Haggar the Vegetarian

final fight

Difficulty is one of the trickiest things to get right in a video game, and a game’s built-in difficulty options are not always sufficient. Choosing between “normal” and “hard” rarely captures the many and nuanced ways games can challenge us. It often falls to gamers themselves to adjust the game experience to an appropriate levels.This is why I’d like to recommend, to those looking for a challenge, playing Final Fight as a vegetarian.

Like many beat-em-ups, Final Fight includes health-boosting items in the form of food. These items are largely abstract – you’ll find food in wooden crates and rusty metal drums, and it’s hard to imagine that Haggar the shirtless mayor is stopping to nosh – but some are definitively meat. They’ve got the familiar shape of a hamburger or the greasy sheen of a hunk of barbecue. These items represent the unmistakable life-giving power of dead animals.

You can also find apples and bananas and bunches of grapes, but that girly rabbit food gives you only a quarter of your health. A hamburger is better and gives you 50 percent. There’s pizza too – pepperoni only – and curry that may or may not have chicken (better safe than sorry). Barbecue is the meatiest of all, restoring you to a full 100 percent of your life. Choosing to be vegetarian means giving up the game’s greatest sources of health. Make no mistake: This is hard mode.

Avoiding meat introduces another complication. In true video game fashion, you consume meat just by touching it. What is normally a welcome, or at least benign, presence becomes an awkward obstacle. Excuse me, I can’t walk on that part of the level. I’m a vegetarian. Meat becomes another enemy to bypass, not merely an option to decline.

Let’s not forget Final Fight is a multiplayer game. When you’re staring down a boss, is your friend going to respect your choice? Or is Cody going to tell Haggar to stop making things difficult and please just eat the pizza? The choice is largely symbolic. There is no rule against eating meat. The game will not end. An animal will not come back to life because you left a burger preserved in its crate. (It’s a video game – the animal never even existed.) You could pick up that hamburger and suffer no negative consequences and boy would it be convenient. Haggar does not, as far as we know, need to worry about factory farming, global warming, bycatch, antibiotic misuse, or any facts of real-world agriculture.

food items

Final Fight is not unique in this regard; you can apply this hard mode elsewhere. In video games, more than anywhere, we understand that food equals life. And in video games, the same as anywhere, food equals meat. Vegetarianism is hard mode in any game that promotes the idea that chicken is more filling than fruit, or that strength derives from beef but coffee only makes you faster. These gastronomic assumptions form some of our most deeply ingrained video game vocabulary. What restores the health of virile fighters, and what restores the mana of frail healers? What does a wizard look for when he needs food badly?

Rare is the game that challenges these ideas, and rarer still are any in popular culture. Pokémon is a standout exception, with virtually no references to meat despite the frequent appearance of food and drink. No doubt Nintendo wants to avoid the uncomfortable implication of meat in a world where Pokémon are ubiquitous best friends. In Fallout 3, fresh fruit is one of the safest and heartiest foods to eat (sensibly so, when everything else is irradiated), but even fruit is overshadowed by the stomach-lining qualities of mole rats, mirelurks, and some frog-based concoction known only as slop. River City Ransom’s famously diverse menu lets you gain strength from swordfish and prawn, but also waffles, herbal tea, mint gum, and R&B music – a selection so arbitrary it defies agenda. And I have no idea what to make of Pac-Man. (Are ghosts vegetarian?)

What, then, is a vegetarian game? Here’s one answer: It is any game that reflects the life of a vegetarian. Ethical vegetarians do not exist in a meat-less world – they make a daily choice in the present of meat, in cultures that (in many cases) regard meat eating as normal, as healthy, as treasured history and tradition. In a game, your diet might be only a slight hassle, a scarcely bothersome preference with no effect on your regular activity. Or your diet might be a near impossibility, one which is aggressively challenged and barely supported. Indeed, the practical impact of a diet which is debatable in the real world becomes even more nebulous in the virtual.

This is, and always has been, the challenge facing vegetarians: to prove the worthiness of their cause when it seems so pointlessly abstemious, so difficult, so needlessly sentimental. Why, after all, would one bother to play a game as satisfyingly violent as Final Fight as a vegetarian, except as an exercise in fun-sucking austerity? The purpose may be lost on many, because vegetarianism is not simply an issue of representation. A game without meat, while a welcome change, would not represent the world that vegetarians know. Vegetarianism is a lifestyle defined by choice, one that can be embodied by any character given that choice. Haggar the vegetarian is not a fanciful hypothetical, but a real possibility, as long as you can finish the game without picking up a hamburger.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.