Gaming

How ‘Untitled Goose Game’ Went From A Joke To 2019’s Break-Out Hit

Untitled Goose Game

“The goose is chaotic neutral. They’re neither hero nor villain. They’re compelled to do bad things, but they’re not really conscious of what or why they’re doing any of it. They’re just a goose.”

That’s Jake Strasser, co-director of Melbourne development studio House House and co-creator of Untitled Goose Game, which has just been released on Nintendo Switch and PC. He’s talking about the sole playable character in the game, the goose. A bold, troublesome bird driven by a singular mission to disrupt and bother the citizens of a quaint English village to unlock new areas and complete a range of quests.

That’s essentially the heart of the game. But a few words can’t convey the bewildering amount of charm and refreshing nature that lives and breathes in every corner of this tale of a honking, mischievous goose. The stark, colourful art design of the village is the goose’s playground, where they poke their head up from a bush and waddle around gardens, pubs and town centres to push the boundaries of patience in every inhabitant. But the chaos isn’t random — the goose has goals to achieve. It just so happens that human beings are standing in the way.

I interviewed Strasser (who spent most of his time working on level design and environmental art) just prior to release, and he says the team of four developers at House House were eagerly anticipating the moment when everyone could get hold of their own version of the goose. “It doesn’t feel especially real,” Strasser tells me, “and I’m not entirely sure what to expect. It’s been almost two years since we first announced the game and realised how strongly people felt about geese, and how excited they were to play our game. I’m nervously excited to find out how those expectations are going to match up to the actual thing. I think we’ve made something pretty special so I feel a little like a protective parent letting their kid out into the world.”

“I feel like we could have dropped everything earlier this week and disappeared into the bush and the game would still release okay. Our publisher Panic is handling a lot of the nitty-gritty platform stuff for us, and builds are sitting on Nintendo and Epic’s servers ready to go. All that’s left for us is to tweet occasionally and wait.”

Untitled Goose Game

The first action you take as a player in Untitled Goose Game is to honk. The goose’s vocals are used to garner attention, distract people and more than a few times, convey anger. It is the only weapon that is present in the game as the goose crosses off completed quests consisting of stealing items, ruining lunches and generally disrupting everyone’s day. The quests use vague hallmarks of a familiar stealth-game framework, but instead of stopping a nuclear war or snapping enemy necks, the goose runs off with a gardener’s radio, hides in delivery boxes or multiplies their honk on television screens.

The more quests that you complete and the more time you spend as the titular bird, the less it feels like you’re witnessing an experiment or in-joke.

As more areas of the village open up, a strange, comforting vibe emerges through the game. At the beginning, the concept of controlling an angry goose seems almost dismissively absurd. But as the player settles into the waddling mechanics and waits patiently for a shop owner to turn their back, the game begins to feel absolute. It takes a highly original, off-the-wall idea and somehow convinces the player within a matter of hours that it was always meant to be. The more quests that you complete and the more time you spend as the titular bird, the less it feels like you’re witnessing an experiment or in-joke. By the end, and helped in no small part by composer Dan Golding’s majestic piano score, Untitled Goose Game is undeniably perfect.

In 2016, House House published their first title, Push Me Pull You. A bizarrely compelling and hilariously uncomfortable multiplayer experience where players took control of fleshly beings with two heads which grew longer the more you played. Now, two games later, Strasser and the rest of the team have learned to take simple ideas and run with them. “Untitled Goose Game started with an image that made us laugh. With Push Me Pull You, it was a sketch of two people joined at the waist having an argument, and with the goose game it was just a regular stock photo of a goose.”

Push Me Pull You

Push Me Pull You

“As Push Me Pull You’s development was wrapping up, we had a few different ideas kicking around for game number two, and Untitled Goose Game ended up being a synthesis of a bunch of formal ingredients we were interested in exploring, and that stock photo of a goose. We wanted to make something entirely different from Push Me Pull You. A 3D third-person single-player game, featuring a nice little expressive character with a wide verb-set that the player could puppeteer. We were also very interested in making a game about a community of funny characters, and really into 3D modelling very mundane, everyday objects. All these elements coalesced into the idea of a goose ruining an English country town fete.”

Push Me Pull You was the first video game any of us had made. The whole three years of development, from starting out as four friends wanting to make something together over a summer, to getting Film Victoria funding, to moving out of our living rooms and into a studio space, to having to design menus, to getting it ported to PS4, to actually releasing it, was one huge learning process. I see the development of Untitled Goose Game as being a direct continuation of that learning process, and it was full of all sorts of hurdles that were entirely new to us. I’d say the biggest lesson we’ve learnt through all of this is how to approach all those new challenges and meet them as a group, how to work closely with your best friends, how to argue well, and always find time to stop and have a laugh.”

At the time of writing, Untitled Goose Game is the number one selling game on the Nintendo Switch in Australia and second only to the remake of The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in the United Kingdom. For a game which was developed by four people, that started as a kind of joke, to be not only matching but exceeding Zelda-level sales numbers is nothing short of extraordinary. The fact that a naughty goose instantly captured the hearts and minds of so many people around the world speaks volumes about the type of entertainment people in 2019 are starved for.

Untitled Goose Game

When the game was announced, this level of excitement came as a surprise to the developers as much as anyone else. As a quick demo (of the introductory garden area) was shown on the internet, the response was immediate — people needed to play this game. It was a clear indication that refreshingly new ideas in video games were not only accepted but desperately sought after. This charming yet misbehaving goose has already fostered dodgy clone versions of the game on the iOS App Store — a trend which is typically reserved for annual blockbuster shooters made by dozens of studios.

A welcome, invigorating reprieve from our everyday lives lies at the core of video games, and this desire inhabits every waddling step of Untitled Goose Game.

Strasser tells me the wild feedback on the game’s announcement was felt instantly. “That process of recognition was pretty short and sharp. It took maybe twenty-four hours on October 3rd 2017 to realise the game resonated with people in a big way. We were in the Fantastic Arcade lineup that year and needed to announce the game before the lineup went public. Before that announcement day, we thought we were working on a niche little in-joke game. But as we watched in awe as the retweets and likes poured in, and our trailer went number one on Reddit. We very quickly realised it was something more. That publicity opened a lot of doors for us. Cabel, the co-founder of Panic, emailed us that night. Their assistance has been incredible through development and has opened up more opportunities we never would have had if we were going it alone.”

Within the quest structure of Untitled Goose Game, the majority of the goose’s actions causes trouble for somebody. The people of the village eventually create signs to indicate geese are no longer welcome in their homes and gardens. However, in amongst all the honking, stress and goose-hate, a quiet moment about halfway through the game might best represent the overall nature of Untitled Goose Game’s success and how it has immediately resonated with so many players.

Untitled Goose Game

The “Be Awarded A Flower” quest involves two pub patrons chatting at a table who the player needs to interrupt to get attention. But instead of being chased away with a broom or causing distress, the goose is welcomed by the couple. They are delighted by the goose copying their actions, and the quest ends with them, and the player, slightly happier than before. It is probably the most charmingly wholesome video game quest in 2019, and when you dig under the Angry-Animal-Sim exterior of the game, it successfully mirrors the heart of what players have found within the handful of hours they have spent with this deceptively clever bird.

A desperate desire to be surprised and delighted is easily relatable in this day and age. When small, quiet moments of charm happen unexpectedly, it’s inevitable that we realise just how long it has been since the last time we felt that way. A welcome, invigorating reprieve from our everyday lives lies at the core of video games, and this desire inhabits every waddling step of Untitled Goose Game.

This is one of the main reasons, with the recent re-election of Australia’s conservative federal government, the ongoing successful funding of creative arts by Melbourne’s Film Victoria seems like an anomaly. Through their interactive entertainment arm, the state government’s assistance with funding or marketing recent independent games such as Armello, Paperbark and Framed has placed Melbourne in a crucial position for development studios.

For developers and artists who are looking to create new stories that can’t be told through any other medium, Film Victoria remains an invaluable component of that journey. Strasser and the rest of the team at House House have been a big part of it. “State funding from Film Victoria was integral to the development of Push Me Pull You and Untitled Goose Game, and they’ve done incredible work fostering the industry in Victoria. Melbourne is internationally recognised as an indie game development hub, and the industry is bigger and more varied than I can keep track of. On a number of occasions, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a game I’m interested in is being made in Melbourne. I think this is almost entirely due to the financial support of Film Victoria and the work they do.”

House House has no current plans to add more content to Untitled Goose Game, but Strasser tells me they’ll be working from now until at least Christmas to support the game. They already have an idea floating around for their next game, which they will start developing in 2020.

For now, Untitled Goose Game stands as a triumphant success in game design. Its endearing protagonist and their instant, boundless charisma is present throughout every item theft, every act of mischief and every hilarious honk that the goose delivers. The immediate originality of the game’s identity, mechanics and artistic design grasps the player like an oasis in a desert, only to be followed up by questions about the lack of similar experiences when the credits roll.

The overwhelming response to House House’s second game both before and after its release is clearly something to be capitalised on. There exists a vast, hungry audience who are craving game experiences that are delightful as a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon but as unexpected as a knife between the ribs. What began with a stock photo of a goose, has become a seminal, all-inclusive achievement in video games. Untitled Goose Game is a delightful, replenishing experience which everyone, of every age, should play as soon as possible.