Untitled “Untitled Goose Game” Piece
A brief analysis of the animal kingdom’s Hitman
In the last little while, I’ve had three new games in my rotation. That’s a rarity for me: I’m typically patient when waiting for sales, and don’t usually like splitting my time between multiple games at once. However, September’s triple-threat of Borderlands 3, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and, er, Untitled Goose Game has had me throwing caution — and cash — to the wind, and revelling in three very different games.
This won’t be a comparison piece, but I did bring up all three of these games for reasons beyond bragging about the whole $140 (plus applicable taxes) I had to spend.
The first of those two titles are stalwart franchises. Zelda has sold over eighty million copies across its plethora of releases; while Borderlands morphed from a likeable, if generally underwhelming, looter-shooter into a multi-million seller and a meal-ticket for Gearbox Interactive. I played both of September’s releases in these franchises, and both were as an established fan of the series. I’m sure a lot of people are playing these games right now as their first taste of Link’s adventures in Hyrule or experiencing perpetual disappointment opening chests. I’d wager, though, a lot more people were motivated to pick up these games based on their excitement from playing the previous games.
Knowing this, then, it must be weird for developers to insert natural, informative tutorials for that handful of complete newbies. My point is here is that despite a dedicated following, developers must try to balance keeping new players up to speed without annoying or boring long-time fans (does anyone else remember having to look up and down a few times for the drill sergeant in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker?).
Untitled Goose Game, a new title from House House, a 4-man team in Australia, doesn’t even have a tutorial — at least, not like these other titles do. Sure, Goose Game shows a few button prompts on the screen to show you the controls, but no intrusive messages that you have to acknowledge. There’s no ‘practice’, where you have to perform an action, say, five times to prove you know how to push ‘B’. These messages show up, disappear a few seconds later, and that’s it. After a brief walk — waddle? — the game proper begins. You’re given a list of stuff to do, but no hints as to how to accomplish these goals. House House tasks you with thinking like a horrible goose, and leaves you be.
These goals are initially simple enough — ‘steal the groundskeeper’s keys’ involves locating, pinching and escaping with a set of keys — but over time become steadily more abstract and less easy to decipher. They’re ostensibly puzzles, but not in the same way as, say, a Professor Layton game. ‘Make someone break the vase’ involves those same basic steps as the task with the keys, but also requires some investigation of your own to figure who will break the vase, and how you’ll set that chain of events in motion. While it’s really fun to simple scoot around the area and be a pain in everyone’s backside to achieve the simpler goals, Goose Game is at it’s best when it has the player scheming away out of sight, moving objects and causing distractions that wreak a different, yet more satisfying kind of havoc compared to the general chaos of running around and squawking. Goose Game has you playing like Hitman, keeping all the devilishness and doing away with the malice.
Returning to the idea of tutorials, Goose Game has a pitch-perfect complexity curve that teaches, but never instructs the player. The game has little in the way of a fail-state, so the player is free to learn, experiment and express themselves with the tools at their disposal. Sometimes I did certain things simply to make myself laugh, not expecting them to work and being surprised that they did. After all, the fun of a game like this evaporates as soon as someone — or the game itself — shows you what to do when.
Goose Game has you playing like Hitman, keeping all the devilishness and doing away with the malice.
I don’t necessarily think this kind of tutorial is a universally good one. Certain games — especially ones with high skill ceilings or greater difficulty, often play as if the first hour is their one opportunity to teach the player, and information-dump on them with that in mind. Others, fearing losing the player in that crucial first hour, hold back various mechanics so as not to bog them down. Sometimes, these tutorials pay off in how they guide the player. Others don’t: I distinctly remember finding myself very frustrated by Borderlands 2’s early section, where you’re inexplicably denied an action-skill — the one thing that separates your character from any rank-and-file gun-toting mercenary — until the you reach level five. Conversely, Kingdom Hearts III’s insistence on pausing the action to tell you what various buttons do in obtuse language every few moments felt like the player was being simultaneously babied and confused. Sometimes balance is key: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild won plaudits for how, after a brief explanation of the controls, it generally left players alone. It was still prepared, though, to offer words of advice to explain specific mechanics later on. It’s also worth pointing out that all of these games are considerably larger and more complex in their control schemes than Goose Game.
Sometimes I did certain things simply to make myself laugh, not expecting them to work and being surprised that they did.
Even still, having come fresh off the opening hours of two blockbusters in Borderlands 3 and Link’s Awakening, there was something about learning and playing Untitled Goose Game that felt personal, as if I was playing it my own way. That early section set up a delightful puzzler that never outstayed it’s welcome and was nothing short of a joy throughout. Would it’s loose, hands-off approach to player guidance work for every title? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean other developers can’t chase the same magic of a player discovering, creating and expressing things themselves the way Untitled Goose Game delivers in spades.