Games

Honks vs. Quacks: A Long Chat With the Developers of 'Untitled Goose Game'

The shocking origin behind the game's iconic HONK, and other stories from a studio still trying to understand why Blink-182 likes their game.

by Patrick Klepek
Oct 16 2019, 1:00pm

Image courtesy of House House

It would have been fine, maybe even enough, if Untitled Goose Game’s legacy was a funny trailer for a video game concept that worked better in theory than in practice. There are worse fates, you know? But in 2019, a year where the news outweirds itself on a daily basis and events feel plucked from a randomizer that’s pulling ideas out of a hat, our current status is equally plausible: Untitled Goose Game is not just a funny game but an excellent one.

If you haven’t played Untitled Goose Game yet, you should. It’s both short and funny as heck, a biting combo. Austin’s review from last month, comparing the game to Hitman, is worth a read. It’s the kind of game you can play with people who claim they don’t like games, and if you have children, they will enjoy pressing the HONK button over and over again. In a time when you have infinite games to play, it’s still worth carving out some time for this one.

By all accounts, Untitled Goose Game is a success, in that it’s sold a lot of copies. But it’s also been a very different type of success: Untitled Goose Game is a meme, a cultural icon.

Untitled Goose Game has achieved an awareness most games dream of, drawing interest from surprising places. A few days back, Twin Peaks actor Kyle MacLachlan tweeted about trying to track down the elusive goose. One of social media’s universally beloved icons, Chrissy Teigen, who’s shown an interest in games in the past, wanted to know what was up. At TwitchCon, the band Blink-182 was hyping up the crowd by giving the game a shout out.

There’s also fan art everywhere, transporting the havoc-inducing goose to moments in time where their unconventional approach to the world could have benefits, to turning the bird into a symbol for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. There’s a good chance people are sharing Untitled Goose Game jokes without knowing Untitled Goose Game is a real game.

Which is all to say this must be a surreal moment for House House, the developers of Untitled Goose Game. It is not their first game. Push Me Pull You, a gross-looking sports game about bodies stretching to unnatural lengths, put them on the map during the local multiplayer trend. But Untitled Goose Game is another level of attention. It’s a phenomenon.

It has to be a moment that’s given House House pause, and I wanted to know more about that pause. Fortunately, Untitled Goose Game designer Michael McMaster was willing to spend some time with me recently over email, answering everything from the absurd to the insightful. We talked about everything from the politics of the goose, to a shocking revelation about the origins of its HONK, to the haphazard and fumbly way the game was developed. It's a chat as wide-ranging as the game itself.

VICE Games: This morning, I asked my three-year-old daughter what sound a goose makes. She told me "goose goose goose." When I told her it was, in fact, "honk," she shook her head and repeated "goose goose goose." Thoughts?

Michael McMaster: I mean, I'm not the authority on geese—the meaning of art is malleable and should be in the hands of its consumers, not its creators. Can't say I totally agree, but that’s her opinion and I respect it. “Goose goose goose,” sure, love it.

VICE Games: Untitled Goose Game is, as of this writing, the most popular game on the eShop. It's a meme. It's being talked about by everyone from Blink-182 to Chrissy Teigen. Are you doing OK? Be honest.

That’s a really thoughtful question—I wish I could give a straightforward answer. The four of us are mainly overwhelmed, I think. We’re happy, of course, but we’re also very tired, and emotionally fragile, and probably a bit manic. It’s been a very strange feeling to be able to, at any moment, open up our Twitter notifications and see a flood of positive responses to the game, and videos, and people making memes, and BRANDS making memes, and Blink 182 and Chrissy Teigen, and everything else. It’s weird to be able to turn that tap on at any point, and it’s sometimes hard to turn it off. So we’re all a bit overstimulated, maybe.

We knew from when we first posted our trailer that people were excited about the game, but throughout development I think we all operated in this very risk-averse way—trying not to get our hopes up, reminding ourselves that maybe people just like to watch videos of this game, and might not actually enjoy playing it. We were very prepared for the most pessimistic outcome, but I don’t think we ever let ourselves prepare for the most optimistic one. Trying to process all of this (while also speaking to a lot of press, and fielding a huge pile of emails, and patching fixes to the game) has made for a very weird couple of weeks.

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VICE Games: What's been your favorite moment of this explosion in interest? You can name a few.

As emotionally complex as everything has been for us, there have been a bunch of moments of totally uncomplicated joy. We’ve been enormous fans of the Scottish comedian Limmy for years, so watching him play through our game was incredible (and the fact that he actually liked it, something we weren’t expecting, was even better).

The speedrunning scene that has popped up around the game has been absolutely wild to watch. I love speedrunning, and had always secretly hoped that a few people might try it with this game—watching the Any% category get more or less perfected in a matter of days, and then seeing people start to route glitchless and 100% categories, has just been such a totally joyous thing to watch.

Another thing, which is maybe a bit obvious: the positive critical response has been amazing. We’d known for years that people were excited for this game from its trailers, but were always a bit nervous about how that would affect people’s expectations for the game—the news that it had, apparently, lived up to its hype, let me shed a very specific anxiety that I’d been carrying around for years. Maybe this is too much, but I wanted to say how much I appreciated Austin’s review on your site in particular: throughout development we’d sometimes had to be defensive of the slightly awkward way the goose moved and controlled, though I’d never found a good vocabulary for actually describing WHY it felt good to us—his recognition and description of that stuff was deeply gratifying and relieving to read.

VICE Games: Before we talk too much about where things stand now, can we go back a hot minute? What was the original germ of an idea for Untitled Goose Game? And when did it actually become a game you were making?

The original moment of inspiration is, thankfully, very clearly documented: in August 2016, Stuart posted a stock photo of a goose in our Slack and said, jokingly, “we should make a game about this”. We joked for a bit about why we thought geese are funny. I tweeted about it and we all forgot about the conversation for a while.

This was a few months after we’d released our first game, Push Me Pull You, which was a 2D local-multiplayer game—we knew then that we wanted our next project to be in 3D, and to be single-player. We were also interested in making a game about moving a body around in space in interesting ways (Mario 64 is a major point of inspiration for us)—we played around with a non-goose prototype for a while, but it never really clicked for us. At some point we revisited that Slack conversation and took the idea of a game about a goose seriously. We started out by modelling and animating a goose and giving it a range of things to do—honk, flap, crane its neck, etc. We didn’t have any kind of mechanical context for these actions, we just started with the goose itself. We added some people who had objects that they liked to keep in one place, and if the goose took the objects they’d chase it down and put the objects back in place. We sort of muddled our way into making a systemic stealth-ish game, but it was always a very bottom-up approach—the goose came first.

VICE Games: Possibly the most important question of all: Who is the goose based on? Is there an origin goose? You must have recorded the sound somewhere. Who is the voice of the HONK?

The goose is based on that stock image of a goose, or maybe the collectively-imagined goose we described in that Slack conversation—our platonic goose. White and orange, frowning mouth, honking noise. A classic goose. We get asked a lot if we’d add an option for a Canada Goose skin, but we’ve always bristled at this—ours is a game about THIS goose, our specific goose, not a customisable goose-avatar.

Regarding the honk: the honk in the game was added by our amazing sound designer, Em Halberstadt. In the credits, there’s a credit for the voice of the goose, too. In our very first trailer before Em had come on board, the goose is actually quacking (but that’s a longer development anecdote and I’ve probably already written too much!)

VICE Games: Sorry, now you have to tell me that anecdote.

Okay, I might’ve oversold this but, yep, our honk was originally a quack. In our first trailer before our sound designer Em had come on board, most of our sounds had been sourced from freesound.org—we had trouble finding a perfect discrete honk, but eventually found one that was nice and short and sharp from a field recording titled “Geese honking”, or something similar. We clipped it out and put it in the trailer. After the trailer blew up in late 2017, we got a bunch of emails telling us that, actually, this was definitively a duck’s quack. We went back and looked up the field recording, and read the expanded description, which was something: “Several geese honking recorded in a churchyard in Ireland. There might be one or two duck quacks in there, not sure.”

It turns out honks are kind of slow and warbly, so it took a long time to find a replacement that had the same qualities as that quack—loud and abrupt and rude. With Em’s very patient expertise we eventually settled on our authentic canonical honk.

VICE Games: Do you remember what the a-ha moment was, once you were playing with the concept? Was there an early puzzle, something that made you all go "OK, we're onto something here."

So, our original vision for this game was much bigger and more impersonal than where it ended up—we’d imagined a big clockwork system of dozens of little faceless people, all moving around on their own schedule that the goose was there to disrupt. Pretty quickly, though, the game became a lot more detailed and intimate than that. The closest thing to an a-ha moment would’ve been when Jake rigged up the goose and the groundskeeper with an inverse kinematics system, so that they’d turn their heads to look at each other when standing at a certain distance. That eye contact went SUCH a long way to informing the emotional tenor of the game—these two characters staring silently at each other suddenly had this very distinct interpersonal relationship. This was a long way from the impersonal crowds we’d originally envisioned—that simple bit of IK injected so much humanity into the game. It still feels really special.

VICE Games: The world sucks right now. It often sucks, but it really sucks at the moment. There's not much to cheer about, and the news is relentlessly upsetting. But people seem to have latched onto Untitled Goose Game and run with it; it's become a vehicle of humor, of happiness. Why?

We’ve been asked this question a few times now and I’ve never found a good answer—I don’t think we as the game’s creators are any better equipped to answer this than anyone else, honestly. I get a bit uncomfortable when people say that this game is “what the world needs right now,” or something along those lines - I don’t like the idea that our game (or media in general) succeeds because it anaesthetises people to the horrors of the world, when clarity and action are more urgently necessary than ever. Maybe I’m overthinking it, though? I’d be curious to hear what someone with a better grasp of media theory than me might have to say.

We’ve had a lot of messages from people who have been going through bad times recently, letting us know that our game was a nice respite from that, which I will say was very deeply heartwarming. In very simple terms, we set out to make a funny and joyful game, and it’s extremely gratifying to hear that for most people we did this successfully. I don’t think I can offer a more nuanced answer than that.

"We knew from when we first posted our trailer that people were excited about the game, but throughout development I think we all operated in this very risk-averse way—trying not to get our hopes up, reminding ourselves that maybe people just like to watch videos of this game, and might not actually enjoy playing it. We were very prepared for the most pessimistic outcome."

VICE Games: Can you talk about the design process for building the world and the puzzles buried within? Everything feels handcrafted, purposeful. Presumably, achieving that was a lot of hard work.

Generally speaking, our process is generally a bit of a mess—the four of us in House House don’t work with defined development roles or clear ownership over any single part of the game, which means that basically every creative decision needs to be one we’re all happy with. So it’s a lot of talking.

In this sense, developing the areas and puzzles of our world felt a bit like a writers’ room at times - we’d start with a very broad context (“the backyards of two neighbours that you play against each other a la Yojimbo”) and then we’d workshop a big list of gags that could potentially take place within that context. Once we had a few setpieces in mind, Jake would start building a level around them, which typically underwent a lot of revision as we tried to shoehorn in setups for more gags.

There were a few mechanical constraints that we had to keep in mind when it came to actually implementing these gags into the game. The core loop of the game involves people tidying up in the wake of the goose, so we had to devise a way for every puzzle to be self-resetting: this way failed (or successful) pranks could be attempted and enjoyed again. We had a very weird line drawn in the sand regarding how the goose could plausibly interact with the world: they could pick things up and move them around, or interact with simple switches, but they couldn’t combine items with other items or make use of them in a way that feels too clever (so, a goose can turn on a tap, but it can’t put a key in a lock).

VICE Games: The commitment to the bit of a game called Untitled Goose Game was impressive, but you must have, at some point, considered something more traditional. Can you share one of them?

Before we committed to Untitled Goose Game as a working title (and then eventually as the actual non-title) we were toying with calling it just “Goose”, I think? I honestly have such a hazy memory of that time, but you can see in the first few seconds of the 2017 pre-alpha trailer that we’d titled it that way. It was never a serious consideration, though, just a placeholder.

Beyond that there were never any other actual contenders, I’m sorry. Part of that is because, once we’d posted that first trailer under Untitled Goose Game, we got flooded with suggestions of more or less every conceivable title, and we realised quickly that we were too stubborn to take someone else’s suggestion. I’m glad the title ended up where it did, anyway.

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VICE Games: I wanted to follow-up on a point you made regarding the mechanical and creative limits of the goose. How much of that was defined at first, foundationally, and how much of that was discovered as you started putting the game together? It seems like it would have been pretty easy to start designing more elaborate gags that relied on the goose being human-level smart.

I think a lot of those constraints were informed by our own instincts about what felt appropriate to the tone of the game. We didn’t sit down and write out a big design document detailing what we thought the goose could and couldn’t do, but we quickly worked out those implicit boundaries for ourselves anyway—once we’d decided that the goose couldn’t use the groundskeeper’s keys to open the door to the garden, we had to stick with that rule for the rest of the game. For a game like ours, where very few of the game’s implicit rules are spelled out to the player, this kind of consistency is pretty crucial.

These game design guidelines were meant to support the fictional conceit that this goose could plausibly just be muddling its way through the town like Mr. Magoo, acting on its own instinctual whims, unaware of the consequences of any of its actions. Of course, throughout the game the goose does a bunch of very complex interconnected actions, so there’s a kind of cartoon-logic suspension of disbelief happening (and the existence of the to-do list and the pile of bells throws this all out the window anyway—but it was a useful constraint to keep in mind).

All of that said, it’s not as though we found ourselves totally fenced-in by this constraint—we weren’t ever trying to concoct especially elaborate gags. The gags that felt right to us were typically very low-stakes and elemental, like any good slapstick bit—we never really wanted to get much more ambitious than pulling a chair away from someone as they’re sitting down.

VICE Games: Has the process of making this game, and the ensuing and surprising response to it, changed any part of your development process? What's the internal legacy of making Untitled Goose Game?

This is a very good question, but I don’t think I’ve got a particularly good answer in me at the moment! Maybe I could tell you this once we’ve started work on whatever comes next.

VICE Games: Finally, one last question from Austin Walker: You're on the record stating that the villagers of Untitled Goose Game are Marxists, and that in the game's version of the U.K., the Conservative Party declined after a goose chased Thatcher out of office. Does that mean that the goose is a countercultural reactionary, hoping to disrupt this peaceful socialist village and reinstate neoliberal values? Or is it loyal to another school of leftist politics? Trotskyism? Syndicalism? Anarcho-primitivism maybe?

Similarly to my response to your daughter, I’m gonna have to call “death of the author” on this one. If you’re happiest playing the game through the lens of the goose as a tankie, sure, go for it! We’re certainly overjoyed to see people claiming the goose as a leftist icon.

As far as we’re concerned, though, the goose is a goose—I’d said before that the goose can’t put a key in a lock, so we probably also need to concede that it can’t also be motivated by a complex political ideology. The goose is just a goose. That tweet we wrote was a tongue-in-cheek pushback against this idea that it’s necessary to think of these townspeople as evil in order to enjoy harassing them—we have a very deep fondness for these villagers and felt like they deserved defending. They’re working class people just trying to get on with their day, and you are a horrible goose—you're meant to feel at least a little bit bad about what you’re doing.

I’m very wary, though, of this being taken as a kind of deluded “our games don’t have politics” position. It’s definitely not—like all creative work, this game was made through a series of political decisions. Even if this doesn’t explicitly manifest in the text of the game, there are a bunch of ambient traces of our politics evident throughout it: this is why there are no cops in the game, and why there’s no crown on the postbox. This isn’t to say we’ve executed things perfectly—there are definitely big problems inherent to our presentation of rural England as a rosy storybook utopia. But we do try to be critical in how we reflect the world through our games, and responsible about the conditions of their production.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've had an encounter with a goose you want to share, drop an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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