Overcooked (stylized as Overcooked!) is an acclaimed cooking simulation game by Ghost Town Games, released in 2016. It was deemed a chaotic couch co-op game for up to four players and winner of the Best British and Best Family Game at the 13th British Academy Game Awards.
Players control chefs in a restaurant of sorts and have to take care of the entire kitchen pipeline: ingredients preparation, cooking, serving, and cleaning. Food must be served to an on-going queue of customers that repay you with coins (the in-game score currency). A level is completed when a predefined number of coins is reached in a specified period of time. The overall score for the level is ranked in a 3-star system based on the number of coins collected.
Overcooked was developed as a multiplayer game in mind, and most of its exciting mechanics emerge from this aspect. It also allows a single-player experience, but it is hardly recommended by fans and media alike.
As stated before, the players in Overcooked control up to 4 chefs in a kitchen, trying to prepare orders and serve clients. Each order requires players to prepare specific ingredients, cook them, and serve them into a meal. After finishing its meal, the client returns the dirty plate to be cleaned. Orders must be served on clean plates, just like in real life (ideally).
The interactions to achieve those steps are simple: you click to pick-up or drop something, and you press to act (cutting or cooking, e.g.). There are no gimmicks, and the only modifier is a dash button to move faster.
The diagram above shows the basic overview of Overcooked gameplay. The kitchen pipeline happens in the middle row of the image (“Prepare Ingredients,” “Prepare Meal,” “Plate Meal,” and “Serve Meal”). The steps of “Prepare Ingredients” and “Prepare Meal” have different colors because they are dependent on the requested meal. The other actions are based on the game’s condition at the moment. For example, if the ingredients are already prepared or if there are clean plates available.
However, there are essential states and actions not present in this diagram that differentiates Overcooked gameplay from the usual couch co-op games. Interesting enough, those steps are not present in the single-player mode.
Although obvious, performing the kitchen pipeline steps require the chefs to move around the kitchen environment. The movement has one distinct point: chefs can collide and block each other’s movements.
So far, it is still arguable how moving, on itself, can be such an essential and innovative mechanic. But the answer to that lies outside the game. The co-op element requires the players to coordinate their movement to avoid colliding.
This coordination is also achieved by using strategies to minimize movement: players are assigned to specific tasks, reducing the space they will move around; spots are used for the picking up and dropping of objects, demarking players’ area of action; and an order of action is established to maximize the production. Usually, this forces one of the players to assume an oversee position, coordinating the kitchen while other players perform their tasks.
The game itself does not have any mechanics related to those strategies. There are no leader positions or player’s areas. The game does not assign specific tasks to players, either. Those strategies emerge from the mechanics and create an outside gameplay aspect. This aspect of gaming that happens outside the game environment, I call outside-game. The opposite of it, the actual game, I call the in-game.
The above diagram shows which actions are related to moving (that requires the player to move to a specific position to perform them). As movement is a crucial aspect of achieving the game’s goal, all levels are designed around it in exciting ways: the level scenario moves on its own; elements of the scenario move on their own changing the kitchen layout; the kitchen layout forces players to move around or highly limit their movement options; the level environment changes the movement (such as slippery ice).
Overcooked game design was outlined to vary and explore the different aspects of both its gameplay realms: in-game and outside-game. It changes the in-game mechanics (middle row in the diagrams shown here), while also forces the outside-game to adapt the players’ dynamic and coordination. In a sense, from an individual player’s perspective, the other players are elements of the gameplay — they are game mechanics to be played with.
Co-op is a loved feature that has been around for years, but it is mostly used as a partner mechanic, in which players join forces using similar mechanics (or the same mechanics with different sprites) to achieve in-game goals. It is common to have some dialogue outside the game to strategize, but most of the outside-game action is merely dialogue and is hardly dynamic.
Differently, Overcooked changes the co-op aspect by:
- Having immediate and precise feedback, unlike, for instance, friendly-fire that is mostly caused by mistake (or as a joke) and hard to coordinate.
- It happens dynamically and continuously in-game and outside-game mainly because the game lacks in-game mechanics defined by the outside-game interaction.
- The game’s innovative level design highly explores both in-game and outside-game mechanics.
Finally, Overcooked glorifies and rewards the players with a 3-star ranking system according to the scores achieved at a level. Although it is just a bragging medal (it does not affect the game), it is enough to justify revisiting levels and rework strategies to achieve it.
Although the general comments about Overcooked are how it destroys relationships due to its chaotic nature, it can also promote a sense of team-work and coordination that is highly rewarding. Compared to the single-player experience, that is hard and constantly argued online, the multiplayer co-op experience shows and proves to us how much we can do when we work, plan, and act together. Or better said, when we cook together.
Thanks for reading :)