Game Design

the joy of watching untitled goose game

I’ve been going through a slump lately.  So, when looking for a game to play: something light, not too serious, without too much commitment, my gaze settled on the 2019 surprise hit Untitled Goose Game.  Created by House House, a small indie studio of four, Untitled Goose Game rocketed to the top of the bestseller list on Nintendo Switch, and spawned many memes.

Right, I remembered, this game.  My only experience with Untitled Goose Game had been watching a friend play it at a party, from which I had gained a distinctly positive impression.  In the game, you control a goose who is intent on wreaking havoc across a peaceful, pastoral town, terrorising villagers by stealing things, making them fall over, honking in their faces.  You know, the things you’d want to do as a goose.

Image from: House House.

Living My Best Goose Life

From watching the game, I felt like being a troll in the form of a goose would be fun in and of itself.  Trolling, after all, is a bit of fun, and here was a harmless way to be the biggest troll in a game whose objectives are to do so.

Knowing I would be keen to try Untitled Goose Game at some point, I had a copy of the game which I fired up one afternoon on my computer.  Things started out great.  Being a goose was a fun novelty, and flapping or honking at villagers was entertaining because of their flustered reactions.  I was living my troll goose fantasy, it seemed.

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But the joy of simply being a goose was short-lived.  Provided with a list of objectives written on notebook paper, your task as a goose is to check off these tasks of stealing the groundskeeper’s keys, or making a boy wear the wrong glasses.  All ostensibly trolly tasks, and yet…

I didn’t feel like a troll while doing them.  Part of being a troll is the subversiveness to use things contrary to how they were intended, and having these tasks listed out as if they were my weekend chores made them feel, well, like work.  Not to mention that you’re trolling NPCs without a player behind them getting tilted and enraged on the other end of the wire — one of the main motivations of a true troll.

The goose is a troll, yes, as set up in the game.  That aspect is delightful, because you get to enjoy the funny reactions to you being the agent of chaos in a serene, bucolic environment.  But, the player is just a task-completer, and that got boring after awhile.

Image from: House House.

Comedy in Game Design

I had been mistaken – Untitled Goose Game is not actually about trolling at all.  It’s a regular puzzle stealth video game with a list of objectives and a series of levels.  That said, it’s still a fun game.  Untitled Goose Game‘s real strength is not the subject matter of “a trolly goose” but its approach to humour.  Once I started looking at the game that way, I noticed the clever bits of game design behind each gag.

Every task in Untitled Goose Game is set up like a joke.

  1. Premise
    • The developers set up the thing you have to do as a task on your to-do list
    • “Make the Old Man fall on his bum”
  2. Action
    • The player completes the task
    • Drag the stool away from the man as he picks up his harmonica
  3. Punchline
    • The gag is shown as a reward
    • The man falls on his bum and it’s funny to watch

While this is no doubt effective, the second part of the joke requires actual work by the player.  In order to get the payoff from the punchline, players have to do a task that is unexpectedly tedious due to the precise controls required for the goose.  And that’s a source of friction that makes Untitled Goose Game difficult to swallow as a game.

When we go looking for a good laugh, we don’t usually want to put in work to get it.  The comedian in a stand-up act does all the steps for the audience so you can relish in the catharsis of the punchline.  Similarly, in movies or television shows, different characters can carry out various parts of the joke, while viewers are passive observers who get to, once again, simply enjoy the payoff.

Image from: House House.

Untitled Goose Game is Best Played with Friends

By designing every task like a mini joke, the developers did something special with Untitled Goose Game: they made it a lot of fun to watch.  The game leans on comedy design in a charming way, with the piano music swelling, Charlie Chaplin-esque at the crux of the joke.

This formula is so effective that my experience watching Untitled Goose Game was way more engaging than playing it.  Arguably, it’s more fun to watch the slapstick comedy ensue than actually be at the controller.  While playing together, friends can alternate who has to do the work, making it more enjoyable for everyone.

Additionally, Untitled Goose Game is better to play in a group because it’s fun to share in jokes and laugh together.  This feeling of communal enjoyment is why sitcoms have laugh tracks.

Image from: House House.

Games Can Be Fun to Watch

In an interview with Vice, Untitled Goose Game‘s game designer Michael McMaster voiced concerns about the initial excitement surrounding the game1.

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.

– Michael McMaster, game designer of Untitled Goose Game1

McMaster is right on one count – the game may actually be more fun to watch than to play.  On the other hand, that doesn’t make the game less valuable as a form of entertainment.  In fact, games that are fun to watch have a high potential to bring in new players, and encourage more social gaming time in groups.

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Memes upon memes have proven the viral success of  watching Untitled Goose Game, and that’s not only amongst people who have played the game.  In a world of Twitch and YouTube, however, a number of copies sold doesn’t necessarily mark a game as popular or even well-designed.

Cracking the code of making a game fun to watch is no mean feat.  It’s been a problem attempted by studios much larger and with much bigger budgets than House House.  And maybe they’ve hit on something with reworking some age-old comedy techniques into a fresh new interactive medium.  With Untitled Goose Game, they’ve certainly showed us that games can be extraordinarily fun to watch.

References Cited

  1. Klepek, Patrick. “Honks vs. Quacks: A Long Chat With the Developers of ‘Untitled Goose Game’.” Games. Vice, 16 October 2019. Web. 30 December 2020.

Additional References

  1. Bogost, Ian. “Video Games Are Better Without Gameplay.” Technology. The Atlantic, 22 October 2019. Web. 30 December 2020.