How does Overcooked use Level Design
to force player communication?

A couple weeks into this pandemic debacle, my partner and I decided to join the unifying spirit every world leader was calling into and we began playing Overcooked. We were convinced we were going to nail it, after all, if we pride ourselves on something about our relationship it is communication. So yeah, I’m sure you know how this ended up going: loads of teamwork, great coordination and amazing communication while playing.
Ha ha ha.
Nope.
There was a lot of yelling, food being thrown from one part of the deck to the other and a lot of “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LOOK OVER THE [INSERT FOOD ITEM]!!”
Regardless of the stress (and the tiny doubt it planted in our minds of do we need couple’s therapy?), we had a lot of fun and I realized that from the several co-op games we’ve played through the years together; Overcooked had gotten us to communicate more than any other.

Co-op Games and Symmetric Gameplay Design

Cooperative games aren’t anything new and they are fairly popular inside the gaming community because they expand the gaming experience and add to it a social component. Not all co-op games have to be online, you also have local co-op games and I’m sure some may have come up to mind while reading these lines.
Yes, co-op games are usually played at parties and social gatherings with friends and family. Again, such fun to bring out the raw competitive trait of human beings while they spend some quality time with their loved ones!
Jokes aside, co-op games usually create communication between players but more often than not it just happens at the beginning of the game while everyone is figuring out a good pattern of play. This is mostly seen in symmetrical co-op games, where every player has the same abilities and therefore there is no real need to collaborate to win the game, once we all have figured out what to do or have more experience playing.
I haven’t played CounterStrike much but I have been to social gatherings with friends where people played it, and what I have observed is that once people have played it for a while, the conversation ends up being about other things while playing a game together. Players are collaborating to achieve a goal but they aren’t truly communicating about it because their pattern of play has been established and they perform actions almost in auto-mode.

So, Asymmetrical Gameplay Will Solve Our Problems, Right?

Kind of.
Asymmetrical games indeed enhance collaboration between players. Obviously, this is prompted by the fact that each player has a different set of skills which forces them to collaborate, because all of them are necessary to win the game. In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, one player can interact with the bomb while the other one has access to the instructions to defuse it. This scenario forces players to keep communicating through the game or the bomb explodes.
In other words, yes asymmetrical gameplay helps to keep communication active through the whole game experience. However, Overcooked isn’t an asymmetrical game so, how do its’ creators make it a truly co-op symmetrical game?

But First, What Is Overcooked?

For anyone not familiar with the game, Overcooked is a local co-op cooking game for one to four players created by Ghost Town Games. The players need to prepare, cook and serve a series of orders to the customers before their time is up and they storm off, which is never good for business! Every player in Overcooked has the same abilities: chop vegetables, prepare ingredients, cook or boil food, plate, serve and wash up dishes. Symmetrical game right there.

This then brings the players to establish patterns of play: one chops the food, another one boils or cooks and another one plates and serves. Easy peasy!
So, why do most teams end up screaming to each other, throwing lettuces around and is that something burning I smell?!

The Secret Ingredient: Level Design

We start the level with a clear plan in mind: I’ll chop vegetables and my partner will cook and serve. We have divided the kitchen so we don’t bump into each other. We can do this, we are ready. Everything is going fine, we’ve found a rhythm and our dynamic is amazing. We’ve even started yelling “DISHES” when one of us is washing them up.
Suddenly, the level design changes and now I don’t have access to the vegetables, the kitchen stations keep moving and chaos surrounds us. BUT WHAT ABOUT OUR PERFECT PLAN?!

By separating players into sections and making it impossible for some players to access certain areas, Overcooked smartly uses level design to disrupt gameplay patterns, forcing players to continuously talk to each other, re-arrange priorities, change tasks and work together.

It’s still a symmetric game but the level design makes it so different that tasks are harder to perform or even impossible to achieve depending on how the level has changed. Other important mechanics are being punished for serving a customer late, having to wait for certain foods (if you wait you are being unproductive but if you leave and forget, FIRE!) or having to do the dishes.

All this adds up to create a truly co-op symmetric game, one where the need to communicate enhances the fun and, rumour has it, strengthens bonds.