Anyone that has worked in the restaurant industry will tell you that there are at least two universal truths: that people are at their worst when they’re hungry, and that there is not and never will be enough time for everything that needs to get done. Working on a restaurant staff, whether facing customers or in the kitchen, often resembles something close to a public service. It is a wildly under appreciated job serving someone a meal, with even the notion of being paid a living wage seeming to many an absurd request, and yet it is extremely necessary.
Somehow this disdain for fast-food employees exists alongside the ways in which society has mythologized the chef and his (for it is always a he) kitchen. As Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian’s series of restaurant horror stories, “the self-fashioning of the chef as artist casts him (the pronoun is deliberate) as untameable by nature, so volatility becomes part of the glamour.” Chefs are not only permitted but to some degree expected to be tyrants over their staff, with “sleep-deprivation, tempers, drugs, projectiles in kitchens (especially sharp ones), hedonism, asceticism, camaraderie, [and] martial law” being but a few elements seen as key components of a successful kitchen (Williams). Like the romantic image of the brilliant tortured artist, many kitchens function under the notion that it takes a little pain to make something great. The tortured chef has to break his eggs.
I work in a busy, chain coffee shop, and while it is far from the isolated den of torture that many restaurants could claim to house, I’ve seen firsthand the struggle many of my coworkers experience attempting to remain benevolent while reaching towards increasingly unobtainable metrics. I’ve been lucky enough to rarely feel as if I’m being forced to sacrifice my own wellbeing for the sake of the store, but even with everyone doing their best to create a safe environment this support system is almost a full-time job itself. I have been burned, cut, bruised, and knocked into more times than I can keep track of, all for the sake of getting someone their latte in 50-seconds or less. I often find myself thanking some unknown deity that we only have one knife in the store, and even less cause to use it.
Despite all of this I am still met with coworkers who view the store’s stress as a positive because it means they are forced to work harder. I have supervisors tell me that it’s only in being put in uncomfortable situations that we grow. We celebrate our sales growth but forget to acknowledge the people who made it possible. It would seem we are all our own tortured chef, unable to imagine a reality in which fair compensation and healthy working conditions are not only attainable but demanded. We’re trapped in a system of exploitation, but rather than build a better future we find a way to see the pain as good, even necessary. And we’re only making coffee.
Overcooked (2016) – a cooperative cooking game – finds itself similarly incapable of imagining this vision of a restaurant that does not indulge in exhausting and mentally damaging practices. As one of a collection of time-traveling cooks, you and your friends race against the clock to whip up soups, burgers, and pizzas on your journey through time to stop the insatiable Beast – a large spaghetti and meatballs monster hell-bent on devouring the universe. It is not a game that ever takes itself seriously, striking a tone that’s closer to the slapstick comedy of Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) than the psychological warfare of Hell’s Kitchen, and yet Overcooked’s aesthetic sensibilities fail to align with the sensation of actually playing it.
Overcooked works on a three-star score-based system, with points being calculated based on some arcane combination of how long the food took to prepare, the complexity of the dish, and the generosity of the person who receives it. I expect the calculations themselves are fairly uncomplicated, but as they are not communicated well in the game the scoring system frequently feels opaque and disconnected from the player. This ambiguity is amplified by every stage being timed, as well as many of Overcooked’s mechanics requiring set intervals to complete, from how long it takes to grill a burger or boil a soup, to levels which are structured in such a way as to require you to plan around their moving parts.
As levels become more intense and complicated I frequently found myself feeling cheated by the game’s design which didn’t allow me enough freedom to feel as if I was in charge of my own success or failure. This is not altogether different from the actual act of cooking, wherein many steps involve waiting for the food to do its thing before you can move on. But Overcooked doesn’t structure itself well enough to accommodate hands-off cooking. In a game as fast-paced and time sensitive as Overcooked, any instance of waiting around feels excruciating. It is not an enjoyable tension, but an agonizing sensation of helplessness.
I do not believe it is merely my own anxieties at play here, either, as a similar scene has played out with every group I’ve introduced Overcooked to. At first, the chaos is humorous. We’re all new here and it’s OK if we don’t do that well the first round. Overcooked’s cute art style, accessible design, and diverse cast of cooks (featuring numerous characters of different races, genders, and even disabled characters, something developer Ghost Town Games should be applauded for considering) makes it an ideal party game and one many are at first excited to join in. But without fail this joy quickly sours, replaced by frustration and even anger at both the game and the other players, as it is essential that every player carries their own weight. We rarely make it past the third stage.
By the time I finished Overcooked with my partner, we were effectively hatefucking our way to the credits. For all the pirate ships and animal chefs that make Overcooked so charming, it is unable to shake the demands of the restaurant DNA that inspired it. Requirements for passing a level climb to agonizing heights while the accessible controls become a liability in levels with no room for error. I should not be screaming because I picked up a mushroom instead of an onion, and yet there I was ready to pack my things and leave because my partner burnt the fries.
Overcooked’s failure is an inability to recast restaurant chaos as anything but a mental and psychological hazard. I cannot recall ever being made ill by a game before, but Overcooked managed to press every stress point in my body. Several times I had to ask my partner that we take a break, as I was feeling so unhinged that I had become physically unwell. That I finished Overcooked despite all of this is a testament to the inherent delight of its premise and design, and I am eagerly awaiting the sequel in the hope that Ghost Town will find a way to create levels which do not employ – whether intentionally or not – the same unhealthy tactics so present in actual kitchens. Overcooked wants to show you the wacky fun of cooking with friends, but I should have guessed by the time it sent us to hell’s literal kitchen that we as a culture need to reassess exactly what that fun looks like. Cooking is a personal passion, but passion alone can’t be what’s pushing me through.