The beautifully simple secret of Untitled Goose Game’s success
Untitled Goose Game is a hit. Since its arrival a week ago, House House’s comedy-stealth game has notched up significant achievements including mainly positive reviews, along with coverage in mainstream media. It’s also spawned a rash of memes, and was the subject of a tweet from Chrissy Teigen.
It’s one of those rare treats; a genuinely funny video game. Its main protagonist is a mean-spirited goose whose anarchic activities scandalize a once-peaceful little town. The goose spends its time engaged in deep mischief, which generally means it sets up a series of pratfalls.
A nice gardener uses a hammer to bang a nail into a sign. The goose creeps up behind the gardener. At the crucial moment, the goose honks loudly. The man bangs his finger and falls through a gate. We laugh.
Playing the game reminds me of early comedy films from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, which I adore. Today, we tend to view slapstick as an unsophisticated, immature kind of comedy. But the early stars of film were working with jokes that were already familiar to their audiences, through vaudeville. Their genius was to refine and reframe the gags, so that they felt both new and, somehow, perfect.
When the goose pulls a chair from underneath a character who’s about to sit down, we’re seeing a joke that we’ve seen many times before. Most of the time, this is not a funny joke, partly because of its familiarity and partly because the “comedian” (say, your annoying uncle) has no comedic skill.
But the goose makes it funny all over again. My question to two of the developers, Stuart Gillespie-Cook and Nico Disseldorp, is … why?
“These are jokes that are told again and again,” replies Disseldorp. “We definitely knew that we were following along with those sorts of jokes. But it was never as specific as like, ‘oh, let’s watch a bunch of slapstick movies in slow motion and analyze how they work’. We were trying to establish a shared memory of these jokes, that come from many films, from the silent era up to today’s children’s films.”
I ask him how the team crafts its jokes.
“We don’t start with ‘how do we make this funny,” he says. “We assume that the player already knows how the joke works, and we look at ways to make the joke something that the player actually does. What sort of interactions are required? What are the best props? What are the best animations?”
Gillespie-Cook adds that “a big part of it is making the player believe that they’ve come up with the joke. We’re showing them the humor and letting them believe that they’re setting up the joke, which makes it pay off.”
“We give you the ingredients,” says Disseldorp. “You see the parts of the joke and you imagine it playing out in your head. And then you pull the chair out and you see them fall on their bottom. You earned that joke. You made it happen. It’s yours.”
Games have the advantage of trial and error, so failure states can also be funny. Players might honk at the gardener too early, or too late, leading to alternative outcomes.
“We try to make sure that there are a few ways for the joke to not go right,” says Disseldorp. “We don’t want it to be so easy so that the second you see what the joke’s going to be, it’s already over. If you have to try three times to make the joke work then it’s all the funnier by the time it actually works. ”
“The missed opportunities are often just as funny as the actual punchline,” says Gillespie-Cook. “Also, we’re leaving lots of tiny variations up to the player. We’ve watched hours and hours of people play-testing, and the slight changes make the jokes funny again. One player runs around honking and flapping its wings, or another stands in front of the victim and just stares at him.”
Like the early filmmakers, House House is taking familiar humor and reconstructing it to fit a relatively new medium. Video games are rarely consistently funny, because of their narrative and technical limitations and their reliance on repetition, but productions like Untitled Goose Game, Chuchel and Wattam are furthering the exploration of interactive comedic timing. It’s perhaps no coincidence that all these games rely on childlike worlds to convey universal humor.
The non-player characters in Untitled Goose Game are familiar archetypes. The gardener is a man who likes his surroundings to be just so, and tidies everything to his own satisfaction. A proprietorial shopkeeper is viciously protective of her goods. A cowardly boy is frightened to distraction by the goose.
“Our favorite type of comedy is related to this very archetypal, platonic ideas of characters and all situations,” says Gillespie-Cook. “They are instantly familiar to people.”
The team originally wrote more than a hundred potential archetypal NPCs, whittling them down to those who worked best with each other, and with the goose, who is the clear star of the show.
“People seem to have this very particular relationship with geese,” says Disseldorp. “They’re kind of afraid of them. Geese can be really aggressive. They’re a very powerful animal that people have lots of feelings about. But they’re not seen as evil or wicked like a snake or a scorpion.”
“We tried really hard to not make the goose seem too emotive,” says Gillespie-Cook. “It’s blank enough so that you can read whatever you want to read. You can project yourself onto it.”
The way the goose stares of people, while they go mad with exasperation, is one of the game’s most endearing qualities. The goose spends a lot of time stealing objects and placing them in inconvenient spots. The mechanics are stealth-like, requiring that the goose either knows it is unobserved, or definitely wants to be watched for its own devious ends.
“We wanted the goose to be looking at the objects it was interacting with, so the object wouldn’t have to be sparkly or highlighted or whatever,” says Disseldorp. “So it was obvious that the goose needed to also be looking at the people, and the people needed to be looking at the goose. The second that eye contact was there, we realized we’d struck upon this perfect interaction where it felt real. There’s this moment of understanding between human and animal which bridges their lack of a shared language.”
Ultimately, the goose in an agent of chaos and mischief in a world of rules and order. It is an unruly child. This is why the game appeals to both adults and to children.
“The impulse we picked up on is that players just love to make a big mess or whatever situation they’re in,” Disseldorp says.
Untitled Goose Game is published by Panic and is out now on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Mac. If you’re playing the game, take a look at our helpful Untitled Goose Game guides.
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