Those who follow video gaming might already be tired of hearing about Untitled Goose Game, the new indie title from Aussie developer House House. While it can be hard to gauge the extent to which anything captures the zeitgeist these days, it feels like this weird little indie game where the player is a goose tormenting a quaint English town has struck some kind of chord with people. It’s exactly the sort of game that the internet loves, goofy and meme-worthy, and people who aren’t charmed by it will probably get sick of hearing about how charming it is. As I played I found myself with several moments of pure joy, the joy of discovery and of the chaos I could rain down on this little village. But that joy extends beyond the chaos in its soul and the slick presentation. There’s some really sharp game design in Untitled Goose Game, and regardless of how short the game is, the whole package is worth talking about.
Certainly a huge part of Untitled Goose Game’s success comes from the protagonist. There’s a certain satisfying silliness to that white goose as it waddles around and honks at people. It’s able to run, but it sacrifices its maneuverability when it does so. It can also duck its head down and sneak slowly through areas, or it can manipulate its environment with its beak. Some items are small enough for the goose to carry them around, but others have to be drug slowly along the ground. You can even flap your wings around to punctuate the movement with a little extra goose-i-ness.
Aside from the on-point animations, these actions serve as a sort of toolkit for the player. The game does a great job at broadcasting when you can interact with something in your environment, whether it’s a switch you can flip or a flower you can pick. The world around you is filled with things like this. The overall effect is a little like a classic adventure game. You have the range of actions you can take with a range of items, and it’s up to you to figure out how to combine them in ways that will accomplish your goals. Untitled Goose Game does a great job at creating a living environment, populated with people who you can experiment on like rats in a maze.
And oh what people they are. If I had to point to any particular factor that makes this game work so well, it would have to be the population of this poor little hamlet. Everyone is going about their own tasks, and they all respond differently to you. Some will ignore you unless you try to do something irritating. Some will actively chase you away if you get to close, or will run away if you chase them. They have favorite activities, favorite objects, and predictable behavior, and as a result they broadcast enormous amounts of personality. It’s these characters that elevate the game beyond an adventure game, into the realm of games like Thief. This is an environment that the player can use to create their own solutions. When you are able to mark off any of the objectives the game gives you, it doesn’t feel like an achievement. You feel less like someone who solved a puzzle, and more like Bugs Bunny, tormenting and hassling people who give off the distinct impression that they need to be taken down a peg.
This setup allows for moments where I literally laughed out loud. Some of the townspeople are just begging to be picked on, like the shopkeeper who chases you with a broom or the lady who has filled her yard with tacky lawn ornaments. There’s a vaguely anti-authoritarian vibe to the whole game, where you get to rain chaos on people who like things to be in their own place and will not abide any minor changes, thank you very much. The village is rendered with a stuffy British air, and it feels really satisfying to bring down everyone’s property value a bit. The presentation, while suffering here and there from things like characters clipping into each other, is generally really nice looking. It’s done in a cell-shaded style with excellent animations and graphical cues, making the game super easy to comprehend and pick up.
A lot of that last part comes down to the actual design of the game. This is one of those titles that does a great job of teaching you how to play. It places you in distinct areas of the town, what in game terms are basically levels. After giving you a series of goals to accomplish, it will eventually give you another task that will open up the next area. It’s not exactly a seamless open world, but it feels like a cohesive whole, which is what counts. The four areas in the game all build off of each other expertly. The slow build in complexity makes each successive objective that much more satisfying. And without spoiling the fun, it ties together in a finale that almost made me want to stand up and applaud. It forces the player to draw on all of the mechanical lessons they have learned, while still taking the whole narrative full circle in a satisfying and hilarious way.
In this regard the game reminded me of another short, punchy puzzle game that captured gamers’ imaginations and led to a hundred tired memes: Portal. Like Valve’s classic game, the power of Untitled Goose Game comes down partly to its acknowledgment of its limits. It has a strong concept that it returns to over and over again, building on it in ways that also serve to generate some black-hearted laughs. And just when you begin thinking you’ve had enough, it has the good sense to end. To be sure, this is a very short game, taking me perhaps 2-3 hours to work through the main story. (There are bonus objectives to play after the finale too.) But at no point does it overstay its welcome, and I never felt like it was holding out on the good stuff just to make sure I had so many hours of play. I’m in my mid-30s now, and my gaming time is valuable. Untitled Goose Game respects its audience enough to use its concept for all its worth and get out before it overstays its welcome.
I don’t want to praise Untitled Goose Game too much, because a huge part of its power is in its modest intentions. This is not a triple A title, and a lot of people will balk at paying $15-$20 for about three hours of play. But in that three hours I laughed out loud numerous times, and it encouraged me to experiment and goof around in a way that few other games do. Anyone who has ever dealt with geese in real life knows what a pain they can be, but after seeing things from the goose’s perspective I can kind of see why they act like that.