Untitled Goose Game started as a joke. Here’s how it became a real video game, went viral, and became one of 2019’s most charming success stories.
Sometimes, all it takes to unite people is the shrill honking of a chaotic goose. Or rather, the catharsis of becoming a chaotic goose, if only virtually.
That’s the most basic pleasure at the heart of Untitled Goose Game, a video game from Australian developer House House that launched in late September and quickly earned widespread acclaim. Its fans have all been won over by the quirky puzzle game’s endearingly evil antihero: a cunning waterfowl that just wants to cause a ruckus for a laugh.
In its short life so far, Untitled Goose Game has found an audience with everyone from model-turned-entrepreneur and Twitter maven Chrissy Teigen to Blink-182 frontman Mark Hoppus to a variety of international news outlets to PETA, in addition to tens of thousands of players. On Nintendo’s digital marketplace, Untitled Goose Game even held the top spot on the Switch games sales chart the week after its release, beating out a new entry in Nintendo’s own hugely popular The Legend of Zelda franchise to get there. Then there are all the memes. There’s fan art of the goose and jokes about what its incessant honking must really mean. There’s popular shitposting groups on Facebook, where users share simple jokes and crudely edited images, replete with threads that reference Untitled Goose Game; video game culture websites are left to curate the best Untitled Goose Game memes out there among the many, many options.
The central conceit of Untitled Goose Game — which costs a mere $15 and is available to download on the Nintendo Switch console as well as on Mac and Windows PC — is extremely simple: Be a goose who is a total trickster. And that simplicity is key to its success.
Players take on the role of a goose that just wants to have some fun at other people’s expense, with seemingly little motivation other than to wreak havoc in the name of its own entertainment. But the goose is never overly violent or aggressive — it’s too unassuming, and even adorable. It’s also a bit loud, what with all the honking.
As the goose, players waddle through gardens, backyards, and streets in an English village, messing with the faceless, voiceless residents they meet along the way. If the goose can be said to have a mission statement, it is perhaps best characterized as “nyah nyah nyah nyah boo boo”; the stated objective of the game is to complete a checklist of impish tasks set forth for the goose perform. For example: Steal a little boy’s glasses, then take his toy plane while he’s not looking and give it to a shopkeeper who will make the boy buy it back.
These hijinks all take place in a bloodless, colorful, stylized world full of townsfolk to distract and puzzles to solve, all set to dynamic pieces of classical music by the influential French composer Claude Debussy. The goose’s assigned tasks are directed by some omniscient guiding presence, but that doesn’t really matter; they exist simply to add a semblance of structure to what is otherwise an open playground for the goose to cause a good-natured racket. One of its more charming undertakings, for instance, involves wreaking havoc in a pub by sneaking into the kitchen, stealing an entire set of cutlery, knocking an empty bucket onto a doorman’s head, and performing a honking and wing-flapping routine for a pair of easily amused diners.
The goose may seem a little mean-spirited at times, but because it’s controlled by the player — and because its human targets are only a few shades past inanimate, rather than developed characters — it functions as a scrappy, lovable hero. Embodying this beaked merchant of mayhem can feel like a satisfying role reversal for any human who has ever encountered an angry goose honking at them in a park.
Untitled Goose Game offers just enough of a challenge to keep a player engaged until they’ve worked through the goose’s trickster to-do list. But at the same time, the game is gentle and encouraging, allowing a lot of freedom to maneuver the goose as a player sees fit. You wanna just make the goose honk over and over, like Chrissy Teigen’s young daughter likes to do? Be our guest.
Think of Untitled Goose Game as a virtual playground, one in which the ability to command a rascally goose can feel downright therapeutic. Critics and players alike seem to be responding most strongly to that aspect of the game, lauding the way it grants players the rare opportunity to be a troublemaker without the consequences of real life or the more fraught concerns that tend to arise around other, more violent video games.
“Untitled Goose Game is a safe, socially acceptable way to relieve stress,” the Washington Post declared shortly after the game’s release. “It’s the new punching a wall. It’s the new crying at your desk.”
“Ultimately, the goose is an agent of chaos and mischief in a world of rules and order. It is an unruly child,” wrote Colin Campbell at Polygon, Vox’s sister site. “This is why the game appeals to both adults and to children.”
“I played Untitled Goose Game as if I was out for revenge,” crowed Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times. “Bring it on, people! And I was beyond delighted to have a stealth game that did away with violence and guns. Thank you, House House, for experimenting with how a goose would move and interact with objects. Waddling, it turns out, is just as much fun, if not more, than bombing things.”
The game’s rowdy but uncomplicated lead character has become a phenomenon, no weapons necessary.
I HAVE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH. THIS IS CENSORSHIP. TWITTER WILL HEAR ABOUT THIS. pic.twitter.com/AaEKQx9toN
— Charkie (@charkie) September 20, 2019
Of course I did. pic.twitter.com/3MFkmhdszS
— Jeff Ramos (@ohjefframos) September 25, 2019
It’s been just under three weeks since Untitled Goose Game’s September 22 release, but the game’s reception has already far surpassed its creators’ expectations. And Nico Disseldorp, one of its four developers, told Australian state news that more than 100,000 copies have been sold — an impressive feat for a game produced on a small budget by a four-person team.
To get more insight into Untitled Goose Game’s meteoric rise, I called up Disseldorp to get the backstory on how the game came to be and why it’s struck such a nerve. Here’s the full story of how a workplace joke about a video game starring a bratty goose became a full-fledged, delightfully silly bestseller.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Untitled Goose Game started as a joke
I want to start from the very beginning: Where did the idea come from?
I guess this story begins at some point probably way back in 2016. We had just finished Push Me Pull You, our previous game. And we were like, “Okay, we’re going to pick which of our game ideas that we’ve been kicking around we’re going to work on next.” And in the middle of this kind of serious discussion about these ideas that had some substance to them, [designer Stuart Gillespie-Cook] posted an image in our group chat and said, “Let’s make a game about this.” And he just posted a stock photograph of the goose.
And then that led to us kind of riffing for a while — “These are all the different things we like about geese, and these are the things that seem to be funny about them.”
People think game development means you get to play games all day, but they’re wrong – it means you talk about geese pic.twitter.com/I8XvTWy7b1
— Michael McMaster (@mjmcmaster) August 11, 2016
Partially, it was just that the animals themselves seemed to have a lot of character to them. The fact that geese always seem to be frowning. It’s this large bird that has a very blank expression but still seems to say a lot. As we looked into it, we realized geese aren’t part of our life, as people who live in an urban area in Australia. But for people who do live near geese, there seems to be this very interesting relationship that’s going on where people are very afraid of them.
That seemed a bit baffling to us, or a bit hard to comprehend, but very funny. So there was always kind of this joke going around like, “Oh, the joke idea of the game that we could make is the Goose Game.” But it was always a joke.
Then we were prototyping some other things and not making as much progress as we thought. And the Goose Game jokes just kept getting funnier and funnier. At some point, we realized we were more interested in the joke game idea — the one that we weren’t going to do — than any of the ideas that we’d been taking seriously. So, one morning we just decided, Okay, look, let’s stop, and let’s just try and make the Goose Game. Let’s see what happens.
We didn’t really have a heap of a plan. We just had a premise of, you’ll be a goose. And you’ll be the kind of goose that people seem to be afraid of. All these people who say, “I’m scared of geese” — you’ll be that goose, the bad one. And there’ll be some conflicts between you and people.
We didn’t have much of an idea of how that would actually translate into a video game. We just tried things, and put people in, and made them react in different ways. We kept trying to think of funny things that a goose could do. Eventually a game started forming around it that fit the premise that we’d set for ourselves. At that point, we thought, We’re starting to grow very fond of our silly Goose Game.
But we really thought that this was a joke that had a pretty niche appeal until it was October 2017. We were going to show the game at [the annual independent games festival Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas], and we realized there’s going to be no website … So, we should just put something online. Anything. Throw something up to let people see that there is a video game. And if they Google it, they’ll have a result.
We still didn’t have a title or anything. We thought that we can’t just have “Goose Game” be the name of the trailer, because then everyone will think that’s the real title of the game. And we wanted to change it later. We ended up putting up the YouTube video with the title Untitled Goose Game, so that it was very clear to everyone that there’s absolutely zero chance that this would be the actual title of the game. It was completely a placeholder.
And then we were very surprised to find out that our little niche joke that we thought only we’d find funny was resonating with people very strongly. That first video in 2017 became very popular, and it was being shared around as a meme video. It was being shared in a way that didn’t really feel like a video game trailer [would be]. It felt like just a funny internet video. And it had that name, Untitled Goose Game, and after a while we were just like, maybe we don’t need a title.
Not having a title seemed like a big part of the initial … I don’t want to say appeal, because maybe that’s weird if everyone likes this game because it doesn’t have a title. But already, this conversation sprung up around this game because it had a memorable untitled title. It was eye-catching.
Yeah. And I’d say that was definitely not intentional on our behalf. But I think we noticed afterwards, people liked that this video game announcement wasn’t necessarily doing all the things you’d expect a video game announcement to do. It didn’t have a proper title yet. And the video itself wasn’t really edited the way [a video game trailer usually is]. It was a very laid back sort of gameplay video. I think that maybe helped it become more like a viral, funny internet video rather than a classic video game announcement with all the normal trappings.
The game is simple to play, no matter your level or lack of gaming experience
I think that was definitely a big part of it, at least for those more aware of what’s happening in the gaming world: having interesting trailers worked to gain or sustain people’s interest. And then we get to release, and the people who already knew about this game and remembered the funny, weird trailers and were already amused by the title latched onto it. But so did people who had no idea what Untitled Goose Game was, who only became aware of it through word of mouth or social media. It’s endeared itself to every kind of gaming fan.
What do you consider to be the main appeal of Untitled Goose Game, both from your perspective as a developer but also from what you’re learning now about how people are enjoying it?
I think probably one of the biggest parts is the character, and that’s kind of where we started as well. Geese are these really interesting, playful animals that are a bit scary and a bit antagonistic, and they have this interesting kind of conflict with humans, and they seem kind of mischievous but also a bit blank. I think people quite like that as a video game character.
But in terms of how it plays, I think that part of it is that there are a lot of people who like to play video games in this way. … No matter what it is, if you play any video game — with any story, any character — some people just like to immediately try and make a big mess or break some things or kind of push against the system to see what happens.
A classic example you hear about is people who want to take the ladder away while the Sims are in the pool or something, just to see what happens. And there’s kind of a playfulness and creativity that comes with being able to feel like you’re working against a system in a game. And I think our game is a game where that’s your character from the get-go.
It’s like we’ve made a system that’s functioning without you and your job is to go in there and mess it up in some interesting ways and have fun doing it.
It feels sort of open-ended in that way. But I also do like that there is some structure to the game in terms of there are these tasks you have to do. It’s not completely like you’re left to your own devices while playing, but at the same time, there are so many different ways to try and finish those tasks.
And I think that’s part of why I’ve been so inclined to show it to other people, because it’s not like there’s this one set way you have to beat this level or this boss or do other typical video game things. Instead, you can just mess around in the environment and you’ll probably stumble your way into getting it right eventually.
I think one of the things that’s been the most exciting to me about the reaction to the game is that a lot of people are doing really playful, creative things, like making their own little videos where they have a scenario that we’ve never thought of before that uses the game’s elements and combines them in a new way. I think people are definitely finding ways to kind of direct their own fun in the game, which I really like.
I got a suggestion to use a turbo button controller for the honk button.
I have weaponized this goose. pic.twitter.com/kqID4mOJCD
— Charkie (@charkie) September 21, 2019
— Muggy Ebes (@LucieEbrey) September 24, 2019
It all happened very quickly. I don’t know if I could pinpoint a moment where I realized it was appealing to a broader audience like that, but beyond just the release of this game, I think [the online reception] is something that House House does spend a bit of time thinking about and pays a bit of attention to. We found that our last game, Push Me Pull You, was quite effective at catching the interest of people who don’t play a lot of video games.
And I think through that, we maybe developed a bit of an appreciation for like, “Oh, these are [elements of a game] that can help [make it appealing] to a larger audience.” We kind of think of it as making sure everything that is on the screen is very apparent to someone who walks past and sits next to you, even if they have no prior understanding of the game. It’s very easy to understand what’s going on.
So, I’d say I always thought Untitled Goose Game had a chance of being appreciated by people who don’t play video games. And when we were play-testing the game, we made sure lots of people who didn’t play many video games, or maybe hadn’t played any video games in a decade or something, came into the office and met some of our play-testers. But I would never have guessed that would translate to people who don’t play many video games actually wanting to download and buy it and stuff.
There are probably lots of video games out there that would be really appealing to all sorts of people who don’t play many video games. But the hardest thing [can be for those people to find the games in the first place]. Often, I’ll find I’m in a conversation with someone who is like, “You know a lot about video games. I don’t really play them. I’ve never really found one that speaks to me.” And then if I talk to them for a while, I can maybe recommend, “I think you’d really like this.” And they might play it. And they might like it.
But they might have had very little chance of finding that video game on their own because it’s a small indie game or something that’s difficult to know about unless you follow that world or have someone recommending it to you. So, maybe there’s something about the Goose Game’s popularity — combined with the fact that it’s the kind of video game that someone who doesn’t play a lot of video games can understand or appreciate, even if they’re not playing — [that helped it find a much broader audience].
When it comes to the non-traditional video game player, we can tell them that Untitled Goose Game is easy to pick up and play, it’s cute, it’s funny, but when it comes down to it, it’s still a video game. How do you talk to people who are learning about the game from Chrissy Teigen tweeting about it?
I don’t know if we do that very deliberately, really. Certainly when developing the game, that’s something we’re often thinking about — like, “This seems like it’d be too hard to understand for someone who doesn’t know a lot of arcane video game literacy stuff.”
Now that [Untitled Goose Game has become so popular] and there are people who maybe haven’t played a video game in a long time who are suddenly interested in this video game, we are talking to them. In practical terms, that maybe means that we get a lot of emails just asking, like, “So, can you tell me how you actually download these video games? Do I need to buy something? Does it go on my computer? What do I do?”
They need some very practical advice — things that you might sometimes take for granted, like if you’re selling your video game through an online store, that people will know how to use that online store or something.
It really makes you aware of how many barriers there are to even get to the point where you could play a game like this even if you are interested. As I was saying before, we try and keep those barriers relatively low in terms of making sure the game’s pretty easy to understand. You’re still making a video game for a particular platform, and for most of the world, they won’t have any idea how that works [to purchase it for that platform].
The game’s simplicity also makes it easy to meme
Then there are the people who are very online on Twitter making memes; a big part of how the game has spread online is through memes. Have you guys been paying a lot of attention to the memes? And why is this game so meme-able?
I think the thing that’s excited me most is that there’s kind of popular meme formats that have come out of it. I love that there’s been kind of recreations of other memes with the Untitled Goose Game characters instead. The classic one is the, “Show me what you’ve got,” and it’s a knife. Do you remember that Vine?
Anyway, [the parody version is] the goose has a knife.
— lluvia鹿 (@lluvia_deer) September 28, 2019
In terms of why the game is meme-able, I don’t know if I could really say 100 percent. But I suspect that part of it is just that it’s very easy to look at a screenshot of this game and immediately gauge what the conflict is and what the kind of power dynamic is.
— James Moore (@Sting809) September 30, 2019
Untitled Goose Game (2019) pic.twitter.com/SMHIuoxQWk
— Ireland Simpsons Fans (@iresimpsonsfans) September 29, 2019
Shared culture is such an important part of lots of memes. That’s why a popular movie is a good choice for a meme format, because everyone knows the context of the scene. But with lots of video game memes I think it does take a bit of an understanding of the video game to get it. … So if your video game meme required you to play the video game before or to know a fair bit about it, I think that would be a more limited audience. Whereas I think you could probably look at a goose honking at a wimpy kid and kind of get a gist of it even if you’ve never played Untitled Goose Game before or don’t have any idea what it is.
Untitled Goose Game’s popularity lies in its universal appeal: We’re all that goose
Are there any particular influences that you guys drew from for the game, especially in creating the humor? I’ve seen people compare it to slapstick or silent movies from the ’20s and ’30s, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s work. Very physical humor. Was any of that on your mind when designing the game?
I wouldn’t say that we had any one comedy genre that we were looking to. The thing that we were always focusing on was this idea that we could find a kind of universal framing for the sorts of gags that we wanted to put in the game, the sorts of things that you’ve seen a hundred times and that might be in silent comedies and cartoons and from all different eras.
We thought [those kinds of jokes] were always good to go for because it means that there’s kind of a lot of familiarity for players and a lot for them to grasp onto. We figured the thing that we are providing that’s maybe a bit more original is your participation in those jokes and your opportunities to express yourselves in small ways throughout those jokes. But we were always going for, what’s the platonic version of this gag, the one that everyone remembers, more than trying to study one particular form of it to get the timing just right.
I think there’s definitely a universality to the humor. It’s cool when people say it’s like, I don’t know, a Buster Keaton movie. It’s a family-friendly, kind of old-school, very relatable, understandable humor.
And I guess the same sets of restrictions probably pushed us there as well, in that the game [doesn’t have any dialogue] so we can’t do spoken gags. It all has to be physical action because of that restriction. The characters don’t talk.
I really like that. It is so much like miming. Because the human characters don’t have faces, even.
Yeah. I guess a lot of that is the restrictions that we had to set ourselves to be able to make this game at all. … As just a handful of people working on the game, we were like, “Okay, if we’re going to have a game with people in it, first things first, they’re not going to have faces and they’re not going to talk.”
One last thing for me is that Australia’s national news service talked to you guys about the game’s success and you noted that people are writing about Untitled Goose Game as a cultural fad. And “fad” can have sort of an ephemeral connotation, Are you worried at all that the attention on Goose Game could fade and people could see it as nothing more than one-and-done memes?
I guess I’ll have to think about that going forward. Right now, I’m not sure I really know. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. I could never have seen these last few weeks coming. And who knows what will happen next. In some sense, I don’t know if anything could capture everyone’s attention forever.
I hope even if eventually it’s known and people are getting more used to it, it’s still a fun video game to play. So, maybe it doesn’t really matter if it’s a big cultural moment for however long it’s a big cultural moment for. If people are still having fun playing the game, then that’s great.
Author: Allegra Frank