Sitting down to write about Untitled Goose Game, with all of its bright colors, charming environments, and playful piano accompaniment, I found myself typing out words I’d already written before, but about another stealth game that (on its face) is much different. How can I sum up independent studio House House’s (technically nameless) game about being a trouble making goose? “In [Goose Game], success comes from playing along with the simulation just long enough before finally pulling the rug out from everything … [You’re] not the one, special gear in an intricately designed clockwork world. You’re the wrench.”
I wrote those words in December 2016 about IO Interactive’s Hitman, a game that (despite all the killing) feels so much like a predecessor to Goose Game that I’ve decided that they exist in the same world. Like the world’s greatest assassin, a goose sees the world differently than regular folks. You or I see a busy marketplace as an obstacle to walk through or a place to shop in. But Hitmen? Geese? They see everything they need to silently build a chaotic Rube Goldberg machine.
Untitled Goose Game is loosely split into five chapters, each tied to a location in a quaint village, like a vegetable garden or the town’s pub. The whole town is connected as one big map, with gates that open up as you complete key objectives in each place. (There are also a whole bunch of new, post-game objectives for those who want to continue to poke and prod at this dioramic world).
Each locale is filled with dozens of discrete items that you can pick up and drag around, and people attending to those items as they go about their daily lives, cycling between repetitive tasks. On the town’s main street, a kid can’t decide between kicking a ball and playing with a toy plane, while a shop owner endlessly bounces between pricing her items and sweeping the floor.
All that repetition makes for a dire vision of human life, which is probably why I felt a little bit like I was doing these boring people a favor when I showed up ready to disrupt their tedious lives by running around, honking, raising my wings up threateningly, and stealing stuff. (The four things geese can do, per Goose Game).
After you enter and begin poking around a new area, you’ll be given a short list of objectives. Some of these are simple: Steal the gardener’s keys; toss a pint glass into the river. These involve simple puzzle solving, like using the sound of a radio to guide someone in one direction while you snag the loot and dash. I often completed one of these before even looking at my objectives list, which always made me feel good, like I had inhabited some inherent goose-ness.
Other, more complex tasks require you (as in Hitman) to pay attention to the ways that items, NPCs, and the environment interact with each other. These objectives, like making someone repurchase something they already own, are where the game design shines most, as your puzzle solving takes on a hurried and improvisational character. Maybe you need to issue a well timed honk in order to shock someone into making a mistake, but that honk grabs the attention of someone else nearby, and suddenly you’ve got a pair of glasses in your beak and a woman with a broom chasing you out of her shop.
In some ways, the Hitman comparison breaks down at this exact point, in a few different ways: First, the worst that woman with the broom can do is shoo you away. As far as I can tell, there’s no hard failure in Goose Game. Get caught red beaked, and you’ll be ushered out of the way and every NPC nearby will do their best to set things back to the status quo, giving you another opportunity to go at it. These villagers may have anti-goose signs ready to go, but they’re content to live with this annoying goose rather than take serious action against them.
Second, while that improvisational mayhem making remains my favorite part of Goose Game, it is more limited than anything in Agent 47’s adventures. Goose’s toy box can feel a little barren sometimes—a little more Hitman Go than Hitman proper—and every now and then you get a task with a solution that feels particularly authored, like an old adventure game puzzle. In those moments, all of the chaos feels somehow put on, as if all these villagers are playing along with you.
Your goose is also a lot more fiddly than a normal stealth or puzzle game protagonist, but honestly, I’m here for it. I recently explained that part of my love of mech games had to do with the feeling of being just barely in control of your on-screen avatar, and it turns out, I feel the same about this damn goose. As you waddle through town, your goose’s head will tilt to stare at objects before you’ve even given thought to them. As you sprint away from that broom, the goose’s body with twist and turn with the weight of, well, a goose. You’re never fully out of control, but this goose never stops feeling like a living creature, and that contributes so much charm to the proceedings.
Which is really the whole of it, too. Goose Game takes the common video game fantasy of being someone else’s bad day and dresses it up with pastoral allure. I think you could probably cobble together a critique here: All the power fantasy with none of the consequences. But I think the more pertinent read is that Goose Game is an excellent example of how much incredible white space video games have yet to explore.
I mean, come on, it’s 2019. How the fuck is this the first time I’ve gotten to be a mischievous goose?