Any person who grew up near English parks knows that there is a strict hierarchy of power at play in every one. Starting from the bottom up, it goes: earthworms, woodlice, joggers, rats, pigeons, picnickers, wasps, creepy ice-cream sellers, ducks, foxes, wasps again, the scary Doberman who barks at everything, drunk groundskeepers, the damp porn magazines behind the bushes, more wasps, and finally the mighty goose. Well, at least until a cabal of swans show up and things get all Game of Thrones on you.
And developers House House have attempted to frame that superiority of honker versus human with the new Untitled Goose Game. No, that’s actually what it’s called. I guess naming things isn’t House House’s strong suit, as should be made clear by the fact that they called themselves House House.
Still, the game has become the hottest meme on the internet this week for its portrayal of loose-goose chaos in a quaint English setting, so I downloaded it for the Switch and decided to see how many goose puns I could think of for the review. I might’ve taken it to egg-stremes.
MOTHER (****ING) GOOSE
Untitled Goose Game starts off, suitably enough, with an untitled goose, whom the player controls from a high third-person perspective. Goose Springsteen pops out of the bushes, honks a few times – or a lot, if you play him like I do – then sets off into the neighbouring idyllic village to wreak meaningless havoc on the poor people who live there, including an elderly gardener, a small child and the befuddled patrons of the local pub. It really feels like somebody saw the swan subplot in Hot Fuzz and decided to make a game explaining what it was doing between fleeing Simon Pegg and mauling Jim Broadbent.
None of the plot goes explained in any detail, but it really doesn’t need to – England has a proud history of wildlife that excels in being harmlessly but persistently irritating, and Ryan Gosling here is clearly just content to make his way through the world, sparking fury in his wake. The game itself is a series of small environments threaded together with a few NPCs moving around each one, and once you find a new area you’re given a checklist of tricks that’ll psychologically torment the local population. Wander uninvited into a garage sale and you’ll soon have a bunch of pointless cruelties to try – start stacking items into a shopping basket when the owner isn’t looking, steal somebody’s stuff and put it on the shelf so they’re forced to buy it back, or just run in circles around the aggrieved shopkeeper, honking and flapping your wings in a show of outrageous self-promotion.
It’s worth mentioning that I saw a lot of people comparing this to Goat Simulator, and I really don’t think that’s accurate. For one thing, I Love Goosey is a lot more structured, and more realistic – but in a way that makes it a lot more funny. The little town you come crashing into feels like a genuine place, which consequently makes ruining it a lot more satisfying as Goose Willis comes bursting out of the topiary with a cocky strut and malice on his mind. The village has a palpable sense of atmosphere and your antics somehow feel like both an extension and a cancellation of that same tone, as you run with somebody’s slipper held tightly in your beak, the owner hopping after you in desperate pursuit.
That being said, there is a big bald spot amidst these soft, downy feathers – the ending. Or rather, the time it takes to get to the ending. I managed to make it to the credits about two hours after I started playing, and though there are optional post-game challenges, that added up to about another hour of game. This would be fine if it cost about a fiver, but Untitled Goose Game cost more than fifteen pounds, which doesn’t lead to a great cash-for-value experience, despite the fact that the game is fun to play.
It’s strange, because it seems to me that thinking of new areas shouldn’t exactly be hard. Three of the games four main locations are basically just variations on the theme of “garden”, and we never get to explore anywhere indoors – you know, where the greatest opportunities for chaos would definitely be. No kitchen level? No library? No schoolyard or village fete? Or what about the local am-dram, pecking at the heels of actors trying desperately to get through the next scene of Glengarry Glen Ross? There’s so much more room for this idea to breath, but it’s practically over before James Gander Beak has time to properly traumatise anybody. I worry that the comparative shortness of the game is really going to damage its reputation, because after the initial joke is over that’s the thing that looms largest in my mind.
THE WILDEST GOOSE CHASE
There are only four functions in the game besides basic movement – honk, pick things up, sprint and spread your wings, though I have no idea what the last one is for. Gannet Jackson can’t fly or even glide, so throwing your wings out just feels like an elaborate taunt that the game won’t admit is completely useless.
Still, the game makes the most out of the other functions. It turns out there’s actually a fair amount of stealth and chasing involved in being a goose, as you sneak up on an old man to knock away his chair, or hide inside a box Metal Gear Solid style to infiltrate a pub garden, waiting for the perfect moment to burst out like a stripper from a cake. There’s usually no way to win in a fight with a human being unless the game provides a context to do it with, but even then there’s no risk of death – they usually just shoo you away or snatch back whatever object you stole, gently resetting you to square one as you already begin to plan your next caper.
Where these mechanics fall down is in the fine details. It’s got the occasional programming error – it’s quite easy to run in circles around people and watch them spin in place, ironically paralysed by their pathfinding A.I.. Another time I watched someone carefully and painstakingly stack several bags of compost I’d knocked over, then immediately walk into them and send them flying further than I ever could. It’s also hard to say there’s any replay value here – the game is essentially a series of puzzles, working out how to orchestrate events to your advantage (and to everybody else’s disadvantage). Once you know the puzzles, you’re only really in it for the honking, though there’s always going to be a joy in showing it to other people and getting their bewildered first reaction.
Still, the game makes the satisfaction of solving a puzzle palpable, the wing-spreading and frantic, exuberant honking a wonderful cherry on the cake. There’s something like a prank show about the experience, seeing somebody get sprayed with a sprinkler and having Goosey Liu explode out of the bushes to taunt them, whooping: “You just got GOOSED! Honkhonkhonkhonkhonkhonk-”
And yet it’s also very zen despite that, weirdly enough. The clean, flat aesthetic and tinkly piano music that runs throughout the whole game keeps things feeling innocent and low-stakes, but with a good level of challenge. It’s relaxing, a Sunday-afternoon of a game best experienced with biscuits and tea as you sink into the sofa. It’s certainly not deep, but it is nonetheless clever, and is perhaps close to the best possible version of what it’s trying to be.
IS BIRD THE WORD?
I definitely enjoyed Untitled Goose Game, but it was a quick and fleeting thing, to the extent that it plays a little sour in my mind now. I feel confident in advising others to check it out, but I can’t suggest a full-price purchase unless you’re feeling especially flush. The adventures of Goose Willis won’t tide you over for a week, only an evening – though I can assure you that it will be a fun evening.
That being said, I’d like to elaborate briefly on something I noticed over the last fortnight. See, several “big” games have recently come out at time of writing – Gears 5, Borderlands 3 and Link’s Awakening among them, flashy triple-A titles promised for months, if not years in advance. And yet Untitled Goose Game is the one I keep seeing mentioned most, the one that’s gotten the most actual coverage and keeps cropping up on social media. And yes, this may just be a coincidence, but the game is definitely holding the world’s attention, with dozens of positive articles in major news sites over the last week, going above and beyond the obligatory reviews. How many indie games can say they got that? House House has given the world something it didn’t know it wanted…
.. So why does this all bother me as much as it does? Because it does bother me, it bothers me a lot. I don’t resent Goose Game’s success in any way, and I always love when an indie success eclipses the bloated mega-mainstream releases. No, I resent the media for focusing on it as much as it has, especially when superior games have only been flash-in-the-pan trends that lasted for a week and then died quietly. The comparison to Goat Simulator might’ve been what started those alarm bells – Goat Simulator was a game designed to be a meme, to be carved up into Twitter Gifs that fly around the internet like picture postcards. And yes, I’ll say again that UGG is better, but the internet is still largely approaching it on that level, and that’s the problem.
When Valve made Portal 2, co-writer Erik Wolpaw specifically made an effort to write dialogue that was difficult to make memes out of, and they were mostly successful (with the exception of Cave Johnson’s diatribe on combustible lemons). No more cake talk, no more deliberating on the Companion Cube. “We want to tell an interesting story,” Wolpaw told Gamasutra. “We didn’t jettison everything, but I absolutely do not want to try and resurrect a three-year-old meme. That seems like it would be kind of sad. It’s not a good idea.”
He was right. And yes, clearly Wolpaw was also just tired of hearing the same jokes over and over, but he wasn’t wrong about it being a bad idea. Memes are easy and accessible by their nature, internet in-jokes that anybody can get nonetheless. But what worries me is that indie games are going to start courting meme humour in order to get any kind of media profile, counter-intuitively taking the lower path for the higher result. I can’t even blame them for this – game development is a cutthroat industry, and if this sort of thing will keep the lights on, you might have to forgo depth for your own sake. No, the blame is with us for encouraging this sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible or even shallow once in a while, but all I can think of are the great indie games that eschewed meme humour or even humour of any kind – Return of the Obra Dinn, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Katana Zero – and I feel a little bleak about the fact that none of my friends knew what they were until I told them.
Still, it’s just a thought – albeit one that gives me goosebumps.
AN ENDEARING COUNTRY ROMP THAT ENDS ABRUPTLY AND WITHOUT MUCH FANFARE, UNTITLED GOOSE GAME AIMS FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF THE SIMPLEST POSSIBLE IDEA, AND IS MOSTLY SUCCESSFUL IN THE PROCESS.