). So far so good, cases are on a downward trend, but we’re not out of the woods yet while the hoi polloi appears to be getting distinctly restless.

It feels somewhat like being suspended in limbo. Our way out is presumably sufficient vaccinations, but production and supply and roll out takes time. I am fine with the holding pattern, but other people are not, and if they go crazy, things can get crazy fast. No one wants swamped healthcare (or at least, I don’t.)

Another neighbor, Australia, is also feeling the pressure of having this thing leak out into their population. Japan is… eh… see-sawing up and down while attempting to be in denial because Olympics. In our part of the world, it feels like warning signs.

Yet, when I pop on over into more Americanized news, I am seeing essentially total victory declared, “take off your masks and celebrate now, folks!”

Look, I get it, your vaccination rate has been super-high, and having already suffered a really bad wave last year, you’ve probably got a lot of people with some antibody protection wandering about, while most of your vulnerable have probably already kicked the bucket. That, and pandemic fatigue and need to get the economy going pushes up tolerance of risk higher.

And “some of you may die, but I am willing to make that sacrifice” is a great, if selfish, argument if the majority of the sufferers are going to be covidiots (as long as we don’t score yet another scarier, mutant variant out of this tactic.)

It just feels really weird that it’s happening at the same time as the river Ganges being flooded with bodies.

Something feels wrong. Off. I don’t know what exactly. Is it premature celebration and there’s hidden B.1617 spread that may wreck havoc in a few months? For America’s sake, I hope not.

Maybe it’s just the inherent imbalance and unfairness of life in different parts of the world that is throwing me off. It’s like things made more sense nearer the start of the pandemic. Most sane people were worried about numbers growing; there was more unity, in a way. Hell is bad, everyone agrees, just not on how close we were to getting there.

Now it’s neither here nor there. We’re in purgatory. Some are convinced we’re going to Heaven now, some are still very much afraid of Hell as a possibility. (Others are, sadly, already in Hell.) It’s just… waiting. Waiting for things to get worse, or things to get better. Debating. Some choosing to go one way, some heading the other. Whoever is right, time will tell.

Maybe there are no right answers, maybe there are multiple solutions.

But we are not there yet.

Whatever we’re doing, it may end up being short term measures. Ease up a bit and relax. If things get bad, adapt, react, apply the brakes once more. If things get better, celebrate even more.

It makes sense. And it doesn’t. Depending on your point of view. And there are thousands of people attempting to make those views known on the internet.

All I know is that my sense-making apparatus is stalling from the juxtaposition, the paradox, the clamor, and has basically erased long-term planning from my vocabulary.

I get by. I do the day-to-day. I try to take pleasure in the small things.

If one day feels bad or not very productive, eh, sleep on it, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow, or the day after, one or two more things get done, and that’s a win.

I’ve been trying and failing to make a complete to-do list (aka GTD collection) for the past two weeks now. Just not happening. I’m not too concerned. It’ll happen when it’ll happen.

Individual points are still getting written down on paper scraps. Some of those get whittled down over the days. Some get left for later.

Game-wise, this brain state translates into short-term focus. Bite-sized gaming.

I appear to have glommed onto Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! as the best game out of May’s Humble Bundle Choice for my present state of mind.

Metro Exodus is doubtlessly a good game. It just feels too big to attempt.

Ditto Darksiders Genesis. I want to get the whole Darksiders series played at some point, but the truth of the matter is that I stalled on game 1 some time back on Apr 1 and just haven’t gotten back to it again.

I’ve loved the Cook, Serve, Delicious! series since way back in 2012, having found it on Steam Greenlight before it blew up and got super popular.

Game 3 in the series is a solid offering, providing more of the same frenetic typing game meets cooking game food porn gameplay, with just enough sprinkling of variation to differentiate itself from its predecessors.

Instead of running a restaurant a la the previous games, this time you’re going on a food truck road trip across post-apocalyptic America in the company of two boisterous robots.

There’s a bit more of a story campaign – the main conceit being that you’re trying to travel towards some sort of Iron Chef championship competition, but it mainly serves as a way to fit in 386 levels without one’s head exploding at the thought.

It’s actually quite refreshing, as the levels are interspersed through a number of route stops. Each has a certain food theme, thus limiting the sheer amount of choice paralysis staring at the entire menu, and also forces the player to vary and learn different foods, instead of staying attached to a few tried and true easy options.

The pacing also feels a little different.

In previous games, serving orders followed a simulation of a restaurant’s day-to-day operations. The morning begins and a few orders trickle in. Lunch hour begins and there’s a peak period of hecticness. It trails off into a more relaxed afternoon tea time. Then dinner service starts and it’s all hands, battlestations, go! The second peak period then trails off into a couple of late night suppers and the level ends.

In Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!, there is a period of prep time as the truck drives to each location, and then a serving period once the truck arrives at its stop. Rinse and repeat for however many stops are in that level (usually 2-5).

Neither period is particularly relaxed by default, just different. Prep time is both for getting recipes that require holding stations cooked, as well as dealing with one batch of special orders that come in for the upcoming stop.

There is a bit of strategic calculation on the fly as you try to get sufficient foods cooked and on standby, so that you aren’t completely swamped on arrival at a locale.

Adding complications are the interruption of special orders arriving on cooking stations on the left – they are a once-off order only – as well as the limited number of holding stations meaning some kind of prioritization is needed.

On certain levels, rival food trucks swing by to destroy a few of your holding stations (even more prioritzation!) or change your route so that the number of Needed orders is no longer relevant.

On arrival, now the juggling act really begins.

Clearing the special orders means a station now open for holding station food orders. Hopefully there are enough. If they sell out, better cook up more, fast!

If a food is available in the holding station, customer patience drains really quickly, so you have to serve them the food fast.

Strangely, though fortunately for our sanity, if a food is cooking in the holding station, the customers are willing to wait until it’s ready. It’s like you pointing out to them that “look, your pie is in the oven, almost done!” and they agreeably hang around.

This willingness to wait means just a couple more precious seconds to serve up some other orders, or cook up other holding station foods in preparation for the next crazy amount of orders swarming in.

New to the game is a “serve all ready foods” button, default CTRL, representing your trusty robot sidekick cleverly delivering everything done and prepared to the customers.

You’ll need it.

Those orders are relentless.

Once a locale is finally empty of (hopefully) satisfied customers having left with their food, the truck starts up and the drive to the next locale begins. Back to prep time and getting those holding station foods sorted out. Rinse and repeat until finally done.

It all adds up to a lot of opportunity to vary difficulty, challenge level and strategies.

If you want something relaxing, perhaps you’ll try to look for easy-to-cook foods that only require a few letters to type, or fixed keypress patterns, that preferably cooks up high quantities to be served.

More challenging foods require more varied keypresses, and it may be wise to edit your own keybindings to reduce the difficulty of memorizing the correct ones.

Some foods have no cook time, so they are available instantly on successful keypressing. But if your entire menu is filled with instant food, you’re in for a hell of a typing mini-game with no pauses or breaks. Getting foods with cook time in there allows for some breathing room… except that they could also overcook or burn if not served in time.

Best of all, for my scattered frame of mind, it provides a Goldilocks amount of engagement.

Focus and concentration is required over the course of one level. Especially if you want a gold medal, which means zero mistakes. (I think one can get through the story with silver medals, and there’s a Chill mode as well, which removes all impatience from customers, but it limits you to earning only silver medals.)

Aiming for gold is satisfying to me at the moment, so that’s what I’m going after.

It basically means strategic food choices, a couple of restarts on levels if a mistake is made, and the need to practice deliberate focus on the task at hand… but just for a few minutes.

No distractions, no worries, no doom-scrolling or random Youtube channel surfing, just PSMCR PSCR PSC for meat lasagna, LCMP LCMP for tiramisu, MEDOVIKS for medovik and so on.

Level complete. Gold medal satisfaction. Relaxation after tension.

Repeat for a few more levels and then quit when it gets tiring. Until the next time.

Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! – Excellent for short, bite-sized feelings of accomplishment and focused typing meditation. Also possibly a contender for the most punctuation in a game title award.

PC: Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Who’s up for round 2 of cheesy casual games celebration?

I have a weakness for cooking games. Call it a fascination with food porn (I love watching the Food Network and browsing random food blogs like Food52, Serious Eats or Chowhound) married with the love of a good meal and the conviction that one should know how to cook good food or be hopelessly stranded at the whims of someone else’s kitchen controlling fancy. I’m always deeply amused by how accurately (or not) various games simulate the cooking process.

(Don’t get me started on GW2’s cooking craft profession. It’s evident someone who knows how to cook had a hand in designing which things went in each recipe, and the food/ingredient nesting has blown my mind and my alt’s inventory. I’ve yet to cross 75 in cooking still. I don’t dare to, until my other alts have eaten away some of the products.)

Toss in a good mix of frenetic arcade fun and multitasking juggling, and cooking games are perfect for bite-sized portions of gaming. (Pun very much intended.)

Cheesy as they are, I’ve played games like Cooking Mama on the Nintendo DS, amused by the use of the stylus and blowing feature to simulate various kitchen activities, as well as Burger Island, a more repetitive arcade game of arranging ingredients as quickly as possible. I’ve played stuff like Restaurant Empire and Diner Dash, which are more games to do with restaurant seating and arrangement of customers than cooking. And countless cooking-based Flash games whose names are now lost to bad memory but have themes like sushi, pizza and so on.

Typically, most cooking games let you click on various ingredients to arrange them according to a recipe or a picture, potentially processing them through some simulated cooking technique involving keypresses or mouse clicks, before serving to a customer. Repeat as fast as possible to make money. Spanners are thrown in the works when different foods require different prep times, various customers have different patience levels and so on.

Well, Cook, Serve, Delicious! from Vertigo Gaming is a cooking game on steroids.

It’s based on two free games from the same developers, Ore no Ryomi 1 & 2, but appears to have a lot better visuals and polish. (Call me picky, but I don’t enjoy my games with stomach-churning ugly images out of the EGA era. Give me stuff that looks decently pretty, or give me plain text and ASCII, not pixelated non-art.)

I especially appreciate the control scheme, which primarily makes use of the keyboard. (There is a mouse control option but honestly, and MMO players should know this, keyboard shortcuts > mouse clicking in general.)

This enables Cook, Serve, Delicious to venture into a deeper complexity than most cooking games dare to go, and have it start emulating typing games, or even, the complex keypress patterns / muscle memory of Starcraft build orders. The developers call this ‘hardcore.’

Me, I’m not sure I’ll go that far, but I’d compare it quite favorably to something on the same level as Plants vs Zombies.

Both  games look cute and casual and have relatively pleasing cartoony art. They’re easy enough to get into and play. But there’s also enough here to keep adults occupied for a decent amount of gameplay time.

For example, here’s one of the simplest foods, a corn dog. The keypress pattern is 1-5 for the customer, then K and/or M for ketchup or mustard, depending on the order below (speed reading is important here). Then Enter to serve.

Not too difficult. Customers stop being interested in it by the time you hit 2 star restaurant level, so you’ll have to graduate from it eventually to something more complicated…

How about the salad? In this case, V, C, O, B and M, before Enter. Customers order an extremely varied amount of toppings for this dish – just greens and carrots, ranch and cheese, thousand island and the works, etc. One is kept on one’s toes.

I’m tickled by lasagna, which simulates building the layers very well. The simplest lasagna involves typing P S C R three times, hearing each layer thud down with a meaty slap with each keypress, before hitting Enter to cook (a wait time) before serving. More tricky lasagna like the above involves incorporating meat into two layers, so it is P S M C R, P S M C R, and finally P S C R for the last layer.

Different foods are prepared in different ways. Steak and chicken involve keeping in mind the number of keypresses you just made as it doesn’t show you how many times you’ve added the seasoning.  Soup is an extreme pain, with two pages of ingredients – with keys not exactly tying too well to the ingredient name – and chopping involved.

There’s a decent selection of food (to be prepared and cooked in various ways) that can be bought and upgraded, and a little strategy section involving ‘restaurant management’ before each arcade game day. One can pick various foods to be used in the active menu for the day. This affects the amount of “Buzz” your restaurant has, and the number of customers visiting per day.

Quite a complex selection of factors affect buzz, from the weather, the time of day and the foods you’ve picked that suit the various times. Liquor creates negative buzz (as you’re ostensibly in an office tower. It’s amusing to see how many pop in for a 10am pint of beer) but is profitable and quick to prepare.

Food can be healthy and create a positive health-food buzz, or conversely be full of fat and create negative fatty food buzz. Ironically, the deep fry foods are among the quickest and easiest items to prepare.

On some days, you may want quick and easy items to prepare, in order to deal with sanitation inspectors who pop in for spot checks and make sure you deal with chores like washing dishes, taking out the trash and yes, flushing/cleaning toilets (for customers evidently too lazy to do it themselves.) Or to make it easy on yourself when you want to win bets from some guy who offers you challenges via email.

If there’s one criticism I have about this game, it’s that progression seems a little slow. Moving up to a one star restaurant involves completing 20 days, among other challenges. I was done with all of the rest by day 13 or 14, and had to plod patiently through seven more days.

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this game though. Around half of the more complicated food has yet to be unlocked, three quarters are still not upgraded. There seem to be a few more extra events later on, such as catering events and possibly some manner of iron chef tournament.

It’s currently selling for $8.95 on the developers’ website, and is also available on Desura and Gamersgate. It’s sitting in Steam Greenlight at the moment, and is one of the few games I’ve bothered to log in and upvote.

If you ask me, it’s a mite overpriced for 9 bucks – thanks to Steam spoiling me, I’m a firm believer in casual games being priced at $2-$5 – but I was able to convince myself to pick it up as part of Vertigo Gaming’s $15 bundle for six games – including CSD and Oil Blue.

I’m quite happy to pay roughly $3.50 for those two games, and $2 for the other games in that bundle to try them out. At that price, it’s a steal.

Try it yourself, there’s a downloadable demo which sold me on its merits.