|Platforms||Xbox One, PS4, Switch (reviewed), PC, Mac|
|Release Date||September 20, 2019|
The opening line for the description of Untitled Goose Game by developer House House might just be one of the most effective opening lines I’ve ever read: “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” So what does it feel like to be a menace to society?
Violence: Nothing major, but there are some cartoony pratfalls and finger-hammering.
Other negative themes: The entire point of the game is being horrible to innocent villagers. You’ll be stealing, tripping, startling, and otherwise terrorizing people. It’s all done in a lighthearted way, but at the end of the day, that’s the whole point.
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
Embrace Your Feathery Dark Side
What I love about this game is the fact that it does exactly what it says on the tin. Boot up the game, and you are presented with a small grove with a nest in the center. No goose in sight, until a button prompt appears telling you how to emit one of the most terrifying noises known to city dwellers worldwide: the honk of an angry goose.
Honking reveals the feathered fiend, and the game takes you through a small tutorial to familiarize yourself with your avian vessel. The controls are about as basic as you could expect for a game called Untitled Goose Game: you can walk, bend over, honk, spread your wings, (but not fly, curiously) and interact with the world with your beak.
I say “interact,” because the same button performs different functions depending on your circumstances. “Interact” means everything from picking up a sandwich to picking a gate lock to lifting a ring of keys from an unsuspecting gardener to untying the shoes of a poor little boy with a not-totally-irrational terror of geese.
The controls…work, but that’s about the best I can say. Their simplicity works in their favor; it’s hard to mess up five main actions. And yet, there were some points in the game where I felt that I didn’t have as much control of the goose as I would have liked. I wasn’t able to pick up things that were right in front of my beak, and dragging objects around corners was almost always more of a struggle than it should have been. These issues are mostly innocuous, except for one point later in the game that I will get to.
The best way I can describe the design philosophy of this game is “simple, but effective.” Everything, from gameplay to music to overall aesthetic, follows this philosophy.
The main goal of UGG is simple: you’re given a dastardly to-do list filled with items related to making today the worst day ever for the inhabitants of the quaint English village within which you find yourself. Through my playthrough, I stole a gardener’s hat, trapped a child in a phone booth and later forced him to buy back the toy he already owned, shattered a priceless vase, committed first-degree murder on a prize rose, and caused a poor old man some major hip problems for just spending a day at the pub.
That sounds like a lot to do for one little goose, and that’s where the design philosophy of “simple but effective” comes into full play. UGG is, at its heart, a puzzle game. In the vein of point-and-click adventure titles, the aim of the game is to use various mundane objects and situations in creative ways to achieve your goals.
One of the early examples of this is “get the groundskeeper wet.” You’re presented with various ways to do this: you could activate the sprinkler system while he’s nearby, or you could steal something from his garden and lure him into the nearby pond. Either of these will net you the same checkmark on your list.
A charming side effect of this design is the way you can interact with the inhabitants of the village. Honking will grab their attention, and thus, you can distract them by picking up an object unrelated to your quest, honking, and then running away, drawing them away from your real objective. You can effectively set up and deliver your own Looney Tunes-esque punchlines. Untie the shoelaces of a poor child and honk in glee as he hits the pavement trying to flee from you. The possibilities are only as limited as your backwards morality.
Extend Your Reign of Terror
UGG is, in a lot of ways, an extremely hands-off game. Other than the beginning tutorial and the bare-bones to-do list entries, it lets you go about your business however you want. The main campaign is split up into four distinct areas, with various passageways connecting each. Finish enough items on the to-do list in one area, and one final goal will be revealed. Upon committing that deed, the way to a new area will open up.
On my first playthrough, I saw these areas as simple sandboxes for me to wreak havoc, connected only in the sense that I had to walk from one to the other. But the final mission of the main game tasks you with reentering all of these areas in reverse sequence in one go, and that was when I realized that these areas are connected in a larger sense, and items from one area could be brought to another. In other words, the entire village was my sandbox.
This open-ended design really shines in the post-game missions. After you finish the main campaign, a new set of to-do lists is revealed, with more complicated tasks to complete. These involve stealing items from one area and utilizing them in others. One mission is simply “get thrown over the fence.” It’s up to you how you’re going to convince a kindly old Englishman to yeet a live goose over his backyard fence, and you’re not going to be able to do it with the items found in his yard. This took the creative thinking of the main game and expanded it in an extremely satisfying way.
I came, I honked, I Conquered
As I’ve said a couple times, the game is very simple. Thankfully, the designers knew this, and it (mostly) does not overstay its welcome. Between the main campaign and post-game content, a full playthrough will take you less than 10 hours, and that’s if you’re stopping to smell the roses, (or, like me, are really bad at some of the later missions. I’ll get to that later.) Nothing is more frustrating than a game that embraces a concept well, but then stretches it out ad nauseam until you can’t stand to look at it any more. The shortness does make me question the $20 price tag a touch; I think an extra $5 could have been knocked off. But that’s ultimately a nitpick that doesn’t affect the overall experience.
The Aesthetic of Evil
The philosophy of “simple but effective” goes beyond merely the gameplay. One of the most striking aspects of the game is its visual style. Every character, environment, and object looks as if it was constructed out of a few simple shapes. There’s no shading, no complex textures, the people don’t even have faces. It’s like an old-school flannelgraph. And while I don’t think I could play a sweeping 40-hour adventure in this style, for the short playtime of the game, it works.
The soundtrack might honestly be my favorite part of the game. Composer Dan Golding has brilliantly adapted Debussy’s Preludes as the underscoring for your mischief. Debussy’s compositions already carry a certain feeling of whimsy and fantasy, and Golding’s adaptation turns the original phrasing into melodic stings to accent your honks and pratfalls. Each and every time I startled a poor villager into chasing after me, the music picked up with a quirky vigor that honestly made me laugh just as much as the antics onscreen. Again, for a longer game, the simple piano would get monotonous, but the short playthrough time means that this soundtrack is able to fully lean into its potential.
The Goose Turns on Its Master
As much as I enjoyed my time with UGG, on my second playthrough, I became aware of some glaring faults. The AI of the villagers is…strange. It’s easiest to explain with an example: on my second playthrough, I went about my business, attempting to get the gardener to wear his sunhat, eventually succeeding in getting him to go for said sunhat. Before he reached it though, I stole a carrot in order to achieve a different goal while I waited for him. I wasn’t sneaky enough, and he pursued. But when I dropped the carrot, right in front of his feet no less, he immediately forgot what a carrot was entirely and went back for his hat. I was able to pick up the carrot and proceed on my merry way.
Later, I rang a gigantic bell in someone’s yard, knowing that every time I’d done that before, she’d walk over and reset it. I waited, and waited, and waited, but she never appeared. Upon examination of the yard, I found her standing near the fence, staring longingly at the last place she’d seen her laundry (that I had also stolen and stashed in the neighboring yard.) She cycled through pining after each and every item, standing in one place for well over a minute while I waited for her to do what I needed her to do.
On a normal playthrough, these quirks are fine. Charming, even. (I was able to gather the entire staff of the pub on the porch and keep them in one place by honking underneath the porch. It was very amusing, I promise.) But the game kind of falls apart when it introduces timed missions as your final challenge. You are tasked with completing the same to-do lists as in the main game, but this time, you only have six minutes to do it.
In a Mario game, six minutes is an eternity. But when you’re waiting on a neighbor to stop staring over the fence at laundry that disappeared minutes ago or waiting on a shopkeeper to quit staring at you in malice and just PICK UP THE STUPID TOY LAYING AT HER FEET, six minutes flies by faster than a mother goose during nesting season.
These timed missions technically bring a new level of strategy and planning that the game doesn’t otherwise require. This could be seen as a positive, but for me, it meant repeat playthroughs of the same small areas over and over and over again until I mastered manipulating the game to do what I wanted it to do. You don’t have direct control over the villagers, and since several of the missions involve getting them to do a very specific action, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether they’ll actually go where you want them to go, even if you follow all the “right” actions. This was not fun. It was tedious, and this is the point that I felt the game start to overstay its welcome. It’s one thing to let me go about wreaking havoc as I so choose. It’s another to give me a time limit that requires me to do it in just the way the developers think I should.
And what’s your ultimate reward for 100 percent completion? A toy crown. Sorry, UGG, that is not worth the aggravation you put me through with your idiotically slow villagers and strange physics engine.
Untitled Goose Game is a surprising little game. It’s an unassuming package that comes, delivers its gameplay payload, and leaves before you can get too comfortable with it. It makes you think creatively about mundane objects, and give you the chance to create a few laughs along the way. Yes, it can be frustrating, especially near the end. Yes, I ended up wishing some things upon the villagers that even the goose itself might be ashamed of. And yes, I think it’s a bit short for its price tag. But overall, it’s an enjoyable little experience.
The main selling point is, by far, the game’s quirkiness. In a way, I felt like I was directing a cartoon. I got to create outlandish situations and watch as the bumbling villagers fell into traps set by this Bugs Bunny of a goose. I don’t often laugh out loud at games, but this one had me legitimately chuckling as I ran from a grumpy pub owner and got him to smash into a box of tomatoes. And perhaps you’ll have a better time with the timed missions than I did. It could just be a personal gripe. If you’ve got 6 hours and 20 dollars to spare, Untitled Goose Game is worth picking up for the simple reason that I can’t think of anything quite like it. What other game puts you in the flippers of one of the city’s greatest threats? Embrace the goose, and you might end up having a wholesome good time.
The Bottom Line
Untitled Goose Game is a very amusing puzzle game that went from an in-office joke to a surprisingly fleshed out final product that knows what it is and delivers on exactly what it promises.