It was his last rose. I was waddling around the nice man’s garden in Untitled Goose Game and passed by this meager rose garden, with just one rose pushing above the soil. Maybe he was growing it for his wife. It wasn’t even on my to-do list; I impulsively waddled over, plucked it, shuttled it over to a dirt hill in the far corner and dropped it there. The man panicked. He ran over to grab it and stuffed it back in the dirt.
The whole pitch of Untitled Goose Game is that you’re an asshole goose terrorizing this nice middle class town somewhere in England. On your checklist are activities like “rake in the lake”—dragging the nice man’s rake into the lake—and trapping the shopkeeper in her garage. That last one was the first task I was given when my friend passed me the controller. We were all seated on couches in my living room, alternating playing the game on my computer and snacking and watching. After a couple of minutes with the game, it dawned on me that it just felt so completely mean. I had no context for the shopkeeper. What did she ever do to me? Baiting her into the dank garage and shutting the door before she could leave—for no specified reason—entailed a special level of sociopathy. All watching, my friends laughed.
Whining about how mean the goose is in Untitled Goose Game is like whining about how you don’t want to jack cars in Grand Theft Auto. There isn’t another way to play or enjoy the game. And, in fact, it’s the goose’s unabashed, hardened assholery that’s earned Untitled Goose Game its virality. There are a lot of games where the player is the agent of justice, and any mayhem caused in the line of duty is justified by the ends. There aren’t as many where they’re an ethically unhinged agent of chaos, with a whole button dedicated to HONK. This is the gimmick, and I am embarrassed to admit that it was initially just too mean.
In the peace of these gardeners’ springtime weekends, I can’t help but feel guilt as I snatch a man’s newspaper and toss it into a fountain. I can’t help but cringe as I make someone break a fancy vase—probably a family heirloom. I compulsively created backstories for each food I dragged away from one gardener—how the apple was hand-picked, the sandwich, made with cheese from his neighbor’s farm. For some reason, where context was left blank, I filled it in with details that made the goose’s actions even more obnoxious. Over and over, my friends would remind me that this was not a normal or healthy way to approach the game.
Then, after I handed off the controller, one of them told me something I’ll never forget. Something that cleanly wiped away any remorse I felt after ripping that woman’s bra off the hanger or haunting the laypeople in town with menacing honks. “Just pretend they’re all Brexiters,” he said.
It’s a gameplay strategy that’s been widely discussed on Twitter, and one that immediately absolved me of my goose sins past. I’m not going to “Whatever your politics are. . .” with this either, because it’s my goose game and my game diary. However, in an interview with Vulture, after the reporter asked whether players can imagine the goose is punishing the townspeople for voting for Brexit, one developer even gave the go-ahead to this Untitled Goose Game meta-narrative, saying “You can if you like! You’re very welcome to predict whatever you’d like. We’ve got our joke canon.” That “joke canon,” the developer said, was this:
“It’s set in a world where a goose chased Margaret Thatcher out of office, leading Tony Benn to take over the U.K. and enact social democracy in the U.K. All the people are good Marxists, and they’re all good people, and the goose is just a goose. All the people on Twitter responded to that saying ‘Oh, I feel bad that the goose is harassing these Marxists.’”
That’s part of the brilliance of this game, it turns out. Senseless evil can only be entertaining for so long, and for weak morality babies like me, causing many people to have bad days mostly just makes us feel kind of crappy if we aren’t on some justice-driven mission. So empty of context or motive, Untitled Goose Game is giving us whatever we’re looking for, so simultaneously, I can spin a story about the gardener’s last rose and make myself feel good about plucking it out from under him.