Untitled Goose Game is, if not quite universally beloved, overwhelmingly esteemed. Though the title has seen conditionally amicable reviews (it fails on the $/hour test that somehow, in 2019, still dictates review scores), its indefatigable charm has rendered it both a financial success and a momentary cultural touchstone, one of those rare games that escapes the orbit of the hobby. It is a work that, despite its tasklist gameplay, people want to adore. As I wrote this paragraph, my video game-indifferent six-year-old daughter wandered over and asked me what I was writing. “Ohhhhh. I love the goose game,” she remarked, chuckling evilly.
There is no denying the charms of Untitled Goose Game. The minor havoc it grants the player is enticing and guiltless. Its scenery is simple and inviting, its cost for entry minimal, its stakes low. In an art form dominated by power fantasies and epic drama, the quiet village that is the goose’s world feels almost comfortingly limited, insular, as if the walls of the game were put there not to keep you in, but everything else out. But for all the memes and the references to what the game does, it’s what it doesn’t do that makes it so successful.
It doesn’t overstay. My favorite rule as an editor was a simple one: make every piece exactly as long as it needs to be. The world is awash in 2500-word essays that should have been 500 (and occasionally, a 500 word piece will show up that needs a couple thousand more, though these are surprisingly rare). This is equally true for video games. The gameplay should determine a game’s length, not the budget, or the review score, and especially not the story. Untitled Goose Game offers exactly 3.5 verbs, because geese can do exactly 3.5 things. It knows when to stop.
It doesn’t talk. Other than its baleful, antagonistic cry, the goose is silent, but perhaps more noticeably, the game itself takes on the cadence of silence. Reviewers have noted the connections between the humor of the game and the vaudevillian physical comedy of yesteryear, the chaotic player-piano Debussy soundtrack and the Hardy-esque slow burns and especially the goose’s Charlie Chaplin waddle. But not only does the game reach back to an earlier era of comedy, it touches on an earlier era of video games as well. It’s amazing to see a work of art so backward-facing in its sensibilities find such a connection with modern audiences.
In a recent interview regarding his forthcoming book Movies and Other Things, author Shea Serrano commented on his preference for newer films, and his inability to connect to the history of cinema:
I watch old movies and I’m like, “No, thanks.” They’re not fun. It’s clear they were still trying to figure out how to do things. Some of them, of course, were undeniable, like a Jaws or Star Wars or Indiana Jones. You watch those and you go, “Oh, I see in this the bones of what eventually became whatever action franchise.” Or Alien. [But mostly], they’re just not that fun to watch.
Though the passage caught the attention and ire of critics, the book is bound to be a success; Serrano is a popular everyman of a writer, someone who makes no pretense to expertise, but focuses on communicating his passions. I can’t go along with Serrano, not because of his taste, but because I can’t accept his premises; I don’t believe that movies, or even games, need to be fun to be worth consuming. But more than that, it’s the inherent optimism of his philosophy that loses me. It’s just too difficult to open any window or web browser and still believe that progress is inherently linear.
But it’s not that the past is better. It’s just different. All art is at the mercy of style, of the tastes of the moment and the profit motive that taste inevitably creates in its wake. There is a cycle to all this: We give up on certain elements of art as they inspire inspiration, than calcify into cliche. The present always ruins the past, steals from it and grows on it like lichen. Innovators beget clones, trading on the nostalgia and profitability of their ancestors, from Pac-Man to Threes to Dark Souls. Groucho Marx inspires Bugs Bunny, then becomes a pale imitation of its own imitator to a generation of children weaned on the copy.
At some point, however, the cycle completes, and Bugs Bunny himself disappears, along with his firearm-wielding friends, from the airwaves. The space is empty, and suddenly there’s room to see old things in a new light, just as the new things grow old.
And we return to Untitled Goose Game, which is as much like a 1920s film as it is like a 1980s video game, ripped from a time when text took up memory and there wasn’t room for all the things games wanted to say. The modern video game, under no such restrictions, has learned to vomit tutorials and exposition over the player. Sometimes the writing is strong, hopefully it is optional, but almost always, either way, there is too much. Games want to tell stories, or better yet make movies, and story is conflated with plot.
Early video games had to take another approach. Without sufficient words, or intricate graphics, to convey the story to the player, it would be easy to dismiss them, as Serrano would, as merely artifacts bound and diminished by their limitations. And it’s true that in such difficult circumstances, most games did abandon plot, or at least banished it to the instruction manual, read on the drive home from the department store and quickly forgotten. Without the connecting tissue of text, the basic mechanics of storytelling, silent games concentrate on imagery and chaos. In a word, they become more like poems, showing instead of telling, leaving the work of meaning-making upon the player. And with a game as charming as Untitled Goose Game, the player is often happy to do the work.
In discussing the game, much deserved attention has been given to the determined, dead-eyed goose, so easily connected to. But an equally strong symbol for the game’s charm can be found in the faceless victim-villagers that bring the soulless antihero into such sharp relief. It would be so easy to paint on cartoonish expressions, assign the player feedback on how funny they’re being. As with so much of the Untitled Goose Game, the discipline of not telling the joke is what makes it worth telling.