Horror games have to walk the line between real scares and some ridiculous B-level scenarios (less jumpscares, thanks). Others, however, lean into the ridiculous while building up a more gradual horror. They manage to toe the line by making you laugh while pondering the more horrific implications. Cooking Companions does that; not even bothering to pretend to be a cutesy harem visual romance novel.
I’m watching a "let’s play" of Cooking Companions from my friend Melody Young because I sure as heck won’t play two horror games in one month. With that said, the visual novel is grabbing my attention, with the promise of no jump scares, just a hint of how human nature can break down when facing dire circumstances.
Note: After I wrote this article, Game Theory came up with an alternative analysis of the game, where they believe Cooking Companions is set in the 1930s and that Baba Yaga is involved. The theory is legit, but I am keeping my original analysis up.
Trapped In the Rain Floods
Four friends gather in a cabin located in the Tatras Mountains, which the player character owns: sweet Mariah, prickly Karin, shy Anatoly, and friendly Gregor. It seems that they are on vacation in the mountains, preparing to rough it out. The player character hosts them, cooking every night. He or she can make a mean cabbage roll with tomato sauce, as well as a vegetable stew. In the kitchen, talking vegetables called the Chompettes gather to cheer on the player character. They soon call out how badly the player character stinks.
All should be fine, except that heavy rains flood the area. The path leading to the cabin is covered in water that one cannot definitely wade through to reach the main roads. Meanwhile, the rain keeps pouring. No one can leave unless they are willing to risk drowning to make it to the nearest grocery store. No one has the tools to make a temporary raft and risk the waters.
Their food supplies dwindle. Fancy cabbage rolls one night, moldy bread with homemade jam the next. Everyone discusses what to do, and who could possibly make it outside and brave the floods to either get help or fetch supplies. Mariah nominates herself when it seems the others will send Anatoly outside.
After Mariah leaves, meat appears in the cabin, in little cuts. Vegetarian Anatoly throws up his breakfast, while Karin and Gregor ask for seconds. Karin asks where the source of meat came from, but the player character insists it’s a secret. Everyone suspects the truth, but no one wants to address the elephant in the room. Karin, however, seems to figure it out and she’s not grossed out. No, she wants to show off her prowess with a knife. And she is still hungry…
Cooking Companions will make you both laugh and wince. You may also lose your appetite after the implications become clearer. The meat is coming from anyone who leaves the cabin. Either they drown in the rainfloods, or the player character butchers them as soon as they decide to go. Either way, it’s not a good way to go.
Even worse, Karin becomes more monstrous. At first she’s just a catty bully, but soon enough she shoos Anatoly out of the cabin, knowing it will be his death, and maims Gregor to eat his limbs. The player character is disturbed by her plans to leave Gregor alive and eat him piece by piece, especially as Gregor is too nice and drugged up to call her out, only begging for a blanket as he succumbs to shock and blood loss.
In at least one ending, you lock Karin in the basement, where the others’ dead bodies are, along with others from previous meals. Karin eats them to stay alive, and has become stronger over a matter of days. You have to fight her, as the ghosts of the other admonish the player character for tricking them, and eating them. There is a secret ending where she becomes your partner in crime instead, and you spend time devouring tourists.
Of course, the big question is why. Why would such a betrayal happen?
Getting More Pieces of the Puzzle
You may think this story is about betrayal. The player character violates sacred hospitality and murders their friends. He or she casually cuts up human bodies and fries them to serve with breakfast.
Karin, however, reveals an uncomfortable truth: she and her friends are all refugees. The story ends with a flashback to the four NPCs arriving, and asking if they can stay for the night. They apparently broke into the cabin and thought it was empty.
It turns out that tensions in Ukraine were high, so all four of them decided to escape. (This game was produced before relevant current events, so with game lead time it’s unlikely this message was intentional.) Karin was in charge of supplies and got what she could at the risk of being shot.
Given that Ukraine gained independence in the 1990s, we can presume the time period is between the 1990s and the 2020s. None of the characters have smartphones or internet service; Karin, Mariah, and Anatoly read, while Gregor knits during their free time. Having a cellphone or a support system available might have helped when the rains come. Supposedly, let’s assume the game came out before the Internet was mainstream.
The friends have known each other for a long time, but they don’t know your character. At the least, Karin recounts that she saw Anatoly swimming last summer, and he could have gotten a job as a lifeguard. They’ve been oblivious to the fact that Karin is a bully, and maybe a sadist. Mariah tries to protect Anatoly from Karin, but her efforts are variable.
The player character owns the cabin, and they decided to host them. They knew all along that the guests would be desperate to trust anyone that offered a home and a warm bed. Apparently, they have been doing it for years, long enough for their skin to turn green and scratch up. Though at first, the four friends are suspicious of their host, they come to trust the individual, whom we never see.
The ending to normal mode confirms that the player character is an unreliable narrator. We see a flashback where the player character confronts the four friends, who have broken into their cabin. They ask if they can stay for a few days while looking creeped out on seeing the player character. The player character agrees as the group introduces themselves. They were never friends. It was not betrayal, but deceit.
The Player Character Lies to the Audience
On a rewatch, the player character is an unreliable narrator. He or she talks about not having enough food but revealing that they had stored meat in a “secret place”. We eventually learn that said place is the basement. The dead bodies of previous victims are there, either having been rotted away or in skin and bones.
A lack of refrigeration seems suspect. Even before refrigerators entered the mainstream, there were iceboxes, and means of curing meats. It hints that the player character either doesn’t have survival skills or perhaps they existed for a long time if they are a sort of ghoul. Ghouls are creatures that feast on human flesh, becoming more monstrous.
We have to find the truth in little snippets. The player character lies about the basement door, the food supplies, and the cabin residents’ chances of survival. They eventually lock Karin thereafter she drugs Gregor and cut off his limbs, and he dies from the shock.
There are some hints that the player character isn’t human. They have nightmares about dying in horrific ways, in older times, like a blacksmith using a poker to pierce their skull through the eye socket. A news clip from the 1800s talks about a serial killer, while a note from a pleading parent offers to pay any ransom for their child to be returned alive.
My theory? The player character is an immortal ghoul. They eat human flesh because they like it, but do not fear going hungry. Rotting items do not make them sick. It’s a game for them, allowing the desperate to come to their doorstep and beg for a place to sleep. Their only concession is that they will not cut up someone alive unless there is no other meat. Of course, that may change if you decide it’s okay to help drug and cut up Gregor. You have that option, to romance Karin.
While we don’t get a definite answer in regular mode, and I haven’t seen the Nightmare Mode or Chompettes Course yet, the world has enough established for the player to get a picture. Cooking Companions knows its audience and provides enough to let us fill in the blanks.
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