I have never in my entire life encountered such a profound and meaningful rumination on the nature of evil.
The premise of Untitled Goose Game is that a peaceful, rural village with few inhabitants is being terrorized by the scion of pure evil, a horrible goose. In a bold and interesting move by the developers, they have you play as this malevolent force, forcing a cognitive dissonance between the (presumably) human player who probably isn’t evil and the goose. I’m sure there are plenty of games out there where you play as an antagonist, or where the game’s grey morality forces you to make difficult choices that might make your character a less than stellar person, but never in the history of video games has there been such an ambitious project to force the player to identify with, and therefore consider the standpoint of and hopefully ultimately understand, such a force of pure evil.
There are going to be spoilers for this game in this review, but even if you choose to read them, please play it anyway. I think we all have something to learn from Untitled Goose Game.
The game starts out in the nest of the goose, which is the tutorial where you’re taught to use the game’s simple controls. Already there’s some important foreshadowing here: the nest is littered with objects that clearly belong to the human inhabitants of the town. As you learn all the goose’s fell powers, you are forced to wonder: are the humans littering? Do they have such casual disregard for the natural environment that their stuff is just lying around everywhere? Am I, perhaps, playing as the hero in a game about humankind’s relationship with the natural world?
No. Once you’ve mastered the powers of the goose, you leave the nest, and then the evil begins. Your first target is an innocent farmer who just wants to politely move his flowerpot around the garden and not lose his spade. You go into his garden, you steal his tools, you damage his crops and livelihood, you take his lunch, and you kill his flowers so you can steal his hat. The farmer, as with all the human characters in the game, is too polite to use violence on you, so all he does is put up a sign indicating that geese are forbidden from his property. And of course, what do you do? You make him break his thumb with the hammer, possibly destroying his entire future in the process, before fleeing the garden in triumph, heading for the next level.
The second area is the town’s High Street, where you steal a poor visually-impaired boy’s glasses, then his toy airplane, forcing him to pay to get it back from the unpleasant shopkeeper whose only redeeming quality is that she uses a broom to shoo you away while you try to steal her merchandise to make a facsimile of a shopping cart with. You must also trap the poor, innocent boy in the phone booth in order to break into a store and play havoc with telecommunications equipment. I have to say that the young boy is the most relatable character in this game. Unlike other humans, he doesn’t try to chase you away or scare you. He is terrified of the goose, fleeing every time you honk at him or raise your wings threateningly, and rightfully so. The fraught nature of this boy’s life is communicated to the player so elegantly that you can’t help but feel pity for him as the game forces you to untie his shoe and make him fall over. The characterization in this game is all extremely well done, I must say, and this is perhaps the clearest in the third section.
After you trap the shopkeeper on the High Street in a garage, you gain access to the yards of two neighbours. The well-dressed man and the artistic woman so clearly hate each other and have come to a reluctant cease-fire in order to maintain unity in the neighbourhood. And now you are here to ruin that unity. You steal the man’s slippers, and the woman’s laundry. You steal the woman’s decorative goose bow (and arguably the fact that she has a ceramic goose in her yard means she’s inviting evil, so one is tempted to side with her neighbour. But he has a cricket bat in his yard, so there’s really no clear good guy here). You play a loud gong, and eventually trick the man into throwing a priceless, fancy vase over the fence, breaking it and destroying the woman’s art project. Then you trick the woman into cutting down the man’s prize-winning rose, destroying his hopes of being recognized for all his hard work in horticulture. These two characters are so real and so vividly drawn that you can’t help but feel bad for them as the evil goose resurrects old disagreements and leaves them at each other’s throats before heading off to the pub.
Here, you steal cutlery, break pint glasses, cause a flood, injure and old man and a younger man, and trick two ladies into giving you their flower. Leaving requires you to destroy a flat of tomatoes, which might well be very valuable given how much the people in the pub are careful about storing them properly. This in many ways is the least ethically dubious section of the game, not because your actions are morally acceptable, but because by this point the player is so inured to the goose’s evil that harassing people is par for the course. And for the goose, the pub is just an obstacle to getting to the final goal.
You might wonder why I’m going through all of this in such detail. Why does it matter what the specifics of each level are? Because you see, Untitled Goose Game is a narrative where every detail matters, and it’s only in this final section that you begin to realize the true nature of why.
The last area of the game is a miniature village, which you must navigate to reach a model of an area you didn’t go–a ruined old church with a bell in it. With no regard for the financial effort or the labour that went into creating such a huge model, you destroy, yes, destroy, the model church and steal the bell. You are unopposed in this endeavour, and you soon find out why: your last objective is to return the bell all the way to the beginning of the game, to your nest.
Before you even get there you understand: all that litter in the tutorial? That was no litter, those were your prizes from previous conquests. Why was everyone in the village so wary of the goose? Because they know of its evil. But you still don’t know the full extent of it. First you must make it through the gamut of all the game’s human characters trying to stop you returning home. Everyone you pass by to return home represents something that can and must oppose evil. The patrons of the pub are the people in a society, blithely going about their lives, unaware of the evil in their midst. They are the easiest part to overcome. The fighting neighbours represent the divisions in our society, which evil takes advantage of to defeat us all. The shopkeepers represent the landowners, easily circumvented and distracted by their capitalist desires that let evil run amok. The poor boy represents innocence, easily frightened and taken advantage of. And then, coming full circle, the game’s final boss is the farmer from the first portion, who guards the only door to an evil victory steadfastly. As anyone who is familiar with fantasy narratives knows that chosen ones, those who are selected to fight evil, are often farmers beforehand, so the choice of a farmer as the final opponent of the evil one isn’t accidental. He represents the basic needs of humanity, and by circumventing him, the evil creature is able to have a complete victory.
The bell is returned to your home, and this is where the game’s final hammer hits you. The goose brings the bell to its base, and then…drops it in a hole, where it has well over a dozen bells just like it.
Let that sink in for a minute, because it completely reframes the entire game, and it’s here that the commentary on the nature of evil is at its most profound.
The goose is an evil that is cyclical. It is an evil that recurs the moment vigilance fails. It is an evil that wants truly nothing except to cause despair. It does not need the bells; they are collected in a pit. It does not even really want the bells. It wants the feeling of power that taking them gives it over the human inhabitants of the village. This is emblemized in the final area leading to the bell: a scale-model village, the goose travelling through it, larger than life, unopposed. It’s almost impossible to navigate this space without knocking over the model humans in the village. The goose is a dark god, trampling the world of mortals for no reason other than because it is there. The goose doesn’t hate humans. It doesn’t care about humans. It just wants them to remember that their lives would be demonstrably worse than they were if it did hate them.
As it encounters the world, the goose exposes the small evils, the pettiness and the selfishness in all of us. The feuding neighbours, the mean shopkeeper, the lazy waitress and angry bouncer, these all become tools for an evil greater than them. Although evil is (rightfully) embodied in Untitled Goose Game as a bird, it forces us to look inside ourselves and realize that we all carry the seeds of our own destruction within us, and we must remain vigilant so that we aren’t overcome by evil. A goose could come into any of our lives at any moment, the game wants us to understand. Are we prepared to combat it? What weaknesses of ours would it take advantage of? We must be aware of this if we are to remain safe.
Of course, while the goose operates as a metaphor for evil, the accurate representation of birds, waterfowl especially, in this game must not be overlooked. As much as this is a warning about the evil in our hearts, it’s also a warning about the evil in our ponds. Please don’t feed geese, or any birds. It could be the last thing you do. This game is the only piece of media I’ve ever interacted with that understands on a deep level the pure, unbridled malevolence that exists within all birds. Behind their small heads and soft feathers lies a taxa of sociopathic monsters that will destroy us all given the slightest opportunity. Do not give them that opportunity. Remain vigilant.
The player is not told of the goose’s goal until the end of the game. The destruction and chaos seem random, disguising their true nature as means to an end. This is a warning to be careful, because even when we don’t understand something that doesn’t mean that some powerful force isn’t guiding events to a certain end that is beyond us. We don’t always understand evil’s motivation, making it all the harder. And then, once its main goal is accomplished, the goose writes up a new to-do list of torture, just for fun.
Untitled Goose Game is a bleak reminder that our species is not the dominant force on the planet that we pretend it to be. Evil is out there, it is real and it’s more powerful than us. There is no happy ending to this game. The goose is not–cannot be–defeated. But that doesn’t mean that the game is entirely devoid of hope. If we band together like the people in the village can’t, if we don’t let ourselves get complacent and make real efforts to repudiate evil when we see it, and if we structure our society such that it’s hard to the point of being impossible for evil to run amok, then maybe, just maybe, we can avoid this dire fate. Maybe, the game tells us, if we can be better than these people were, we will not fall victim to evil so easily.
But it can’t be a one-time thing. It’s always going to come honking back someday. Evil never really dies. So we have to make sure hope doesn’t either.
Otherwise all our hats might end up in lakes.
ADDENDUM: As of September 23rd, 2020, this game now features a co-operative mode where you can get your boyfriend to play alongside you as a second goose. This is an entirely unsurprising development, because evil is never a singular concept. It only ever multiplies, making it all the harder for the forces of good to defeat it. The vigilance required to repel evil is a tall order for the best of people, and even those very best people cannot always reach that goal, because sometimes the world is quite simply cruel and unfair. This is reflected in the fact that the game does not give you additional challenges or levels in the co-operative mode; it’s the same game, but now you have twice the avian evil on your side. The havoc you can wreak all over this poor village is multiplied a hundredfold by the addition of the second goose, as is the case in real life.
Though evil multiplies, though, the co-operative mode highlights a weakness of evil—it can be allied only with itself. The second player is not a duck or an eagle or a penguin or any other kind of bird, but another, almost entirely identical, goose, because that is the only force on earth that would serve as a partner to such a malevolent creature. Evil’s lack of allies, and lack of ability to make allies unlike itself, is highlighted here in a small beacon of hope for humanity in all its diversity and beauty. It’s a message. A message that we all must come together as the village people don’t in order to defeat the manifold evil represented by the geese.
Keep one hand on your keys and one hand in your partner’s hand, everyone. And keep both eyes out for geese. They’re out there. Waiting. And we have to be ready for them.
4 thoughts on “Pax’s Review of Untitled Goose Game”
The crazy part is, I can’t say with certainty that this analysis isn’t exactly what the developers intended. They have enough of an offbeat sense of humor that they just might have included all this symbolism just for the lulz.
…Is it wrong of me to wonder what Pax would make of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds?
You know, they just might! I can buy it from the people who put this game together, haha. It’s really quite something.
Pax is too afraid to watch The Birds all way through. But he has read the plot synopsis through his fingers and he’s pretty sure that’s how the world ends!
D: D: D: