Hot off the heels of I Expect You to Die 2‘s release and Among Us VR‘s announcement, Schell Games has an appetite for development. Lost Recipes adds to the studio’s pipeline for interactive experiences. But taps deeper into Schell Games’ own history for fun-ducational games. It’s a format seen by guests at parks including SeaWorld (Mission: Deep Discovery, Race for the Beach) and the official app for Pittsburgh’s Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Schell’s own formula for mixing wits and gameplay would be taken across the VR realm as the technology took off commercially in 2016 (Water Bears VR, HoloLAB Champions).
Lost Recipes serves as Schell Games’ own answer for a VR cooking experience. Throwing away the advanced kitchens of 2021 for a simpler culinary art. Here, Lost Recipes relies on VR handiwork and gastronomy to make ingredients “click.” Not before using a variety of historical artifacts as kitchen tools to help prepare food. The studio looked back at numerous dishes which shaped modern classics. From hot chocolate to bread and candied fruits, many were inspired by their own respective cultures. Putting Schell Games on a research-heavy development cycle involving consultants, uncovering the earliest recipes and even attempting some in real life. Much of the results would be translated into a 1:1 space, featuring replicas of tools and kitchens. Levels would also give players in VR the opportunity to follow their curiosity to mix and match ingredients.
CGMagazine sat remotely with Schell Games’ Senior Design Manager and Lost Recipes Project Director Melanie Harke for an early sneak peek of its release.
CGMagazine: How does the studio go from creating a spy puzzler, all the way to a cooking game?
Melanie Harke: I would say that’s pretty much tradition at Schell Games, to jump around into different genres and different types of games. I’ve been at Schell since 2005. And in that time, I’ve worked on Connected Toys, theme park rides and mobile games. I made a potty training game once. We kind of go all over the place. We were looking at what kind of new spaces could there be in VR? We’ve done a lot of the spy escape room thanks to I Expect You to Die. We had Until You Fall, which is a very action oriented game. And we really wanted to sort of try out something that’s a little more relaxing. Something that maybe even people who don’t consider themselves gamers might want to play. So that’s really where we sort of came to a cooking experience. Something that a large number of people like doing. Something that could be very fun in VR. So that’s really where we got to that.
CGMagazine: You mentioned as well, touching on a number of projects here, including a few educational games as well. Knowing Schell and how they did those educational games, and some theme parks as well, in what ways did those experiences lend a hand in working on Lost Recipes, the latest project?
Melanie Harke: We’ve had a lot of educational experiences. Not just theme parks, but also VR experiences. We’ve done HoloLAB Champions, Water Bears VR and HistoryMaker VR. And I think that really helped us know what sort of accessibility features we wanted in this game. For the players, what stuff works well in VR, as far as the transferring of knowledge. And what stuff maybe didn’t work so well in VR. Not everything pans out. One of the things that we wanted was a wider audience for these sort of games.
A lot of our VR experiences have been more classroom experiences. We really wanted this to be things for players that are lifelong learners, outside of a classroom. (asking) Why do you like watching The Great British Baking Show? Or why do you like watching a documentary about something? Or learning about a different environment or going on vacation somewhere? We really wanted to bring that to the plate here with this game.
CGMagazine: So, looking past the trailer, a lot of players are diving in there and making different recipes. Now, could you tell me more about the dynamic between the living chef and ghosts?
Melanie Harke: You’re you. But the chefs are ghosts. And that’s really because we are going to these locations that are in 500 BC. At that point, those people aren’t alive. We really wanted it to be authentic. We wanted it to be someone who would have been there at that time. So they can talk about the things that are important to that person, at that time. And how these recipes connect to their life during that era. So the people you’re learning the recipes from are ghosts, but you are you. You’re a chef for ghosts.
CGMagazine: By having this element, is there a particular storyline that comes with Lost Recipes? Or would it be going from one recipe to another in a straightforward fashion?
Melanie Harke: There’s a “loose storyline” of the sense these are recipes that are somewhat lost through time. And so these people, these ghosts, want to share these recipes with you and with the world. So that they can be carried into present time. So that’s really the interconnected story. By learning about these recipes, going there and actually making the recipes. Going to Ancient Greece and making a recipe. Or going to Song Dynasty, China and making a recipe and making it well. You have to appease this ghost and make sure they taste your food and make sure that you’ve followed the recipe. At that point, you’ve learned the recipe, and therefore, it’s been passed on to present day. Because it’s been passed on to you.
CGMagazine: And in terms of those recipes themselves, just what made the studio decide to focus on a handful of civilizations, like you mentioned, in Greece, China, and even the Mayan backgrounds?
Melanie Harke: We would love to do everywhere (laughs). First off. But making a really authentic experience at a location does take a decent amount of time, because these are 3D immersive environments with interactive tools in the kitchen. So we had a list of places that we felt we would have enough research on. So we started out with these big books, Cooking Through History, where we dug in and try to look for places that we could actually get data on. And interesting things that changed culinary history. Or places that people are excited about, trying out maybe a tool that they’ve seen on the internet, or YouTube.
We did a survey, both internal and also with our play tests/user testing, and came away with a couple of environments. Certainly more than what we have here. These were the top ones people are interested in seeing different cultural recipes, and being in a kitchen from a certain time. And then really, we narrowed it down based off of whom we could find expertise for. Because that was really important to us. And then just which ones seemed exciting or hasn’t really been done before. Maya in particular, we were very excited about, even though we initially couldn’t find an expert for it. And we had to really hunt for that. Just because it was a location that all of us asked, “What even is Mayan food? What tools would they have used? And that just really excited us to dig in and find that information and be able to present it to people.
CGMagazine: So while players are working with a lot of these different diverse ghosts, what was it like for the team to have worked with the individuals that inspired each one?
Melanie Harke: Those are people that were from these locations, or who were doing research in these locations. Obviously, no one’s from Ancient Greece. So we had to find people studying Ancient Greece and talk with them.
And honestly, it was a lot of us nerding out, I will say from talking with them. It was very exciting to learn about things we didn’t know. And just the differences between what you’d expect. When you think about Ancient Greece for example, it’s so long ago that surely it must have been super different from us. They must have not had a lot of these tools. And then you look at it. Actually, they’re fairly advanced during that time. The kitchen isn’t that different. The way people ate isn’t that different from now. But some of the things that we think are iconic to that location. When I think of Greek food, maybe it’s just from going to all the Greek festivals around here, but I think of like gyros and foods with lemon on them and stuff like that. It didn’t exist at that time in Ancient Greece. So it’s really fascinating learning about that.
Also, learning terminology for things was also very interesting. Especially because I think, in Maya, in particular, so much of the language is now Spanish. Or been taken from Spanish. But the Maya people, before the Columbian Exchange, before the Spanish came in, they had their own language. And they still have their own language. That was very important for us to bring into the game as well. The ghosts know about modern times, because they’re talking with you. So they’re able to bridge the gap between “this is how life was back then,” and “this is what has changed now.” Which is cool to see.
CGMagazine: Across that research, when the team picks up all these different facts, what are some of the ways you’re translating these facts into gameplay for Lost Recipes?
Melanie Harke: A lot of it is in the environment and in the tools that you use. The ingredients that you use. What sort of pottery existed in that time. So a lot of it really is just being there in that space and having all the things around you be authentic. But then, of course, the ghost is with you. They do give you information and talk through why an ingredient might be used, or even what’s outside the window of your kitchen here. And what sort of events might be going on. There’s also a lot of conversation that happens in the game as well.
CGMagazine: How far back in history did you go when you picked the game’s particular recipes? What was your starting point in (our) timeline?
Melanie Harke: So the earliest we have in the game is Ancient Greece, but we did a lot of research super early. If you’re in a cave, what would you be cooking? In the very earliest sort of cave cooking. For us, because we wanted to have a lot of complex interaction with ingredients and tools. Our earliest is Ancient Greece, it is around 400-500 BC. We didn’t try to pick a very specific date. Just so we could have a little bit of wiggle room for what sort of tools and stuff would exist. But it was actually pretty hard to find authentic recipes for Ancient Greece. Because even though they had writing by then, a lot of the writing was more about documenting figures and trades. The recipes didn’t exist. There’s in fact only one recipe from Ancient Greece, and it’s not in our game. It is a fish with cheese, which did not sound super appetizing (laughs). And in fact, there’s apparently controversy around it. Because Archestratus, a famous gastronomic person, complained about how the Greeks added cheese to their fish. So you can see that (laughs) we just had a lot of fun digging into these recipes.
CGMagazine: Touching on histories, different dishes comes with VR players getting to see that. But what were some of the hardest parts of having to translate these recipes into the game or even researching and picking them out?
Melanie Harke: Definitely one of the hardest parts for us has been making it feel real in the game.
A lot of cooking is physics. And as we know, physics in VR tends to be, sometimes, crazy. Things can freak out. And so a lot of it was trying to make that process feel really real to life with the different ingredients, like pouring liquids and cutting things. As far as difficulty of being true to the sort of history, I think it really was just finding people who knew anything about that. I think there’s a lot of good history in museums. We know how ovens looked, but what were the tools that you used with an oven? Those sorts of things are just not as documented. And I think maybe people who are in the know, sort of just assume, of course, they use this thing.
But for us layman people who haven’t been on a dig site, those sorts of things became a big mystery for us. How did they pull things out of the oven? Or what were the types of material used in a dish, to serve food in at this point? And so that became a lot of research and deep diving and asking questions with a lot of different people. In order to find answers to that.
CGMagazine: And in the research process, were there any challenges the team faced when you wanted to get that attention to detail? Like with the food in particular?
Melanie Harke: (laughs) There was definitely a little bit of difficulty. As far as wanting to make sure that it was accurate. But like I said, we do have our subject matter consultants, and they were really able to give us a lot of information about (they) wouldn’t have used this tool, or they wouldn’t have had this food. We had to change some things, like early on, we have a hot chocolate drink. “Xocolatl” in the Maya location. If you google and search for ancient hot chocolate recipes, they are more Aztec. We had some stuff in it originally that was very Aztec oriented. And of course, our subject matter consultant Owen really drove us back to “Oh, no, that’s not how we would have made it. That’s not how Maya people would make it.” So, really, it was just double-checking everything with people who knew more about these cultures than us.
CGMagazine: Now, of course as the game is on the way for players, and they’re diving into these different levels, how does each location or kitchen change?
Melanie Harke: So there are multiple recipes in each location. And really, what changes is the stuff you need for those different recipes. So you might be using an oven for some recipe in Ancient Greece, and then you’re using a grill top for different recipes. You get different tools and different ingredients for those recipes. That’s really how each location changes over time. As you go through different locations – because we’re also going to more modern kitchens each time – you start in sort of Ancient Greece and end up in pre-Columbian Yucatán Peninsula. The kitchens get more complex. The recipes get more complex. Because real recipes—in real life—got more complex. We had more tools and cooking became more of an art form, less of a survival form. That’s how also the game grows in complexity as you go through it.
CGMagazine: As levels get more complex, how did the development for each level go for you guys? Did that get more complex as well?
Melanie Harke: We did try to build off of a lot of features. Because cooking does overlap. You use fire in all sorts of cooking. So we did try to build off them. But yes, we did have to—for every different environment—come up with a custom system. Now, our cooking system is very, “systemic” in the sense of how things are heated and how liquids combine. That’s like a tech that works across the board. So you can do crazy things if you want to. You don’t have to follow the recipe. If you want to make pita bread that has a bunch of wine in it, go ahead! That works. The game knows that your bread will be red. And it will know that you dumped a bunch of wine in it. But we did have to make custom systems. Because there was no steaming basket, except in our China environment. So we had to work about: “Okay, well, how does steaming work in cooking?”
How does that change the properties of the food? And then of course, always because you’re a developer, you’re thinking what other environments can use that same tech? For example, steaming. Then, when we worked on the Maya environment, we thought about when you wrap something in banana leaves. It’s like steaming something. So we did try to get some overlap there. Also, so players can see the sort of growth in how these techniques, especially as the world started to really exchange this information, how these techniques grew and changed over time.
CGMagazine: A lot of players who experienced I Expect You to Die 2 were going from something relaxed, to super tense really quickly. But now jumping into a new game—a whole new project—like Lost Recipes, how do you want VR players to feel when they’re going through this?
Melanie Harke: Lost Recipes is meant to be a very relaxing game. There is not much time pressure. You can burn things, for example, but we do try to make everything pretty easy for you if you are paying attention. To pull things out and to get things right. The goal of the game really is to feel like you’ve been in those environments and that you were successful in those environments. So it is very different from I Expect You to Die and Until You Fall. Which are both games that we expect you to fail. Obviously, it’s in the name (laughs). That is not the case with Lost Recipes. The goal really is for you to feel successful in these environments, and that this is something you could then potentially, in real life, go and make these recipes in your own kitchen.
CGMagazine: At the beginning, you’ve also touched on the ideas of accessibility. What are some of the mechanics that you’re adding in Lost Recipes to make sure that everybody wins?
Melanie Harke: First off, we’ve made it very easy to move around the kitchen in general. We wanted to make sure that people, no matter what height you are, no matter how much space you have. I played the game all the time in this area here, and I have very little space. So I think that’s one of the ways we tried to make it super accessible and easy to play the game. But really, it’s about as far as making it. You feel successful in cooking.
A lot of the really good, juicy feedback on what’s happening in your kitchen, as you’re cooking the food, it changes colour easily for you to see. Plus, there are some effects that happen to really highlight that it’s cooked now. We give you verbal instruction. There’s also written instruction for how to do the recipes. Stuff is laid out, a little bit like a cooking show where the ingredients you need are at the location where you need them. So we’ve really tried to make it streamlined for people to get in. If they want to make these recipes—as the recipes call for—they can.
And then, of course, you can still experiment too. We don’t keep you reined in. If you want to do craziness, go ahead. I think a lot of cooking VR experiences tend to feel like stuff is a little goofy. Stuff can go flying everywhere. You can pile on a ton of ingredients or whatever. I feel like we’ve tried very hard to make the game not feel that way. To not feel silly. Because we do want you to take these environments seriously. And we have tried really hard to make really authentic recipes and ingredients and tools.
CGMagazine: And now for our readers to know as well. Since the team dropped the reveal trailer, how far along has the game been in development?
Melanie Harke: So the game is pretty close to done at this point.
We are basically going through QA at this point. Really just making sure that everything is working great and as intended. I don’t actually know. Yeah. I don’t think the release date has been announced. I didn’t want to say it (laughs).
CGMagazine: I’m curious as well. I mean, like when you were learning about the dishes, did any of the team members try to actually make these dishes themselves?
Melanie Harke: We definitely, we definitely did (laughs). Lots of times. So we’ve had lots of team lunches where we collectively have all tried to make them. I think the latest one was Tanghulu, which are sugar coated fruits from China. I will say it is much easier in VR (laughs), than it is in real life to get that right. Because, we definitely had times where we’re sitting around; there’s a lot more waiting I think in real life. We do speed things up in the game.
Tanghulu is like a hard crack sugar shell. And that’s hard to achieve in real life. And it’s hard to keep it hard cracked. But I will say it was very satisfying for all of us when we did finally get some fruits coated in sugar, that had that hard, crunch when you bit into them. We were like, “Yes, this is it, we made the same thing!” It’s so exciting. And that’s really been fun along the way. It’s just making all the different recipes. And you know, having failures and having some successes.
CGMagazine: Oh, yeah. In times like this, I wasn’t expecting one either. Before I let you go, Melanie, we covered a lot here. And as the game is on the way for players, what do you want them to appreciate the most when they’re putting on the VR headsets, and they’re finally jumping into Lost Recipes?
Melanie Harke: I think it’s just that how exciting it is to cook in these different places. To really feel like you’re really there. I had never cooked with a Píib (earth oven) before under an earthen oven. And it just was very exciting. And I want players to have that excitement of being able to use these tools and feel like you’re really in these different environments. And I hope that they gain a greater appreciation for the world around them. And for the cultures that have created these foods.