Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Overcooked is a game that lives and dies by its level design. The basic game mechanics are so simple that one would wonder if it was even possible to build a game around them. To maintain a feeling of “simple-but-difficult” the designers make heavy usage of special disruptions in the levels. Most of the time, these disruptions really sell the game and make it a lot more fun. Sometimes, they don’t.
Couch Co-op Cooking
The defining philosophy in Overcooked‘s level design is that working together saves time. You can create a soup from scratch by yourself by fetching the ingredients, taking them to the chopping board, putting them in the pot to boil, plating it, and sending it off to be served. But that’s a lot of steps that may require a significant amount of travel time between each one. Instead, if players group up and work like an assembly line, they can complete each individual task more efficiently.
One of the worst levels is 6-2, where the kitchen is split in two halves. However, each half is completely self sufficient, and players have absolutely no need to pass ingredients back and forth. Teamwork isn’t actually required and it’s just a matter of individual skill, which is the least interesting part of the game. Maybe this level was intended to be a power trip, considering that it’s near the end of the game and players can see how much their skills have progressed.
But nearly every other level is designed with some disruption in mind that forces players to cooperate. These disruptions make it even less efficient than normal to complete a task alone, such as a table that slides across the floor. You can walk the long way around to get back to your work station, or you can readapt to your current situation and do a new task which is more convenient for you.
Overcooked seems to throw many, many different disruptions at the wall to see what sticks. Some of them only show up once and then never appear again. Others become the foundation for many more levels to come. The game is roughly divided into five “zones,” each with a different thematic motif, but the basic disruptions often stay the same. For example, in a boat level the tables slide because of waves rocking the ship, whereas in a haunted mansion level the tables are possessed by spooky ghosts.
When a design is only ever used for one single situation, it should be raising red flags. For example, in one level rats will come out from their holes, steal your ingredients, and bring them back. You can attack a rat by moving next to them and pressing the action key, which causes them to scurry away and also drop any ingredients they were carrying. But after the level, these rats are never used again.
It’s rare for a mechanic to be as isolated as the rats. Often times, mechanics will be carried over in spirit. In one level, an earthquake periodically splits the kitchen apart (and then it somehow goes back to normal after a while). This teaches players to operate completely independently of each other with no way to send items to each other, which happens later with moving trucks or space stations.
Maybe it seems like the rats are something simple that could be thrown together quickly. But from a programming perspective there are so many opportunities for bugs. What if you try to attack a rat while your action button is contextualized to do something else, like you are standing next to both a cutting board and a rat at the same time? How would these moving rats interact with other moving interactables, such as pots on moving tables? The programmers needed to create special behavior just for this one mechanic, but it seems like the designers had so little faith in it that they never used the rats again.
The question is, are the rats actually a bad mechanic? I believe that they are, because unlike the other disruptions, rats are not skillful.
I’m making up the term “skillful disruptions” to refer to ones that allow players to get better at dealing with them. Initially, they are inconvenient, but they teach you skills that you can make use of throughout the rest of the game in different situations. These skills stay with you and are a sign that you have improved as a player.
One example of what I would call a skillful disruption would be conveyor belts. Initially, it feels daunting to put food on a conveyor belt and watch it move out of reach. But it importantly enables food to travel independently of you. Usually, if you want food to be somewhere, you have to take it there yourself, and that requires time. But instead, you could just drop some food on a conveyor belt and then immediately get back to work doing something else.
You are able to get good at using conveyor belts. Chefs can pick up ingredients as necessary, process them, and then drop them right back on. When multiple chefs are working together, they have to make sure that they are coordinated to properly receive food as it passes on the belt, because the belts usually end in a garbage bin. There are very tense moments when a whole burger is on a belt and a chef needs to dash to pick it up in time before it gets dumped.
Through these trials, players develop a new skill: minimizing travel time. As they get better and better, players will find that conveyor belts make them more, not less efficient. It’s a mechanic that allows for growth and a higher skill ceiling. Even if these players move to a level without conveyor belts, they have learned their lesson and will be more efficient when passing food to each other.
Comparatively, rats have a low skill ceiling. You can hit them and that is it. There is no way to get better at using rats. There is no way that a highly skilled player could use rats to be more efficient in the kitchen. They are just a pure nuisance, plain and simple, whereas other disruptions were more nuanced.
I feel that the rats could have been more interesting with a small change: what if the rat holes were placed right next to the cooking stations? A chef would pick up some ingredients, get them chopped, and leave them on the counter. Then, a rat would come and try to steal the chopped ingredients. But this is when a chef at the cooking station hits the rat, catching the ingredient in the process.
This way, the chef did not need to actually walk over to pick up the chopped ingredients. They let the rat do it for them. In a sense this would be like having a conveyor belt that is slightly less reliable and significantly less hygienic. It would also teach players that sometimes, they should let the disruptions do some of the work while they do something else that’s more efficient at the moment.
Other disruptions can similarly be categorized as skillful or skillless. For example, the haunted mansion is dark and you use a flashlight to find your way. Since there is no way for this to be turned into a positive thing through coordinated skill, it is skillless and is just there to be annoying. On the other hand, some levels take place on ice that causes chefs to slide. Good chefs can “drift” and increase how efficiently they move.
Overcooked has a funny reputation as a “friendship killer,” perhaps more so than other similar games. Even though it sounds negative I think that this is a good identity for a game to have, and the disruptions have been a central part of establishing it. But just like the climb in LISA, if a designer wants to put in something frustrating for no purpose other than to be frustrating, that decision needs to be carefully considered.