Play With Your Food
From its first pixelated appearance in Pac-Man to the perfection of the recipes in Final Fantasy XV, food has been a mainstay in video games from almost the very beginning. It’s not uncommon to see food used as the main object of interaction in a game, such as in the notorious Candy Crush or the ongoing franchise Diner Dash. We spoke with Phil Duncan of independent game studio Ghost Town Games about his foray into designing a food-centric video game, the BAFTA British Academy Games Award-winning Overcooked.
At first glance, Overcooked seems far removed from realism, complete with head-sized tomatoes and talking meatballs. However, once you consider the main premise, the game’s basis in reality becomes clear to anyone who has ever worked in a professional kitchen.
“Overcooked is [a] chaotic, co-operative cooking game for 1-4 players,” explains Duncan. “You play as a team of chefs charged with running a series of bizarre and challenging kitchens, preparing ingredients, manning the stoves, [and] delivering orders all before the customers storm out in an angry huff.”
In a time where most games seem to involve working against your friends, Overcooked bucks that trend.
“We’ve always been big fans of co-operative games; we’d get together at lunch times when we worked and play whatever co-op games we could get our hands on,” Duncan recalls. “There’s something about that experience of working together as a team to achieve a common goal that really resonated with us, and it was something we weren’t seeing as much of in games as we wanted. So we just decided if no one else was going to do it, we’d make the kind of game we’d want to play.”
The combination of the frenzy of a commercial kitchen and the communication that chaos requires, was the perfect match for the cooperation Phil Duncan and Oli DeVine, the pair of designers who make up independent game studio Ghost Town Games, were looking for in a game.
“I’ve worked in various restaurants over the years – never allowed near the food, but I did my fair share of pot washing and waiting-on,” says Duncan. “While I didn’t have much experience with actually preparing food, I was certainly privy to the teamwork at play in a working kitchen. I think that constant communication, working against the clock, trying not to get in each other’s way, that’s all stuff that comes into play in our game as much as it does in a real kitchen. So while the locations might be a little more outlandish, the core challenge is definitely influenced by that experience.”
By all accounts, the game has captured the camaraderie and hectic tone felt in a commercial kitchen.
“We did a small convention in Blackpool and we had a few line cooks come up and play the game,” says Duncan. “They really enjoyed it, but they definitely said it felt like clocking on at work, once they’d finished wiping the sweat from their brows. We’ve had a few people in the industry message us and say how faithful it seemed to the experience of working in a kitchen (with maybe a few more fires and earthquakes than they’re used to).”
When it came to designing the food elements of the game, there were a few factors Duncan and DeVine kept in mind. The ingredients and recipes needed to be easily recognizable and require a number of simple steps, but limit the number of steps that would require bespoke gameplay mechanics.
“Visually, we knew the game was so fast-paced that we needed the ingredients to be easily recognizable at a glance, which is why we went for this big, chunky style that ensured you wouldn’t lose a tiny tomato amongst all the chaos,” explains Duncan.
In the end, the combination of fun, chunky art and the growing popularity of cooking in media, as seen in the ever-growing number of cooking shows, have combined to make Overcooked an overwhelming success. The game has garnered recognition in the Develop Awards, Brazil’s Independent Games Festival Awards, BAFTA British Academy Games Awards, and TIGA Games Industry Awards, and is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
“I think the biggest inspiration for us is just how much interest we’re seeing for cooking shows and home cooking in general,” says Duncan. “I think there’s something universally pleasing about the experience that translates so well to a multiplayer game, and we’re really happy that so many people are playing together and enjoying themselves.”