Untitled Goose Game has been described as “Hitman, but you’re a bird.” But any comparison between it and games centered on combat undersell its greatest accomplishment: maintaining its tension without the go-to threat of violence.
Combat and death are shortcuts in games. They are visceral, straightforward, and bring their own obvious stakes, so violence is an easy way for developers to do a lot of tricky work of getting players invested. Untitled Goose Game does that same work — to great effect — without using interpersonal violence. It does so by focusing on the thrill of getting away with your horrible deeds.
Violence as Shorthand
Interpersonal violence is a useful tool for game design because it immediately communicates the rules in easy terms of win (kill) and loss (die) conditions. Abstractions for those conditions abound but are often grounded in familiar, i.e. real-world and/or culturally saturated, constructs. A bullet kills you in-game because we know that because bullets kill people. Few people these days aren’t killed by swords or lasers, but we understand them as killing tools because they abound in fantasy and sci-fi media.
That last point gets at another advantage of violence: its omnipresence in other popular media makes it immediately familiar to players. If a game asks the player to learn a control scheme or set of systems, it has the advantage that she understands the thing she’ll be doing with those well enough to see how those skills might confer an advantage. That’s true even if you aren’t an avid gamer. And if you are, you’re likely already conditioned to understand those systems because you’ve experienced them in many games before. Making a system that deviates from those — or that applies them to an unfamiliar, non-combat end — creates extra work for both the developer and the player.
And it’s true that games that want to avoid this premise often do have their work cut out for them. iIf you offer new systems and a new premise and new terms, you risk alienating players by leaving them without anything familiar they can latch onto. Untitled Goose Game thus takes the most straightforward approach: simple systems, applied intuitively, within familiar rules and settings.
The rules and setting are very ordinary, far more so for most people than combat: people in a village are trying to live their lives. How familiar, how accessible! Many people — most, even — live their lives every day. The magic trick here is inverting your relationship to those rules: imagining yourself as the avatar of every wrong thing that can happen to an innocent member of society, Murphy’s Law made beak and honk.
When you start thinking about how you might upset someone as a goose, it’s easy to arrive at some straightforward conclusions about objectives. But the game offers more concrete terms: The to-do list. Like “kill or be killed”, it’s obvious how to succeed: cross off every item on your list. Furthermore, this construct is once again more familiar than violence to many people. It certainly isn’t omnipresent in media in the same way, but its social ubiquity serves the same purpose as a tutorial device.
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The ease with which a player’s expectation maps cleanly onto available action is one of the most important parts of teaching them about a game, and that’s another reason violence is an easy default. The method, as well as the objective, is clear: you probably have an attack, and you win by doing it to the enemy. For more complex action, there’s no real shortcut around meticulously making everything work like you’d expect it to — another trick Untitled Goose Game seems to effortlessly pull off.
Drop a toy airplane in a shop and the shopkeep will assume it’s part of her stock and sell it back to its hapless owner when he comes asking for it. Wait until just the moment when the gardener swings his hammer to honk and startle him into hitting his thumb. When player expectations are limited to “pressing forward moves forward” and “bullets kill me”, there’s little need for intuition. But there’s all manner of ways to interact with a physical world with the goal of inconveniencing people, and House House has clearly spent many careful hours figuring out some of the best ones.
Violence functions not just as a mechanical shorthand, but a tonal one: it spikes emotional resonance by placing the player in a situation where the thing they’re avoiding — death — is The Very Worst Thing. In most cases, the killing that the player must do to win is its own little satisfying pleasure derived from succeeding over a competing force. Even efforts that try to complicate violence by lingering on the intensity of the act or how it changes the killer often falls back on that violence as not only the main mode of resolving narrative conflict, but the primary in-game source of moment-to-moment player satisfaction (The Last Of Us leaps to mind).
I don’t think using the thrill of violence to hook a player is inherently wrong. I don’t even think it’s inherently lazy. But it’s certainly been done (pardon the expression) to death, so much so that it’s rare for a game to make any attempt to justify leaping immediately to life-or-death as its primary stakes. It takes concerted effort to tell a story about violence, in which the player’s primary action is violence, without to some extent valorizing that violence. Few games attempt it, and when they do, the lack of player agency to do anything different tends to undercut the message.
Back to the goose. If the emotional stakes of combat are self-evident, how are the stakes of civility any less so? What could be a more glamorous power fantasy than the freedom to violate social norms with abandon, to casually inflict chaos and expect no more repercussions than an aggravated shooing-away? Violent games often offer the fantasy of being able to evade or overcome powerful social structures — bribe the cops in Skyrim, murder them in GTA — but in Untitled Goose Game those structures simply don’t apply to you. Of course they don’t. You’re a goose. What punishment, really, could a person administer to a goose, no matter its crimes? Isn’t the thrill of GTA really the thrill of getting away with it, and if so, why should pettier offenses be any less delicious?
It’s easy to see why violence is such a popular tool for game developers: it’s thrilling, it’s time-tested, and the accumulated and knowledge of the last few decades of design favor it. But it’s become the default, and Untitled Goose Game reminds us that it doesn’t have to be. Executed properly, players can latch on to wildly different premises than they’re used to — even something as unexpected as inhabiting the role of a horrible, terrible goose.