‘Can videogames be art?’ It’s a statement that was asked frequently and tediously not so very long ago. These days, not so much.
Not many would dispute that games can be art, that the creation of games is an art form. It is when done right, anyway: much like films, game creation can be anything from a pure artistic endeavour to a soulless corporate regurgitation, and everything in between.
Elsewhere in the medium, whether it’s the engaging narratives of Edith Finch and Ghost Trick, the hand-drawn animated dreamscapes of Gris and Gorogoa, or simply the atmosphere creation of Breath of the Wild, games have been ‘being art’ for a while now, and only the most backward shoes-dug-in Republi- er, I mean people would claim otherwise.
All that’s very well, you might ponder; but why are we discussing art in an article where you play as a goose, nick stuff, and honk a lot?
Time for a Big Art Attack
The definition of art’s a bugger and no mistake. The Wikipedia article (laughs at own non-joke) waffles on for a king-sized section, trying to nail it down.
It manages to do so most succinctly in the summary: ‘general descriptions mention an idea of imaginative or technical skill stemming from human agency and creation.’ Those apply most readily to the creator of art, however. How does the observer know art when they see it?
Here’s a simple ‘definition’ for you to try on for size: art is stuff that makes you think and makes you feel.
I don’t think that’s too controversial. It also rules out a lot of the aforementioned corporate regurgitation, which often doesn’t bother to make you think beyond the bare minimum. Your Calls of Duty (online modes), your Candy Crushes, even your Hyrule Warriors, all seemed designed to dull the brain, and make you feel only through the barest minimum of obvious stimuli. (You could, if you were feeling uncharitable, suggest that that’s what many of them are meant to do to sell their microtransactions. Far be it from me to hint at such a thing.)
So we get to Untitled Goose Game, a game best summed up by its trailer statement: ‘It’s a lovely day in the village, and you are a horrible goose.’
Honk if You Want to Go Faster
You sneak around. You steal things from people. You drop things on other people. You honk loudly. You generally make yourself the biggest nuisance since Dennis the Menace bullied Walter one too many times and inadvertently created a political monster.
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like art.
One thing that does annoy me when art and feelings get put in the same context is that ‘happy feelings’ don’t seem to count. You have to be sad. That’s what ‘feelings’ mean in most people’s descriptions of art, really – sadness, or at a push a hollow empty feeling.
UGG inspires a kind of joy that I think deserves a mention. It’s not the simple ‘yay, I did the thing’ barely-joy that a game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze might inspire. It’s not even, ‘Wow, look at that!’ that you get from Mario Odyssey.
It’s a happy gasp. It’s beaming at the screen. It’s mad hooting laughter.
UGG made me smile more than any game has since parts of Celeste, my favourite indie game of all time, and more than quite a few games before that. This includes greats like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey.
It made me chuckle when I was honking to make a gardener smack his thumb with a hammer. It made me do a proper full laugh-out-loud when I manipulated events to stick my large orange beak on TV. It made me guffaw when my goose stole a harmonica and played it. By honking.
Those are feelings as intense and special as any sadness.
This Isn’t Even My Final Goose
‘That’s all very well Balladeer, you excessively wordy liberal punster,’ I hear a hypothetical reader (let’s call them Steve) chunter, ‘but lots of games make you feel happy, and I can’t see how a game about ruining people’s days as a lunatic goose makes you think.’
All right, Steve, all right. (By the way, ‘lunatic goose’ is a tautology, so stick that in your cynical pipe.) I can show you thought, but I’m going to have to show you UNTITLED GOOSE GAME ENDING SPOILERS at the same time. You brought this on yourself, Steve.
One of the main criticisms of UGG is that it’s short, that it offers poor value for money. It’s certainly true that the main ‘quest’ (if you can call ruining people’s days for the anserine hell of it a ‘quest’) only lasts four main segments. At this point you enter a model village, with a simple quest: steal the church bell.
Up until now, I confess, the game hasn’t been about making you think apart from more than how to complete its puzzles. This final segment changes that.
The model village is a replica of the village you’ve been causing havoc in. You tower over the tiny villagers. You can grab them from their places and fling them, with malice aforethought, hither and yon.
At which point, it hits you, or at least it hit me. Isn’t this what you’ve been doing all game? They’ve been toys for your amusement the whole time. Now here they are, as literal toys. The metaphor lives.
It gets better. Seeing the miniature church, with its golden bell, made me realise that a church bell had been periodically ringing the entire game, lost in the madness. Then, in an act of supremely goosey gooseness, you smash the tower with your beak, and run off with the bell.
The goose is an agent of chaos, and a much more lovable and convincing one than any Joker iteration. Here it is, literally destroying the cornerstone of village life and stealing its main feature. Some fowl just want to watch the world burn.
The surprisingly tense chase to return, with the bell, back home is where the game’s short length becomes a blessing. You’re allowed to pass through every single location, outwit every character, one final time as they conduct their almost possessed hunt for the wretched ornament. The same tricks work, where that’s relevant. The boy can still be honked out of the way. The gardener still won’t see you in the grass. It’s a stroke of gameplay genius.
Finally, though, you make it back home, and return the bell… into a pit full of other bells.
The goose didn’t need the bell. It didn’t need any bell. It just wanted to screw with the minds of people, as it has many times before. The townsfolk will recreate the church again. They will acquire a new bell. The goose will steal it.
The goose will always steal it.
That is some deep cosmic horror-level stuff right there my friends. That makes you think.
(It struck me later how you could lean even further into the symbolism of the goose pecking down the church tower: it is happy to go so far as to screw with the Christian God Himself just for a cheap laugh and to nick a bell. The goose is not bound by your religious moral codes, or any moral codes for that matter. If it wants a bell it shall have a bell.)
It is slightly incredible that a daft indie game about a goose, stemming from workplace chat about how geese are basically angry ducks, can be considered art. The .gifs and trailers that shot this game to stardom didn’t show thinking and feeling.
You could still experience artistic aspects of the game, though. The art style, simple yet elegant in a fashion that’s quite unlike its main subject, has lent itself to several fan-artists’ digital brushes. The music, remixes of pieces by Claude Debussy, is high art repurposed. The story is a deep and sophisticated tale.
Okay, maybe not the last one.
The point remains, though: from almost any lens, Untitled Goose Game is art. It deserves to be considered as such. It manages also to be a very fun game with it, even enabling people to be creators (of havoc) in their own right. Material like this is why, in centuries to come (if mankind survives that long), games may not only be considered art: they may be considered the ultimate form of it.
And Steve won’t appreciate any of it. Git.