When Lost Recipes launched a few weeks ago, one of the questions that seemed at the forefront of everyone’s mind – my own, my colleagues and even the team at Schell Games – was whether this was actually a game, or something slightly different?
“I would consider it an experience more than a game, even though it definitely has some game elements,” said Lost Recipes Project Director and Schell Games Senior Game Design Manager Melanie Harke. “Of course you’re being scored and there’s lots of different mechanics in it. But in the end, the real goal was for it to be kind of like a vacation.”
Melanie and I had a lengthy conversation in VR last week in UploadVR’s virtual studio. We discussed Lost Recipes’ origins, development and the reasoning behind some of the decisions made by the team at Schell Games during development.
What makes Lost Recipes so unique is that it blends VR gameplay into a much more relaxing, educational experience than we’ve ever seen before in VR. You travel back in time to three ancient cultures and learn recipes in a relaxed, stress-free and educational manner. You can even take what you learn with you back into your actual kitchen — the VR cooking process informs the same process in real life.
This was all part of a plan from Schell Games to appeal to a different kind of crowd – those who don’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘gamers’, especially when using a Quest headset. “I personally think everyone’s a gamer, but you know, they might not title themselves that – instead it’s people who want to use the Quest as maybe like a lifestyle tool,” said Harke.
“We got a bunch of people when they were play testing [Lost Recipes] that said, ‘You know, I haven’t played any games. All I play is Beat Saber, that’s it.’ And they don’t consider that a game either. They’re like, ‘That’s my exercise routine.'”
This idea of the Quest as a lifestyle tool is becoming increasingly popular – just look at the many options for fitness and workout apps on the platform, which Meta itself is using as a marketing angle.
“We wanted to get those people [lifestyle users] in and have them play this. We had a lot of people after the play tests that were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they made games that are like this… For me.'”
Even if it doesn’t quite fit into the traditional ‘game’ label as we understand it now, there’s a lot to love about Lost Recipes’ approach. It’s one of the few games on the platform that doesn’t just copy mechanics or gameplay beats from traditional, flatscreen games. This is an experience that only works in VR, and delivers educational content not through lecturing or instruction, but more like a field trip or hands-on activity with game mechanics applied.
It is so brilliantly unique and specific to VR that it is arguably more, not less, of a proper VR ‘game’ than many other titles on the platform.
But before finding its way to Lost Recipes, Schell Games developed lots of varied experiences that would later inform this new venture. There was a mixture of both more straightforward education content, developed for flatscreen platforms, and more ‘traditional’ VR games that the studio has become recently known for — namely the I Expect You To Die series and roguelike action game Until You Fall.
Harke herself joined Schell right back at the company’s beginning, well before VR was part of the picture, working initially in QA and then in design for titles like Disney Pixie Hollow, the Disney fairies MMO, and then later other VR educational experiences as well as mobile educational games based around PBS’ Daniel Tiger show, a spin-off from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
After running the gamut on many types of games on many platforms, Schell Games worked with Oculus Education on ideas for a new experience exploring what made education in VR so powerful.
“It’s really about presence,” said Harke. “Being there in the location.” The studio took what it learned from its other educational experiences – Water Bears VR and HoloLAB Champions – but aimed to make something less formally educational in nature. “We knew we didn’t want to be like a classroom experience. We wanted to be something that just a normal, everyday person who’s curious about things – cause we all like to learn – might want to experience. And so that’s really where I think cooking came from.”
With development beginning during the pandemic, the idea of escaping to another location – a virtual vacation – also became quite appealing.
“I just don’t want to cook just in my normal house, because I’m in my house 24/7. I want to cook and experience these places that maybe – right now, especially – I can’t get to. That really helped push us into exploring what if you were cooking in locations that are not like your house? How did people cook in ancient times? How did they cook in like prehistoric times, even? That was one of the conversations. And that really got us excited.”
But how did the team decide what cultures would be featured, and how they could be represented in a way that was properly authentic and respectful, even if they were from time periods that have long since passed?
“It really came down to what could we get good data for. That was very important to us, because we did want this to be a very authentic, real experience,” explained Harke. “We wanted to make sure it was a place that we could find a human that was willing to work with us for the long-term. We wanted to have people at the very early [stages], to research, but also looking at the art later on and everything.”
The final game features voice actors playing the chefs, one for each culture, voiced by people representing the closest modern analog for each ancient culture. But it wasn’t just the voice acting that had to be authentic. The team wanted everything — the food, recipes, environments, art — in the game to be as authentic as possible.
They achieved this through connections with subject matter consultants at the Kenner room at Carnegie Mellon university, collaborating and talking to them during the development process. “We had oftentimes weekly meetings with them, because we had so much to talk about. It’s not just the food, it’s… what’s the language that you would use? How would the scene be arranged? What’s the decoration on the walls? What sort of material would they have?”
“They didn’t always have the answer – sometimes they would point us to resources, books to look at – but it was just good to have someone who was connected to the culture, working with us the entire way.”
For Harke, the authenticity that the subject matter consultants and voice actors lend the game is what makes it so potent as an experience. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a game,” she said. “And really, I just hope everyone gains some new appreciation of both how different and also how similar all of our cultures are. How familiar cooking is and how it connects us all together as people.”
Harke’s hope certainly isn’t unfounded either — cooking the recipes in the game does give you a new perspective, with transferable skills and methods. While playing the game for review, I was able to recreate the game’s steamed fish dish in real life, using methods and recipes learned from the game.
“We definitely wanted people to try these recipes in their own homes. We didn’t want people to get bogged down in like super details, and in fact, a lot of ancient recipes, they’re not going to have those super details anyway,” said Harke.
This was an approach discovered during play testing. Early versions of the game had more details for each recipe, providing more specific instructions than what ended up in the final build. “People got really bogged down in the detail of making sure that the color of the liquid that they’ve made exactly matched the picture that’s on there, and that they’ve measured it exactly… It started to feel really stressful to people. That’s not what we’re going for at all. We want you to feel accomplished, that you can do these things in cooking.”
This was when the team transitioned to using ratios and other looser measurements, focusing less on outcomes and more on process. It was at this point that adding in some tricks from traditional games also helped improved the feedback loop – the little sparkles that shine once an action is finished, for example, help players know when something has been done correctly and avoids unnecessary worry.
Early versions of the game experimented with implementing support for the Quest’s controller-free hand tracking, but it ended up being a less than ideal option. “Really it just became much harder to do things [when using hand tracking],” explained Harke. “People started to look at the technique of how they’re holding the hand and I think it took some of the enjoyment away.”
Hand tracking also made some of the actions, like stirring a pot, problematic — when using hands without any controllers, it often became harder to manage what Harke described as the ‘fakery’ behind some of the physics interactions.
So while the finished product opts for controllers-only, the overall community and critical reception of the game has been positive.
“We’ve got lots of feedback of people sort of saying that this is not like other cooking experiences.” Other VR cooking titles – like Cook-Out or Cooking Simulator – focus on being frenetic and chaotic, but Schell opted for the opposite direction. “I certainly love those games, but we did purposely try to make something different and unique. People have really picked up on [that]. This is a game where I can sort of relax. I can chill in it. And that’s, that’s definitely the vibe we were going for.”
Speaking hypothetically, Harke says the team still has plenty of avenues to investigate. “We have like full lists of other environments that we are excited about exploring, even with some reference people that we might reach out to. I think that that is certainly something that, as a team while making it, we’re definitely thinking about and very excited about. No promises or anything, but…”
When it comes to potential updates, new content or DLC expansions for Lost Recipes, Harke’s lips are sealed. “Stay tuned. I can’t really speak to that yet. But we really liked the product. We really enjoyed working on it, and we’d certainly love to do more.”
This feature piece is an edited version of our full conversation with Melanie Harke from Schell Games, available in video format on our YouTube channel here.