Untitled Goose Game may be untitled, but it’s subtitled “Mischievous Goose is Coming” in Japan. That pretty much sums it up. That’s it. That’s the whole review.
Stealth video games share a common design language. You’ll spend time scouting out the scenario, devising your approach, then attempting to execute your plan. From Uncharted to Metal Gear, Dishonored to Hitman, almost all stealth games – or games with stealth sections – go down in pretty much the same way. The same is true of Untitled Goose Game.
Stealth games also share a common set of flaws. For the most part, these issues boil down to what happens when something inevitably goes awry, the alarm is raised, and the best-laid plans of geese and men fall down around your ears. Some stealth sections are insta-fail, and almost everyone is in agreement that they’re awful. Better stealth games give you the chance to improvise, usually to fight and shoot and murder your way out of trouble. (And those where improvising is technically an option, but the odds of winning outside of stealth are so stacked against you, you may as well just reload your last save? They’re insta-fail in disguise, and they’re the worst.)
What makes Untitled Goose Game so lovely, then, is that the inevitable improvisation isn’t set to a soundtrack of machinegun fire and explosions. These are replaced instead with flapping wings and sonorous honks. The most violence you’ll inflict is untying someone’s lace to trip them, or breaking the head off a shoo-ing broom.
What’s even better is that failure isn’t the end. There have been numerous occasions, playing through Untitled Goose Game, where my stealthy designs have gone awry. They probably went wrong more often than went right. In a traditional, serious stealth game, that’s miserable. Demoralising, even. In House House’s goose extravaganza, failure (usually) adds to the fun, safe in the knowledge that a quick reset of the play area takes just seconds.
“Press ‘Y’ to honk,” commands the game – in the weirdest video game instruction since “press ‘X’ to Jason” or “press ‘F’ to pay respects” – and our hero, the untitled goose, gives forth a mighty bellow.
The camera pans to locate the goose, often hiding in a bush or behind a fence, beady-eyed and waiting to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting village. You do that through a simple system of honking, flapping, and grabbing with your beak. The former are useful as distraction, shock, and intimidation, but it’s the latter that is your bread and butter, for stealing items and messing with the residents. What’s not simple, in Untitled Goose Game, is how you construct your assaults on the gardens and streets of the village, ticking objectives off your list as you go.
Early objectives include breaking into a garden, soaking the groundskeeper, making him wear his sun hat, and stealing things from his garden to have a picnic. To get in the garden, you might steal a radio, forcing the groundskeeper to open the gate and retrieve it, or you could sneak in through a hidden hedge hole behind the cabbage patch. To get him wet, it’s a simple matter of stealing something he wants and leaving it by the sprinkler, then when he goes to retrieve it, turning on the tap. Pinching his flat cap is trickier, as it involves getting him to stoop lower than normal, while the picnic requires numerous items to go missing unnoticed, or it’s all for nought.
Once you complete enough objectives, the groundskeeper grabs a hammer to put up a “no geese allowed” sign, and it’s then that you’re afforded the opportunity to – via one final objective – escape the garden. Time your honk just right and he’ll hit his thumb with the hammer, then fall through the back gate. Freedom! Time to go and bother the rest of the village.
As you pad and honk your way through the village, via the shops, some more gardens, the pub, and the ubiquitous model village, you’ll follow this general loop. Tick off enough objectives and the humans will do something – usually involving a “no geese allowed” sign – to change the environment, so you can advance to the next locale. As you pass through, you can unlock gates to allow you back to other parts of the village at any time. The game opens as you waddle through it, and only during the game’s “final” mission, where the entire village is on alert and stealthy escape is required, are the gates re-closed and this pattern changed.
Once you complete the great escape, you’ll have access to the whole village once more, including a whole new set of more challenging objectives and time-attack modes. If Untitled Goose Game’s main objectives were getting a little samey by the end, these extra objectives inject some freshness into proceedings, including cross-contamination between the previously separate environments. In some respects, it’s a prosaic stealth experience, but it’s the non-violent charm and the game’s endearing presentation that elevate it.
The game’s visual style is an obvious strength. The block-print colours and shapes are distinctive, while the animations bring life and verve to the village. But it’s Untitled Goose Game’s audio that shines, and deserve special mention. Like Ape Out’s procedural jazz drumming, Goose Game’s interpretations of Debussy’s Préludes, by musician and lecturer Dan Golding, rise and fall in tempo and timbre in time with the action on-screen. It’s such a neat trick that, no doubt, more games will copy in the future.
Meanwhile, Em Halberstadt, who’s audio work has graced the likes of Night in the Woods and Wandersong, has captured the effects in a way that feels pure and joyful, in particular, the slapping of those little feet and the goose’s signature honk. If you want an illustration, pick up something in your beak and honk. Honk with your head in a milk bottle, and it’ll ring like a bell. Honk with your nose in a traffic cone, and it functions as a makeshift megaphone. Holding a thermos flask muffles the volume, while a pair of walkie talkies? That’s just brilliant, childish fun. As is often the case, the audio makes it in Untitled Goose Game.
Do you know what, though? I really just love this goose. The paddling feet, the chunky waddle, the wagging tail, the way it looks so mischievious, hiding in hedgerows. And that glorious honk! Unfortunately, not everyone loves the goose as much as I do. In the marketing, he’s sold as a jerk, an antisocial avian arsehole, terrorising the village, but to my mind, he’s just having fun. It’s a little upsetting playing as such a joyful, charming character, when almost everyone in the village hates you.
I love these two ladies almost as much as I love the goose, and this whole sequence perfectly punctuates why this game is such a goofy little bundle of joy.
Untitled Goose Game
Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Developer: House House
Release Date: September 20, 2019
Almost everything that’s wrong with Untitled Goose Game – and to be fair, there isn’t that much – is inherently wrong with the stealth genre in general, and a silly game about a goose wrecking someone’s flower beds was never likely to change that. But what it does do, over and above other stealth games, is combine charming visuals and glorious audio with such a ridiculous and unique premise, it’s impossible not to honk through this one with a massive smile on your face.