One of the most interesting and thought-provoking games so far this year is, for me, also one of the most troubling. Over at the Day of the Devs booth during GDC 2019, I got a chance to play Consume Me, a “collection of prototypes” drawing from the developer’s experiences with dieting and disordered eating. The game’s premise immediately struck me as interesting but also rife with potential risk. Weight management and body image are common subjects, but given how they’re often weaponized in pop culture, they require a delicate hand and sympathetic framing to be handled responsibly. The GDC demo provided the perfect opportunity to see how these themes are executed in context, leading to the question: can games provide understanding in the absence of direct and personal experience? And if so, is it a fair exchange for the potential negative effect on the audience’s cognitive functions?
Aesthetically, Consume Me is very playful and inviting. Its style reminds me of a cross between Home Movies and Sesame Street: squiggly lines, bold colors, and simple Muppet-like character designs. The music, evoking the light-hearted ‘80s mall tunes of a vintage slice of life anime, unites with participatory story sequences and the game’s themes of body image and adolescence to remind me of the many middle school hours I spent watching Ranma ½ obsessing over friendship, romance and the pressure to physically conform. It’s also reminiscent of Florence, in that both games deal with sensitive personal subjects and are designed around an interactive sensibility that is immensely effective in terms of engagement.
Using a number of different mini-game type systems to capture the mundanity of a young woman’s life, Consume Me centers primarily around the player character’s daily schedule and how it pertains to her diet and calorie consumption. Yoga sequences, for example, are guided by a simple touchscreen swipe that sends the character flailing across the screen, her awkwardness mimicking the absurdity of the activity. Food consumption is expressed by a Tetris-like bento box puzzle that, in its goal of matching food shapes to game pieces, illustrates the challenge of packing a satisfying, nutritious lunch without overconsuming. Each part of her routine is represented by light character building stats, allotting for energy and maturity and other traits needed to perform certain tasks when given the option of how to spend your time. As the game progresses, her goal is to lose weight and feel fantastic and, hopefully, win the heart of her crush.
It’s clear that in building this game, developer Jenny Jiao Hsia is drawing on a deeply personal experience (it says as much in the game’s Itch.io description), but the added perspective also shines strongly through the game’s little details. I feel as though only someone who has struggled with calorie counting and managing their weight could possibly have this kind of insight into the process. There was definitely an air of desperation and futility in managing the mini-games that reminded me of what it feels like to agonize over every food-related decision. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but it was relatable, and I think ultimately achieves the stated design goals.
But as someone who also has deep issues with body image and weight management, I also found the sections of the game dealing with calorie consumption and dieting to be realistic to the point of triggering. I’ve written many times before about the cognitive relationship that develops between our brains and our active participation in games, and I think this is one occasion that makes a strong case for the argument that game design (a reverse engineering of that process) bears a huge responsibility. It’s one thing to ask an audience to sympathize, it’s another to induce a psychological response that can be harmful to their well-being, especially one that may make a player feel encouraged not to eat. “Consume Me,” as the game’s design goals are stated, “is about the cut-throat competitiveness of dieting where the opposing team is yourself.” Unfortunately, this means that sometimes to win the player will be asked to do things that are inherently at their own expense.
For example, in the bento box lunch mini-game, the object is to achieve adequate nutrition without eating too many calories. But the ingredients that show up are a matter of chance, meaning your character’s choices about food are sometimes out of her hands. The challenge is a successful illustration of how difficult it is to diet, and the snack attacks that sometimes follow a day of meager consumption (which feature a spinning wheel that, depending on your initial spin, can land on either healthy or unhealthy foods) are an apt metaphor too. But on the flip side, your character not only tallies her calorie intake on a day to day basis, but she also sometimes has the option of skipping lunch, the latter of which rings my alarm bells. The irony of playing Consume Me while at GDC, an event that for me always sets off a three week lead-in period of physical overexertion and avoiding solids, was not lost on me. The moment I found myself strategizing her weight loss by letting her skip a meal, I felt that familiar pang of self-punishment, panic and inadequacy from all the times I’d done that in real life.
It made me ponder how ethical it is to make an artistic point at the possible expense of the audience. There’s a difference between being thought-provoking and triggering.
As someone who doesn’t have a healthy relationship with food, I find Consume Me sympathetic, but I wonder if it will have the effect of encouraging empathy in those who don’t understand. On one hand, I think that videogames are better at reinforcing socially positive behaviors than they are at teaching them. But on the other, as I played the demo, the young woman accompanying me—who professed to have never dealt with an eating disorder herself—similarly felt alarmed at seeing the lead character of the game skip a meal. It was interesting to see that we had the same concerns despite the lack of shared experience, leading to me wonder if the difference in the game’s impact will lie in a player’s personal perspective, or if it will have an effect no matter what their relationship with food and dieting is like. I think few women, and many men, don’t know what it’s like to not worry about their weight, which will make the game, ultimately, relatable to a lot of people. I also think that while mechanics tend to leave more impact than direct narrative, it’s important that a developer gets to profess their experiences even if there may be a negative impact on the audience. But how much impact is permissible is up for debate.
For as much as I “failed” to make the player character lose weight before her big shopping trip, she still seemed pretty stoked on how she looked in a swimsuit when she tried it on. And with only the first two chapters available in the demo, there’s a lot of room for the narrative to balance the mechanics out before Consume Me reaches its conclusion. But still, it’s worth pointing out that games can do lasting harm in the time it takes to make their point. It’ll be a long time before I can play the full game in context, but there isn’t a cathartic message or mini-game that could magically reverse the negative reinforcement anyway. I don’t expect a game to have the magic words that finally do what I or my therapist have been so far unable to achieve. In that sense, Consume Me probably can’t undo its own damage.
I look forward to the release of Consume Me. I think it handles the topic of food obsession in a relatable and approachable way. I just wish the game wasn’t lingering with me for all the wrong reasons.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.