The way Untitled Goose Game’s goose moves, I think, is what makes it so endearing. Its self-assured waddle. The way it leans its feathered neck forward, with an almost innocent inquisitiveness, before turning on some poor guy’s sprinklers and drenching him. How it flaps and flutters after its plans have been thwarted by a human, only to immediately compose itself and clap back with a look that says, “Actually, I’m the one who should be feeling offended after you took back the priceless vase I stole from you and was planning to shatter into a million pieces.” The goose is a piece of shit. I love the goose.
Untitled Goose Game became a phenomenon long before its release today for PC and Switch. A 2017 pre-alpha trailer, which depicted a goose messing with a groundskeeper whose blood pressure will probably never recover, tapped into something essential and primal: Geese are assholes. They’re equal parts haughty and inscrutably mean. They while away their days performing mundane acts of domestic terrorism—blocking paths, honking angrily at anyone who dares approach them, and just generally displaying a smug, unearned confidence. The power fantasy underlying Untitled Goose Game is a tantalizing if dark glimpse into the most remote recesses of the psyche. What, the game asks, if the bullied (humanity) became the bully (a lone goose)?
The result is a chill mashup of sandbox-y stealth and puzzling. You, the goose, are turned loose in a series of small town environments, including the aforementioned groundskeeper’s garden, a storefront, a tavern, and some neighbors’ backyard. Each environment seamlessly flows together, but you’ve got to complete most (though not all) objectives on a list before you can move on to the next. Objectives, you will not be shocked to learn, center around ruining people’s days.
In the sparsely populated garden, this might involve stealing the groundskeeper’s veggies or timing a honk just right so that he accidentally hammers his own thumb while trying to put up a “no geese” sign. In the more crowded tavern area, you might need to be a little stealthier, sneaking in by hopping inside a delivery person’s box and crawling around in the space beneath a patio to avoid the bouncer who doesn’t want you anywhere near the establishment’s patrons. Then, and only then, can you carry out your master plan of dropping a bucket on his head.
There’s always some amount of distraction involved. You’re a goose, after all; you’re not a subtle creature. So you honk until somebody comes over to investigate and then dart out and steal something from where they were sitting. Or you unplug somebody’s radio so that they have to dedicate their time and attention to plugging it back in. Or you steal somebody’s slippers and repeatedly drop them in a pond so they have to slowly, painstakingly retrieve them. There’s a cat-and-mouse element to these human-and-goose battles of wit and will, but at the same time, it’s not like people are going to murder you. If you mess up, they’ll just take back their stuff or push you off the premises with a broom. You can resume what you were doing quickly, so why not experiment? Or, better yet, why not seek immediate vengeance by stealing something out of somebody’s hand or chasing them into a phone booth or honking until goose cries haunt even their fondest memories?
There’s a dedicated honk button. You can honk whenever you want. It’s useful for accomplishing objectives when you need to lure somebody away from whatever otherwise idyllic task they’re trying to perform, but before long, I found myself using it to role-play. There’s this wonderful intimacy to Untitled Goose Game; if you get close enough to a person, the goose’s gaze becomes trained on them. If they notice, they stare back. Every time I pulled off some maniacal goose prank—moving somebody’s prized rose, knocking down a portion of their neighbor’s fence, getting the second person to chop the first person’s rose in half—I’d get the person to stare at me, wait a beat, and then emit a single, faux-quizzical HONK, as though unable to comprehend why they were staring at me. “You expect me to feel guilty?” it was as though I was saying (in honks). “I’m a dang goose.” Then I’d waddle away like I hadn’t definitely just spent 20 minutes meticulously orchestrating the demise of that person’s good day.
Moments like these are what make Untitled Goose Game great. The environments are nice. The objectives are generally creative and enjoyable. But the real magic of the game lies in brief, endlessly funny interactions. There’s an insidious joy in drawing out increasingly infuriated reactions from the small town’s people—all of whom are, in their own way, kinda douchey. They had it coming, I think. Or maybe I’ve come to so thoroughly inhabit the goose’s headspace that now that I have an implicit bias. I appreciate that the game’s humorous sensibility rarely tips over the ledge into outright absurdity, preferring instead to take an understated route where the punchline is almost always “Wow, that goose is kind of a dick.” You, the player—the artist of avian assholery—paint within those lines.
This low-key, easygoing vibe also makes it easier to overlook the game’s shortcomings. I wouldn’t necessarily call them flaws, but there are things that I suspect some people won’t like and that frustrated me on a few occasions. Sometimes controlling the goose is a little awkward, which I suspect is intentional. There’s an almost willful sense of momentum to the goose’s movements, like it won’t allow even the player to fully tame its wild, dickheaded impulses. Taken in conjunction with a fixed camera perspective, it caused me to run into people I was trying to avoid a handful of times. The AI is generally decent, but characters act like they have eyes on the sides—if not the backs—of their heads from time to time, which caused them to spot me when they shouldn’t have on a few occasions. While most objectives are pretty straightforward, a few either didn’t make intuitive sense until I’d racked my brain for longer than I enjoyed or pushed the AI to its limits.
Lastly, Untitled Goose Game is pretty short. I finished it in about two and a half hours, at which point I unlocked some bonus challenges, many of which I completed in another hour. Again, though, Untitled Goose Game is a sandbox in which objectives sometimes feel more like suggestions. I still want to get back in there and just mess with people more—see what happens when I get certain characters to chase me into certain areas, or if others will react to particular items. Then there’s the simple pleasure of seeing how much widespread chaos you can cause with a few well-timed honks.
Even with those things in mind, I don’t see Untitled Goose Game being as replayable as close genre relatives like (bear with me on this one) the Hitman series of stealth sandbox games. But I also don’t think it needs to be. It does not bill itself as some vast, unceasing experience, a behemoth that overstays its welcome. Rather, it’s like taking a nice walk through a sleepy town on a sunny afternoon. Except, of course, for the fact that all the characters in the game are the ones taking that walk, and you’re there to honk at them until they change their minds and decide to never go outside again.