The thesis that the human being seeks God because of the disorder he perceives in himself does not take into account that the human being seems to prefer disorder.
“The following is a contributor post by The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage.“
This is, in fact, this humble Mage’s very first post as part of the Mage team. I’m grateful to the Well-Red Mage for the chance to go into beautiful, long-form analysis for hopefully many reviews to come. Now… on with the article!
It is a peculiar fact of the universe that all things tend towards equilibrium. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that energy wants to dissipate, to spread itself evenly, to create a state in which entropy is at a maximum and nothing may change. While a state of total inaction doesn’t at first glance appear to be exactly chaotic, the prospect of no system being able to function, no movement, no transfer of energy, no possibility for anything to exist except total stasis… well, that sounds like chaos to me. Imagine all things disappearing from the neat little piles we’ve put them in: the atoms that make up houses and people and trees deciding to distribute themselves more thinly. The order we have made of the world would be destroyed in favour of an all-encompassing anti-disorder, a total lack of… well, anything.
On a related note, Overcooked is an adorable little couch co-op game (available on PC, Xbox One, Switch and PS4 – this review is based on the PS4 version) about working in a variety of kitchens in a variety of locations that are increasingly less optimised for the existence of kitchens. Players must work together to fulfil orders as they come in, preparing delicious meals by chopping the ingredients, combining them in the pan, cooking, plating up, even washing the dishes before sending out the next order. It’s certainly not the first game to recognise that preparing food might be something people would want to experience in gamified form – there’s the Cooking Mama franchise for one, plus a whole host of mobile games – but this is certainly the first experience I’ve had that captured not only the almost Zen-like fluidity of putting a meal together step-by-step, but also the despair and calamity of working in a professional kitchen. In a volcano.
According to Phil Duncan, design director and co-founder of Ghost Town Games (the studio that created Overcooked as its first project):
I’ve worked in various restaurants over the years … and kitchens have always struck me as a perfect analogy for a cooperative game: an occupation where teamwork, time management, spatial awareness and shouting are all vitally important.
Overcooked lives by this design brief, and does so in often spectacular fashion. The game opens with the Onion King and his dog Kevin standing atop a roof in the middle of a burning city while an enormous apocalyptic spaghetti-and-meatball beast attacks (the game doesn’t give any more context than that, so I’m not going to either – that’s all you need to know!). The only way to keep the beast at bay, if only for a short while, is to feed it! Thus begins the first level, with up to four chefs running around the rooftop making food to feed the beast.
Although this is the first level and therefore mechanically the simplest, the cataclysmic setting instills a sense of impending existential dread (in a fun way, though!) in the player: the feeling that you mustn’t stop moving, even for a second, mustn’t stop rushing to hurl salads into the mouth of the meatball-fiend. That mood persists throughout the rest of the game, with every level feeling like a breakneck hurtle to prepare as much food as possible before becoming inevitably overwhelmed.
‘But what are the other levels?’ I hear you ask. Forgiving you for beginning a sentence with a conjunction because I’m not a prescriptivist, I give you a knowing look and proceed to continue with what I was about to say anyway but wanted to neatly segue into (an endeavour which seems to have had mixed success at best, but there it is). Well, despite the chefs’ best efforts, the beast’s hunger simply can’t be satiated, so the Onion King opens a time portal back to 1993 so that the chefs can spend the years until the coming of the dread spaghetti (its official name is the Ever-Peckish, fact fans) honing their skills in kitchens across the kingdom, in the hope that when the beast returns, they’ll be ready to stop it.
It’s an odd little plot, and that’s OK. This isn’t one of those games that really needs a plot beyond an excuse to go off and cook stuff, to be honest; anything more complex or serious would have opened the game up to criticism that it was trying to be both quirky fun and compelling narrative, and while there’s certainly no reason a game can’t be both, Overcooked opts to keep things simple (this is true for its visuals and mechanics as well as its story), and I think that works in its favour.
The structure of the game, then, plays out as the band of valiant chefs travel far and wide throughout the kingdom visiting different kitchens: in keeping with gaming traditions of yore there are different areas across the land including a volcano zone, a watery expanse, and even a bunch of levels that take place in space. Within each level, the mission is simple: in the limited time you have, prepare as many meals as possible. A queue of orders appears at the top of the screen, and you’re given points for getting each order out of the kitchen in a timely fashion.
At the end of the level, you get up to three stars depending on how many points you accrued, and you’ll need a certain amount of stars to unlock the next level. This system of giving the player no way of dying or ‘losing’, just degrees of winning, means that no matter how fast-paced things might feel, how imminent a catastrophic failure might seem, there’s no real way for things to actually fail: the worst thing that could happen is having to repeat the level, using experience from prior attempts to secure more stars the second time around.
The meat of the game, of course, is the actual process of putting the orders together, and that’s where everything gets hilariously, joyously chaotic. It is, in many ways, very simple: the most complicated a recipe can get is about four different steps, and everything can be done with only about two buttons. You run around, pick stuff up, put it down, chop it, that’s about it. The difficulty, such as it is, lies in coordinating each of these actions in a tight timescale and a kitchen that may well have some sort of confounding factor such as workspaces that move around, doors that you’ll need a partner to open for you… half the kitchen being on a moving van, that sort of thing.
As you can see, in the above image there are two parts to the kitchen: in the lower truck are containers filled with the required ingredients, as well as knives for chopping, bins for disposing of anything unnecessary, and a fire extinguisher. For the fire. You will need it at some point. In the truck above, which is moving around at a different pace so you can only cross between the two intermittently, there’s another container for a different ingredient, three ovens on which to cook your meals, plates to put them on, and a conveyor belt for shipping the finished meals out to happy customers (who are presumably on a different truck somewhere a little bit further back down the road). In this level, there’s also a little pad where dishes are returned; in some levels there’s a sink where you have to wash them yourself before you can reuse them, but this one is merciful enough to do that step for you.
This level therefore revolves around timing – as do most of the levels, in fact, but this is one of the better visual examples I could think of. You need to secure the ingredients, get them onto the correct truck to be able to prepare them, get them across to the other truck so you can cook them, plate and send the meal out, then rinse and repeat. (All to lovely soothing music, which I have to say is a very good example of one of my favourite maxims for game soundtracks: it should be there to enhance the mood of the rest of the game, not to take centre stage. Writing soundtracks is very different from writing music that’s supposed to be listened to as its own thing!) When you have four or five orders waiting, it can get exceptionally chaotic.
Here’s where the Cercignani quote comes in. See, although Overcooked is an exceptionally fun game, it also happens to be a treatise on the human condition, and indeed on the inevitable descent of the universe into a state of ultimate disorderedness – which just so happens to match up with my thoughts on chaos, as expressed in the first paragraph. You’d almost forgotten about that first paragraph, hadn’t you? Either that or you were thinking it was left in from a completely different review, but no! It becomes relevant! (Sort of. I hope.)
As you play Overcooked, you will find yourself creating order where there is none, trying to arrange all your resources into the optimal position to be able to speedily prepare each meal. But it’s futile. The ever-changing landscape of your kitchen, along with the sheer inability to keep up with the fast pace in a sensible way, causes everything to rapidly descend into a state of total disorder, and that’s the most fun thing about it.
I mentioned that the game doesn’t really allow you to fail a level, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel as if it’s easy. Everything will seem as if a single wrong move could collapse your delicate arrangement of ingredients into a meaningless pile of disparate slices, like a heap of sand composed of just-barely discernible grains, and yet the frantic sense that bothering to make the effort is surely hopeless is what keeps you going. You’ll feel as if you’re trying to do a million things at once and accomplishing none of them, but thanks to the game’s forgiving scoring, you’ll almost certainly still manage to get plates out and finish the level with at least a star or two. It’s as if you’ve stared down the heat death of the universe and it blinked first. I don’t know that humans truly do prefer disorder, in an existential sense, but I do know that the experience of overcoming disorder is a truly satisfying one.
All of which is to say that I really like this game, and I think that ultimately that may be the most meaningful thing I can say about it.
The 8-bit Review
Overcooked‘s visual style is simple yet charming. There’s an appealing vibe of what might almost pass for serenity in the character designs: no harsh edges (except the guy with the box for a head, but even he looks soft rather than sharp), a bright colour palette, exaggerated proportions. You unlock a few different characters as you progress through the levels; none of them make any difference mechanically, but it’s nice to be able to pick from a variety of characters. They’re a diverse bunch, too, including people of all races, a bear, a dinosaur, and a raccoon (or something of that nature) in a wheelchair – so there should be something for everyone.
This isn’t a game that aims for graphical fidelity, and it doesn’t have modern games’ increasingly common fetish for high polygon counts, but I’ve always been a proponent of the concept that aesthetic is much more important than graphics (the latter carrying connotations of technical capability). It’s much better, I think, to have a game that communicates a lot with a little than to have an ultra-realistic-looking thing that isn’t actually expressive at all – and the world of Overcooked isn’t one that would make sense if it looked real. Plus the actual game itself is complicated enough, so the look of it needs to be simple lest things start to get too overwhelming.
The visuals fit with the style, and that to me is precisely what they ought to do.
As in many areas, gameplay is an aspect of Overcooked which achieves a lot using relatively simple building blocks. You move your chef around, pick things up, interact with stuff; there’s really not much to learn at all. The joy of it is in combining those actions in increasingly frantic ways, as well as the simultaneously alleviating and confounding factor of having to deal with other players. Having to work together is wonderful when it’s going well, and it’s wonderfully intuitive working out the most efficient ways of distributing tasks among chefs to get things done, but then the game goes and moves something around so that your beautiful configuration won’t work anymore, and suddenly you’re yelling at each other trying to figure out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing now. It’s a genuine bonding experience getting through it, seeing that you managed to hit three stars, and finally breathing again.
The simplicity of the gameplay also means that it’s very easy to find a rhythm, a flow that’s almost meditative. You get into a real zone moving around the kitchen, pulling off sequences of actions that alone are very simple, but in such a complex string are just difficult enough that you can hit that optimum sense of ‘I’m achieving something like a badass right now’.
You won’t find yourself zoning out, though, as the levels will shift and force you to change up your strategy. It keeps things satisfying, although it can also be immensely frustrating having to come up with a new way of doing something that you’d been pulling off really rather brilliantly. The level design is never confusing, though: it’s always immediately apparent exactly what you need to be doing to succeed. It’s just easier spotted than executed!
I ought to mention that it is possible to play the game in single-player: the player can either switch between chefs or use a single controller to control multiple characters at once. However, this is very much a game designed to be played by multiple people in the same room, so I think it’s fair that I judge it based on how it plays as a couch co-op experience. And how it plays as a couch co-op experience is wonderfully.
I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a game quite like it; you will find yourself and your partner(s) feeling as if you really are chefs in a high-pressure professional kitchen (notwithstanding that it mostly just serves soup and burritos). You’ll occasionally have Gordon Ramsay-esque moments of rage at each other, but they’ll be immediately swallowed by uproarious laughter at how flipping endearing the whole experience is. Since Overcooked allows for up to four players, you can get the whole family in on it – more on that in a moment – even if you only have two controllers!
I think it would be true to say that this is a game that pretty much anyone could pick up and be able to have a good go at. There are so few buttons involved that even someone with very little experience with a controller would be able to remember ‘okay, so this is move, this is pick stuff up, and this is chop’, I imagine; the tricky part would be applying that under stress. I played through the whole thing with my other half, who’s a bit of a gamer but not enormously so (she occasionally needs reminding which buttons do what, but she rarely needs any actual assistance to get through a game), and she was almost immediately fully capable of doing everything that the game required her to do.
I reckon that any difficulty an individual was having with completing tasks fast enough could be allayed with a higher number of chefs playing simultaneously, too. The levels are big enough that you need to work together to get everything moved around them at maximum efficiency, but with three or four chefs I’d expect that the more confident players could quite happily help pick up some of the stress in an area if someone was struggling. I’ve not tested this theory, but what I did learn when my other half’s mum (who knows nothing about gaming at all) briefly joined in with me is that even if someone’s completely unable to follow what’s happening, they’ll be able to have a great time watching everything zip by.
I’m giving Overcooked a 6 on ‘challenge’ because it is actually immensely non-challenging in many ways (it’s exceptionally forgiving and there’s almost no way to actually lose), but it sometimes feels as if it’s the hardest thing of all time. To me, that’s a good balance; I think it’s about the right amount of difficulty for what it is, if that makes sense. A game that was genuinely more difficult would be less charming, less open, than Overcooked, although by that same token I have to acknowledge again that fundamentally, risk and actual difficulty is pretty much non-existent.
It’s hard for me to decide whether I ought to give it a higher score because I think it is broadly a good design choice to make failure as close to impossible as it can be, or a lower one because I think that some element of difficulty, of requiring skill to proceed, is a rewarding and enjoyable part of most games. In the end, I’ve gone with my feeling that it handles difficulty a little bit better than an average (a 5-out-of-10), but not so well as to be notable.
I’ve played through Overcooked twice now, both times with the same person, and both times we had a lot of fun, but I don’t think we’ll go back and play the entirety of the thing again. There’s a lot of variety in each level, but mechanically there’s no real progression, and there’s only an excuse of a plot: no emotional narratives to speak of. It’ll be endlessly replayable in the sense that I think I could take any friend, sit down and play any level of Overcooked, and have a great time, but that’s more in the Worms or Tetris sense of replayability rather than, like… Shadow of the Colossus. What I mean by that is that Overcooked isn’t going to be the sort of game I’ll be habitually returning to in order to play through the entire thing to have that experience again, but it’ll certainly be something I’ll be able to dip into any time.
While I don’t think I’ve ever played anything else quite like Overcooked, it’s hard to claim that it’s doing anything so unique as to be revolutionary, if that makes sense. Here at The Well-Red Mage, we use a review scale where 5 is average: I’ve awarded Overcooked just slightly above average for uniqueness because I think that it captures a feeling I’m not sure anything else has done in quite the same way, but I don’t think it’s done so through any particular ingenuity or redefinition of what games are capable of. Personally, I think I would reserve a uniqueness score of 10 for a game that could be argued to have done something truly innovative, something that broke new ground and explored something in a completely hitherto-unseen way.
That said, I’ll reiterate as my last point for this category: I do not think I’ve played anything quite like Overcooked, even if I can’t quite explain what exactly it is that makes it different.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I had more fun playing Overcooked than I’ve had in a while, and I got to spend time playing a proper co-op game with my other half. It’s hard to find a game that we can really get into playing together – we take turns on single-player games, and we have fun with some of the LEGO games and that sort of thing, but I have no doubt that this was the best experience we’ve had playing the same game at the same time. I expect we’ll be coming back for a few hectic kitchen sessions for a while to come.
I wouldn’t necessarily rank this as one of my favourite games, or be so bold as to say that I think it’s a must-play, but I just had such a good time with it, and sometimes that’s all I’m looking for. An 8 out of 10 on the Well-Red scale is a game worth playing indeed, and that’s where I’ll put it.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and sometimes peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.
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Categories: Game Review