This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the highly personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Aaron Edwards balances intense conversations with friends by making them navigate a stressful virtual kitchen as a team, as represented by furry little animal-chefs. Sign up here to receive a new essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. each Sunday evening.
When two or more people gather in the year of our Lord 2019, lamentation will be the center of some portion of the hangout. This is inevitable and necessary: We need communion, to feel less alone, to complain, and to clock the ways the events of the week—whatever given week we're in—have upended our souls. “ Killing Eve, oh my GOD,” is often just a few beats away from, “My aching sense of existential dread, oh my GOD.”
I’ve spent a good chunk of my year finding ways to redefine the emotional tenor of hangouts with my friends, though. I particularly hate ending on sadness, and avoid it if I can. After intense conversations, I desperately crave a coda—something to do that feels edifying, transporting, mutually supportive, and intentional, and that brings some levity to our time together. Since I started playing it about a year ago, I’ve found this sense of resolution in the exceptional video game Overcooked.
I assure you that I know I’m late to this (the game came out in 2016, just three months before that election). But to this day, every time I post a video playing it with friends on Instagram Stories, I get an array of messages:
ahhhh I LOVE that game!
you love this game lol
My boyfriend loves this game
wait what is this???
In case you're also a newcomer, I will tell you. In Overcooked, you are a chef. A tiny chef. A tiny chef with a mission to complete as many restaurant orders as possible with a team of other tiny chefs. Your patrons are largely invisible; completed dishes are fed to a conveyor belt that one might imagine leads to the center of the multiverse.
I usually play as a golden cat (or is it a fox?) with lush, Eugene Levy–level eyebrows eternally tilted into a stern glare that says, “I’m here to cook, not make friends.” Even though, of course, I am here to make friends. I relate to my cat-fox because he seeks results, in the form of meticulously crafted soups. He’s about business.
Winning Overcooked requires the usual cooperation you’ll find in team games. Players are working against a timer, and new orders are constantly cycling into a queue. Everyone should always be doing something productive so the kitchen runs smoothly. Find yourself standing still? Well, Brandon, you're screwing it up for the group because you could absolutely be grilling meat for a burger. Think you're being helpful by endlessly dicing mushrooms? Good lord, mushroom soup isn't even on any of the unfinished order cards. Get it together, Susan.
You’re working toward a common goal while the world burns around you. Quite literally—if you leave ingredients on the stove for too long, they'll set off flames in the kitchen. The rest of the game is engineered to encourage bedlam, too. You can dash to get around faster, but if you dash into someone, it stuns them. Dirty dishes accumulate, and leaving them unattended will set off a chain of failures. There are rodents in some levels that scuttle away with your hard-earned produce. Sacre bleu cheese! Each level lasts only a few minutes, just long enough to work yourself into a frenzy, and when time runs out, there are no consequences—only a sense of release and a performance ranking on a zero-to-three star system. A dream.
In its escapism, Overcooked reveals the true natures of your friends. Some of my quieter friends morph into type-A managers, directing the group to finish needed tasks. I've seen others I normally consider confident and animated outside of the Overcooked kitchen silenced by the sheer intensity of the vegetable-chopping rush. My friend’s barber told him the game exposed some real communication issues in his relationship with his girlfriend.
I love seeing these personas come out in friends and getting a peek at sides I might not see too often. Video games have that beautiful effect: For a few minutes every round, we’re channeling energy into something totally inconsequential but conquerable. If we lose, we can smile, pick up our controllers, and try again. And, somehow, it still feels as personal and intimate as holding each other through the storms life sends our way.
To illustrate the joy of playing, maybe it’s best that I share some quotes I’ve overheard during games at my apartment. (Names have been omitted to protect dignity.)
"Can I get onions? Can someone get me onions??"
“I’ll get the dishes. I can do that."
“I swear. I’m…...too high to play this...”
“Go go go go go go….GO…..YES!”
“Oh my goooooddddd. Mushrooms. Not. Tomatoes.”
“THERE we go! Gang gang gang.”
“We did pretty good, wow.”
Overcooked leans into the reality that the world is messy and we’re all just trying to make it work. What it reminds me, though, is that things can be better when we try together. For this little cat-fox-chef, it all builds into an incomplete but satisfying sentiment that I carry into my days outside of fake kitchens: Just look at my friends. Everything is burning; we’re all still doing our best. Can someone please chop some damn onions.
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