As I once wrote in the forward of my cookbook, Fry Scores, I have lived many culinary lives. I’ve been an assistant baker. I’ve worked in meat cutting and seafood. I’ve been a server and a hostess. I’ve worked in the kitchen under the table at shady, family-owned restaurants. And I’ve been cooking for my family since I was a kid. In other words, I have a broad swath of experience in the food industry, knowledge that I’ve more or less left behind now that I work mostly as a writer. But it served me well in my teens and twenties and I look back on the experience fondly. I love to cook and be around food, whether serving, styling or making it.
That love for sharing and making food even plays out in my virtual life. I play a lot of cooking games, or games that feature cooking as part of the gameplay, from Battle Chef Brigade, which turns cooking into a match three puzzle game, to The Sims or The Elder Scrolls, where meals are a matter of growing or gathering the right ingredients and putting them together at a cooking station. For various reasons, few games can adequately mirror the experience of preparing a meal (Cooking Mama comes pretty close, in that it walks the player through the physical steps of prepping each ingredient, and includes factors like timing or technique). But while that series focuses on mimicking the steps of completing a recipe through food prep mini-games, a new game I’ve started playing, Overcooked, depicts another facet of the cooking process: the fancy kitchen footwork. Its objective is not to learn how to julienne a carrot or boil a pot of rice; rather, it illustrates the frenzy of pivoting around multiple people in tight quarters and using limited space and time as efficiently as possible. Players fetch and chop ingredients, cook and plate food, and send it out to the servers, all under an extreme time limit and with various obstacles, from moving countertops, tiny pathways, foot traffic, and constantly burning food. It’s painful, it’s frantic, it’s murder on the joints and psyche. It’s like being in an actual restaurant kitchen.
Now, I say that, but I’ll concede that Overcooked isn’t an exact replica of the real thing. It doesn’t depict the vast scope of menu items, ingredients, techniques, implements, and equipment in an actual commercial kitchen. You don’t actually cook “real” recipes or use identifiable quantities. Most restaurants don’t have pits of lava, conveyor belts, or sheets of ice to deal with, and in real life if a health inspector caught me chucking food on the floor, I’d probably get arrested. But in terms of coasting my brain into autopilot and letting my programming take over, it’s familiar, almost comforting. There’s a strategy in leveraging every last second to push out just one last dish. It’s a chaos I already know how to handle, maybe even enjoy.
The tension of a restaurant kitchen gets my blood running. There are several steps in the process of getting a meal from plate to table, and it relies on a steady, well choreographed dance between multiple people: the busser grabbing plates, the dishwasher who cleans and stacks them, the prep cook that dices and assembles the ingredients, the line cook who brings the meal together, and the waitress who garnishes and serves it. When you’re a part of the assembly line, you can lose yourself in the pandemonium, and then the time flies. In Overcooked, the plan of attack changes with every level. In one you may have to wash dishes as you cook, in another you may have access to a cutting board only 50% of the time. Whatever the challenge, it affects how quickly you put a dish out to be served, and you have to reduce or eliminate the most time-consuming parts of the process in order to stay ahead.
I no longer work in a restaurant, but the old feelings resurface during the holidays. I take pride in making the big dinners on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but lately my family has insisted that they help more so I don’t get too tired to enjoy the food. My husband is too slow and lacks the self motivation of a good kitchen hand, but my sister is my second brain, instinctively knowing just how to hop aboard the chaotic merry-go-round that is the cooking process without derailing the entire thing. Funny enough, even that reminds me of Overcooked, in the sense that many of the strategic skills translate. My sister and I have been playing the game together on Twitch and somehow the instincts that manifest in my real kitchen as we prepare meals together just take over. She knows how to maneuver around me, respond to orders quickly and verbalize completed steps for efficiency. She knows how to anticipate when dishes need to be done or space needs to be cleared, or how to reduce the amount of steps between the cutting boards, cooking stations and ingredients. She can even deck a rat in the face and swipe her produce back and not miss a beat. Sometimes, life really does imitates art.
I doubt that these crossover skills go both ways; being good at Overcooked probably won’t make someone a better chef or waitress, much like playing Madden 2017 won’t make you any better at football. But it’s fun to see how one inspires and informs the other and reminds me of my server days. Overcooked may not be a carbon copy of the cooking experience, but it’s just like it in all the right ways.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.