When I first tried Untitled Goose Game at PAX West in 2018, there was a simple joy to it that dissolved the anxiety of what was, otherwise, a challenging week for me. I had a good feeling about the game, that it’d generate a few good memes and even become a cult classic. Its quirky slapstick spin on puzzle mechanics, set to Debussy and raging honks, was bound to win its way into the hearts of players. But I didn’t predict that this game would become a runaway hit -- a nonpareil success in the rich scene of Aussie game development that I’ve covered for the last few years.
What made it stand out? Well, there are a few ingredients it’s mastered to great effect.
Making a game “iconic” feels about as easy (and meaningful) as striving to make it “epic.” The term is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but most of us can think of a few games that are instantly recognizable. Art isn’t a four letter word, and for all the mockery still heaped on arts students and artists, most successful games have a powerful sense of style that is at once unique and legible.
"Untitled Cassowary Game" - a user-made meme riffing on Goose Game (credit: @Donnough)
Goose Game’s art is consonant with its theme: light, caricatured, and distant. The humans have a certain amount of character but are faceless save for their distinct blobby noses. Everything is lineless -- and ever-so-slightly silly. Meanwhile, the humans’ thought bubbles and animated gestures complete a theme of wordless language. All told, it’s instantly recognizable but also simple enough to imitate -- which lends itself to a wealth of fan art and memetic word-of-mouth advertising. You know you’ve nailed a unique aesthetic when memes copy it in order to riff on your game. A meme’s language relies on instant legibility, after all.
Okay, hear me out. Untitled Goose Game II. It's a prequel. Historical, in fact.— Scott Lynch (@scottlynch78) October 9, 2019
It's a lovely day in August, 1944. The resistance is taking the fight to the village streets and the Nazis know you as "The Death That Honks." #untitledgoosegame pic.twitter.com/cRgx7MnF0R
Not every game can be, or needs to be funny, but there’s something worth studying about how Untitled Goose Game gets its many belly-laughs. The game is a masterclass in postmodern slapstick, updating the kind of comedy that made careers in early film.
In this case, Goose’s comedy gives it a nearly universal appeal. It is, again, wordless; it allows for easy translation. It thrives on uncontroversial and silly cartoon violence. You torment the hapless humans, but you never really hurt them. Instead, the game’s affordances offer a variety of comic puzzle gags. How you get the gardener damp in the first level is bound to elicit a chuckle, as is thwarting the broom-wielding shopkeeper in the second level. There’s inherent comedy in the premise, of course: a pain-in-the-ass goose who locks people in their garages and honks triumphantly.
Taken together, the game is a hilarious experience that’s actually fun to watch. At a recent conference several colleagues and I decamped to a friend’s house for pizza and a low-key party. Someone put Untitled Goose Game on while we were all sitting in the living room. I worried it would be an imposing and irritating distraction from our chit-chat but it, instead, supplanted it in the best way. The value of a watchable game -- that is, a game that’s fun for onlookers to watch someone else play -- is sometimes underestimated, especially in the era of always-online games. Goose has that social watchability in spades. My friends/colleagues and I were all watching one fellow play the game and collaborating on solving its puzzles -- and laughing uproariously at his goose antics. Hearing an academic yell “get rekt!” as his goose drenched a hapless gardener with his own sprinkler was... an experience.
Your goal in the game is to make mischief in very specific ways. Make someone hammer his own hand; make someone buy back their own stuff; get on TV; trap someone in a phone booth; break someone’s vase. Sometimes even the simplest sounding goals -- break a shopkeeper’s broom -- can prove to be tricky to solve (that particular one is especially amenable to being overthought).
There’s an elegance to this: simple goals that admit multiple solutions and extensive fiddling with the game. Goose does an excellent job riffing on its limited suite of themes. In essence, the game takes our proclivity for mucking about in video games (think of all the ways we played around with the ability to pick up random objects in games like Skyrim or Gone Home) and made it the core mechanic by focusing it. As the goose, you grab stuff in your bill and drag, tweak, twist, or poke it about. And thus the goose, possessed by a malevolent intelligence, turns the average player’s aimless futzing-around into a directed and purposeful affair.
Goose is, at heart, a puzzle game. But its theme, its humor, and its mechanics all garland that problem-solving with a great deal of unique fun. This is a game whose puzzles can often be solved many ways, where almost everything is tactile, and where amusing bits of interaction (like using a walkie-talkie to ‘throw’ your honks) fill the gaps in between more mundane silliness.
Yet it is a simple game, a testament to minimalism. Like so many good games of its ilk, it does a lot with a little. A sparing but distinct art style, a piece of classical music that’s elegantly programmed with a dash of dynamism, basic and wordless humor, and simple controls. If a “mechanic” is how a player interacts with the world you give them, then Goose has very few indeed. But what’s there affords the player such a wide range of possibilities that the game becomes a kind of slapstick canvas.
The fun lies in making your own signature mischief as one damnable goose.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.