Untitled Goose Game begins with a honk. A goose emerges from a bush, focused and feathered, with no other purpose than to test the mettle of local villagers. The makers of this video game—the best-selling title for the Nintendo Switch as of this week—describe it as a “slapstick-stealth-sandbox” experience, in which players direct a bird to do mildly mean things to people as they go about their day. This rude creature shrieks at villagers, takes their things, and gets in their way, all while solving puzzles that grow more complex and twisted. The best encapsulation of the game comes in its tagline: “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.”
The work of a tiny Melbourne studio called House House, Untitled Goose Game got its start as a gag on the messaging platform Slack. Two weeks after its official release, on September 20, the game is wildly popular and has already become a meme generator. It’s currently topping the lists for both all games and digital downloads for the Nintendo Switch, beating out recent releases from two megahit series, Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda. Goose is hardly the first indie game to resonate so strongly with people; another surprise best seller, Stardew Valley, which lets players realize their dreams of raising crops on a farm, has inspired a whole category of Etsy wares. But in contrast to that pleasant concept and to other classic titles that invite players to take up the hero’s mantle, Untitled Goose Game’s appeal lies in how it encourages people to be their petty selves.
The game is most gratifying when players devise the canniest, most unexpected, and most unnecessary ways to trick the poor villagers whose unfortunate assignment it is to share a world with this wicked waterfowl. Sneaking and cheating are game-play elements that get rewarded; being a bad goose is what it must feel like to be a card sharp, or a pool shark, or a Patriots fan. Though delightful, the game revealed its dark side to me early on. Like anyone else, I quietly endure tiny slights in my everyday life—when someone passes me abruptly in the bike lane or doesn’t hold the elevator—because I’m a socialized adult. But the goose knows no law, and through this avatar I can channel my silent screams into a cri de coeur. Honk! It can’t be healthy to take this much joy in harassing strangers, even if virtually.
A goose turns out to be a perfect vehicle for carrying out various misdeeds and misdemeanors. With its low frame and snaking neck, this bird is anatomically designed for snatching objects and causing mischief (its abilities in the game include honking, grabbing, crouching, and flapping). Players guide their goose through four open-ended, nonlinear stages: a garden, a market, a pub, and a pair of neighboring backyards. Gentle cel-shaded graphics, presented in an axonometric overhead view, are bright and legible, and each destination has its own set of puzzles. Accomplish a task or solve a puzzle, and a menu will show that you’ve crossed that item off that to-do list. (I should note that there’s no obligation to do any of this stuff; screeching at people is its own fun.)
The goose’s agenda items involve being a nuisance (“get the groundskeeper wet”), sowing chaos (“trap the boy in the phone booth”), and sure-to-go-viral tasks (“rake in the lake”). Each of the locations in the village has its own combination goal, too, which calls for gathering several hard-to-get objects. “Doing the wash,” for example, means stealing a bra, a slipper, a pair of socks, and a bar of soap from the hapless neighbors. Honking at these innocents only makes them more human: They grow visibly irritated by their helplessness in the face of a persistent pest.
Still, after two weeks of playing this game, I’ve come to resent the villagers’ comfortable lives, perhaps as a way to justify my own terrible behavior as the goose. I imagine that the retiree whose teacup I’m conspiring to take is reading a newspaper I wouldn’t like. I curse out loud as I navigate around the bouncer who’s trying to shoo me away from the bistro. Why should this restaurant have a pepper grinder when Goose does not? Their ordered world is offensive; it fills me with rage. I think there could be a way to nudge the neighbors toward romance, but I decline to do so. Goose abhors love.
The hidden genius of Untitled Goose Game comes in the morally corrupting mystery tasks that players unearth. While there’s an explicit list of chores for each of the four stages, there are also secret lists that can be unlocked by committing truly wily crimes. For example, the goose might shut the groundskeeper out of his garden by luring him outside the gate before stealing his keys. Doing so brings up the satisfying graphic of a pencil scratching a puzzle off a hidden list—one whose items are veiled until they’re solved. In other words, the only way to find every reward in this game is to be excessively, creatively cruel.
This is where Untitled Goose Game crosses over from a lark to a possible civilizational threat. The more twisted the prank, the greater the dopamine payoff. (Mild spoilers ahead.) Of the two secret lists I’ve unlocked (so far), the most fulfilling victory was stealing a spade from the groundskeeper, making him chase my goose all the way to the store (where I’d hidden his tool), and watching as he was forced to buy it back from the shopkeeper (a twist on a conventional prescribed task). The most challenging trick involved dribbling a child’s soccer ball across the village to score a goal. When I succeeded—when my goose nudged a stolen soccer ball into an idle net—I found myself shouting expletives about hitting like Pelé.
Honking through a stolen harmonica is fun. Plotting out all the ways in which a harmonica can be stacked with other hijinks in a pyramid of pranks? That’s satisfying. But standing up from my seat and screaming about dominating some random villager at the pub because I, the goose, have stolen his harmonica? That’s cause for some soul searching. I fear that this game—whether it’s the combination of cartoon violence and children’s-book aesthetic, or maybe the simple, spare piano soundtrack—has unleashed something sinister inside me. Maybe I am the horrible goose, barely keeping my impulsive desires for calamity, deception, and noise in public spaces in check. If this goose snatches your moral compass too, try looking for it in the lake.
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