The antidote to 2018 is this video game about a cartoon chef in a pirate-ship kitchen
We yell, we fight, we argue, all in pursuit of a nebulous goal. Fires burn everywhere, insults are hurled across the room, and friendships are splintered.
I'm not talking about any political debates or misguided rallies. I'm talking about playing Overcooked 2.
The latest cooking simulation video game from Ghost Town Games, Overcooked 2 is the sequel to, what else, Overcooked, a charming little restaurant role-playing game on the surface that's hiding a brutally unforgiving teamwork seminar beneath. In both games, you play as a cartoon chef with one thing in mind: making as many meals as possible in a short amount of time. You do this by grilling meat, plating buns, chopping vegetables, and throwing them into a Hungry Hungry Hippo of a conveyor belt, which is always looking for the next dish on the list. As you throw perfect dishes down on the belt, you accumulate points. When you hit the three-star threshold, you move on to the next stage.
Of course, it would be too easy if all you had to do was organize ingredients. Overcooked's ingenious twist on your local Michelin star kitchen is that the stages all bring their own truly absurd obstacles. On some levels, you'll be stationed on a pirate ship that rocks back and forth, the layout of the kitchen changing with each shift. On others, you'll be stuck on hot air balloons that separate the grill from the ingredients from the dishwasher — because, oh yeah, you have to wash your dishes too, you filthy animal.
Where Overcooked mostly hinged on its increasingly complex stages, Overcooked 2, which came out last week, amps up the ridiculousness with new stages and new recipes. Cakes, sushi, salads, and other complex creations feature on the new game's list, throwing off even the most seasoned chefs of the original game and deftly increasing the replayability factor for the new installment.
While you can play all of the Overcooked series solo, the real fun comes when you drag friends into the kitchen with you. With Overcooked, this had to be couch co-op, but Ghost Town smartly took things a step further with the sequel, giving players the option to chef it up online. With Overcooked 2, you can yell at your friend for burning your hamburger meat from clear across the country. (And yell you will. If nothing else, Overcooked 2 should be the loudest online cooperative game since Halo 2 on Legendary difficulty.)
Hiding beneath a competitive exterior and seemingly capitalist ideologies, however, lies a warm and communal game that should strengthen your bonds with your partners in cooking. No one is more important than anyone else in the Overcooked kitchen; sure, you'll likely go further if you designate a head chef to manage the assembly line, but that person also has to wade into the muck and wash some dishes. In fact, you might want to intentionally give your "leader" the most mindless tasks so that they have the bandwidth for managing the process, and let your skilled workers shine elsewhere.
Overcooked as a series shines because it removes the ego from a player and gives it to the team; it makes its main issue not competition but cooperation. It's what would happen if, all of a sudden, someone flipped a switch and the United States became a socialist country. How would you react to losing your ability to rack up points? Would you sulk at being given the task of tomato chopper, or would you make sure that your team gets to three stars anyway, armed with your watchful eye and potent knife?
That's the challenge at the heart of Overcooked — and one that Ghost Town has contextualized without beating you over the head with the message. Unity isn't just a goal in the kitchens here; it's the basic instinct, the prime directive.
That's not to say that you'll pin a rose to your lapel if you spend the 10 or so hours it takes to beat the main story of Overcooked 2. But there have been countless stories already about friends growing closer while playing the game, bridging the social gaps that come with life in 2018. As media further segments into left and right, to have a video game where the only individual flair is which chef you want to play as feels revolutionary.
Overcooked was a massive success because it understood that playing as a unit is significantly more enjoyable than trying to rack up kill counts or goals scored or arbitrary point totals alone. The only points that matter are the ones your team amasses together, and even those are only a fun side objective; the real enjoyment comes from not how many three-star ratings you get, but rather from reminiscing with your buddies about that time you beat the pirate-ship level with just seconds to go.
That nostalgia factor has been lost somewhat in modern gaming. We don't remember individual Call of Duty games because they're mostly played in the grind for a new prestige level. We don't remember one game in FIFA Ultimate Team, because it's one of hundreds logged on the way to Division 1. We complain a lot in those games, too, because any imperfections in the product can set us behind our peers.
Overcooked has its share of buggy patches and unfair levels. But you're not truly competing with anyone, so it doesn't really matter. You and your squad are just trying to be the best chefs you can be. And because each stage is so distinct from the others, you remember the time when, say, your best friend perfectly lobbed a piece of fish across a fiery chasm, enabling you to assemble the last sushi roll you needed to get your team that three-star rating.
It's nice to take a breather from an increasingly isolated society to work together with no ulterior motive except team success. And so, while metaphorical fires rage in the outside world, the only fires in Overcooked 2 are literal kitchen fires, and you can solve those pretty easily ... that is, if your buddy would GET OFF HIS LAZY BUTT AND USE THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER ALREADY.