On Overcooked’s Failed Culinary Creativity

How Overcooked failed to capture the joy of food.

You know the folks who move through art museums like they’re late for an appointment? You know the folks who complain, “Why can’t they just say what they mean?” when confronted with an author’s symbolism? You know the folks who voted red in 2016 because the guy at the top of the ticket resisted that poet’s impulse?

Those are also the folks who swear that using wood instead of charcoal briquets gives their steaks a smokier flavor. They’re the folks who are ready to throw hands if you put ketchup on a bratwurst. They’re the folks who keep Frank’s Red Hot in a place of honor on the kitchen counter.

Of all the creative endeavors, then, food casts the widest net. In the culinary arts, everyone on planet earth is either a participant or a practitioner. Before children know how to cook anything for themselves, they have opinions about whether cereal or milk goes in the bowl first (cereal, obviously). We wage meme wars about whether pineapple belongs on pizza (it doesn’t). One of our richest veins of Internet humor—a joke that just keeps giving—is about how a popular soft drink doesn’t taste like much of anything (they’re right, but I still like it). Food is the rare arena where everyone is a critic because everyone, by virtue of eating three meals a day, is also an expert.

So it’s natural that food inspires creativity, inventiveness. In college, I dunked Oreos in coffee sweetened with mint creamer and then froze them. As a kid, I mixed every flavor of pop together to see if the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. In high school, I stared in slack-jawed amazement as one of my friends traded in the dinky paper communion cups you’re supposed to use for ketchup at McDonalds for the lid of a large drink. What an ingenue. What a wunderkind.

There are seven billion food eaters on planet earth, so culinary creativity necessarily results in culinary variety. Early on in my relationship with the woman I married this summer, we ordered William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes. We wanted cooking to be an activity we shared together, and wanted to learn to make a diverse selection of dishes in the process. The recipes are simple and plain—Ancient Egyptian Bread—and complicated and decadent—Meat Fruit. There are entrees (fish baked in fig leaves), sauces (salad dressing) and desserts (buttered apple pie).

Virtual cooking has also been an activity we share together, but when it comes to capturing the beautiful variety of worldwide cuisine, our cooking simulator du jour, Overcooked, is a failure. It’s a game that I, otherwise, like quite a bit. But, there are only six—count ‘em: six—recipes in the game: soup, burgers, fish and chips, burritos, pizza and salad. There are variations on each meal—soup comes in onion, mushroom, and tomato; burgers can be served plain or with toppings—but, there are only six basic recipes.

Overcooked is successful in other ways. I imagine, though I can’t confirm it through firsthand experience, that it does a stellar job of approximating the short order cook’s workday routine. In any given match, one to four players rush around the kitchen, chopping onions, cooking pizzas, boiling soups, washing plates, as the time allotted for each recipe quickly ticks down from green to red. It’s a hectic balancing act, and I feel like I have a better idea of what life as a chef would entail after putting 10 hours—a sprinkle of minutes while waiting for our flight to our honeymoon destination; a ladelful of hours in our interim apartment in Illinois—into the game.

But, I know why I like food. Overcooked’s chibi chefs can sprint from cutting board to front burner; the cute wheelchair-using raccoon can burn rubber speeding to plate a sausage pizza; tomatoes and onions and mushrooms can pile up on the floor as my wife and I attempt to get ahead in a strategy that would make Franklin Delano Artichoke (founder of the FDA) spin in his grave.

Is it a masterclass for couples (or families or friends) who want to learn to communicate well under pressure? Yes. Is it a skillful interactive representation of life in a busy kitchen? Yes. Is it a fantastically fun couch co-op game with a hot-off-the-presses sequel I can’t wait to try? YES.  But for all this movement, Overcooked fails to capture the joy of food.

Though, by all accounts, the recently released sequel, Overcooked 2, does seem to go a long way toward addressing these problems. With the addition of sushi, sashimi, cake, steamed meat and vegetables, pasta, pancakes and nuggets—plus, new ingredients for existing recipes—Ghost Town Games has improved their menu’s variety. But, unless something at its core changes, Overcooked, like the Guitar Hero franchise before it, captures the visual language of its art without incorporating its beating creative heart.

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