There is value in asking questions that are, in internet parlance, “spicy.” By this I mean questions that are intentionally inflammatory, questions that make us defensive, get our hackles up, encourage us to get indignant and sputter a bit as we go into defensive mode.
RE:BIND‘s recent piece on Untitled Goose Game is one of those spicy questions. Is there any difference, it asks, between the intense, graphic brutality of Hatred and Postal and the benign mischievousness of Untitled Goose Game? As Mx. Medea writes, Untitled Goose Game “fits into its own little niche of violence through psychological torment, one all too easy to excuse and internalize.”
Likewise, New Yorker writer Simon Parkin begins his review with a violent story about witnessing a sick goose being shot, and later asks, “Yes, geese are awful. But are they as awful as us?” It feels overwrought, almost facetious. Maybe it is. Of course geese aren’t as awful as humans; geese are animals whose relationship with humans in their environments is tolerant at best, hostile at worse.
The response to both pieces has been… frustrating. There’s been as much laughter as there has been unquestioning acceptance of the points offered.
On the one hand, yes, I laughed at the opening to Parkins’ piece and I was initially irritated on reading Mx. Medea’s. Schadenfreude, or the feeling of pleasure at another’s misfortune, is an easy enough answer to why we play a game explicitly about causing misery, even if that misery is fleeting in a way that the misery of Hatred or of seeing a goose die is not. Isn’t that enough of a justification? Sometimes it just feels good to be bad, and games give us a consequence-free space to indulge in those petty little urges.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was not the questions themselves that irritated me, but rather how they were framed. It’s hard to be sincere in 2019, especially when encouraging people to think deeper about a game where you play a goose. To do so is “let people enjoy things” bait.
But despite my initial frustration, neither writer is wrong. Mx. Medea’s point that psychological torment, emotional abuse, gaslighting, et cetera—all of which are things that you can argue take place within Untitled Goose Game—are easy to disavow as “real” trauma, is absolutely true. These things don’t leave physical scars or marks for us to point at as evidence of wrongdoing, and the impact emotional abuse and similar tactics have is often mental and difficult for survivors to articulate.
What we do to the digital people of Untitled Goose Game is not nice. It isn’t decent or right; there is no moral justification. It’s chaos, and people are hurt—or at least mildly inconvenienced—by it. That difference is important. I’m sure that Mx. Medea and Parkins understand that simulated violence and real violence are not the same, but it’s also worth discussing the goose’s mischief as mischief, which is annoying and frustrating, versus violence, such as that of Postal or what Parkins witnessed against a very real sick goose.
Real violence—that is, violence that occurs in the real world, be that physical, emotional, or mental violence—causes harm to real people. Simulated violence—including the rampages of Postal and the mischief of Untitled Goose Game—does not. That isn’t to say that simulated violence has no consequences, but rather that there are degrees of harm, even as we accept that violence is violence regardless of whether it is emotional or physical, real or simulated. Untitled Goose Game is not, for example, a game about gaslighting a partner or other kinds of psychological torture. It’s not so much that there is an acceptable hierarchy of violence and Untitled Goose Game does not count because it is not sufficiently “bad” enough to warrant discussion, but rather that equating enjoying simulated mass murder with laughing at a boy falling over doesn’t do that discussion any justice. There is a clear difference between simulated murder (such as in Postal and Hatred) and being an asshole goose.
RE:BIND‘s Mx. Medea likens the catharsis of Untitled Goose Game to “screaming at an underpaid cashier at Starbucks for half an hour with none of the social consequences.” And the game certainly is cathartic. But I question the connection between honking at digital people and making them fall into a puddle and screaming at an actual, literal human being. I was a Starbucks barista. I have never felt the urge to scream at one for catharsis or for any other reason, because that is a weird and hostile thing to do to somebody who is completely innocent.
As players, we try to justify why it’s okay for us to torment this village. Cecilia D’Anastasio points out in her game diary that players can invent their own moral justifications for being a holy terror of a goose. She imagined the various residents of the village as Brexiters in need of punishing. But this is an interpretation without any grounding, and House House, the developers, told Vulture that they have a “joke canon” for the game in which all the people you’re harassing are in fact Marxists in an alternate universe where Margaret Thatcher was removed from office by a rampaging goose.
The goose, you see, is an asshole. The goose doesn’t care about politics, though we do. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal; for a brief period of time, we can embody a character who does whatever the fuck they want in a world where the politics are fine, but there is some asshole just waddling loose, dragging their precious statues away and hiding their hats. Imagine that—a world in which your biggest concern is a large waterfowl.
As Mx. Medea points out, regardless of whether it’s simulated or real, we should turn a critical eye toward the things that we enjoy. Why is creating suffering so appealing? It’s a question that psychology has tried to answer many times, with varying degrees of success.
Why do we enjoy laughing at the boy falling over because we’ve untied his shoes? According to one study, there’s a correlation between low self-esteem and experiencing schadenfreude, or the feeling of pleasure at another’s misfortune. Kids as young as two experience schadenfreude, and one experiment has even shown that babies have a preference for people or characters who are like them and enjoy seeing harm inflicted on people who are not like them. It’s also a potential evolutionary trait—when we see someone suffer, we believe that we are less likely to experience that suffering ourselves.
It makes sense, then, that one way of excusing the actions of the horrible goose is to imagine that all the townsfolk are Brexiters. We want to see justice, even if that justice is distributed by a goose who has no stake in politics.
And as writer Grace in the Machine suggested in her piece on Untitled Goose Game, there is more than one way to read not only the goose’s actions, but the response of the townsfolk as well. The goose is a reminder that the land they now inhabit was once wild and that they are mere guests there. They don’t attack or use violence in retaliation, signaling a harmony with the natural world they’ve encroached on. That’s justice for the goose and peace of mind for the townsfolk. It’s a message that is ultimately hopeful. Humanity doesn’t have to master the natural world; it can live alongside it and tolerate its occasional inconveniences as a consequence of living in proximity.
A game as abstract as Untitled Goose Game—even its title, because it presents itself as “untitled”—lends itself well to a multitude of readings. It’s functional; you’re given a sandbox and some mild directives but there is little to guide you beyond that. By virtue of its openness, its lack of speech, its unassuming title, it invites us to ask questions that may feel pretentious on first glance.
What’s So Great About That?’s video on Untitled Goose Game explores Grace’s feelings on the game, including the raw, pure joy of fucking shit up because it’s 2019.
The problems I have with Mx. Medea’s and Parkins’ pieces are not that they dare to ask complicated questions; like all art, Untitled Goose Game is worth questioning. It’s worth asking why we enjoy causing suffering, though that’s a more existential question than one game in which you play a jerk goose for a few hours can answer with any depth. But we don’t need a paragraph about a traumatic goose death or comparisons to ultraviolent games like Postal and Hatred to ask these questions.
In fact, I’d argue that such heavy-handed treatment robs the questions of their weight. When reading both Mx. Medea and Parkins’ pieces, I questioned whether they were meant to be facetious. I still am questioning whether they’re meant to be facetious.
But you know what? Fuck it. Ask the questions. They’re worth it, and they’re worth asking without hyperbole. Does playing Untitled Goose Game make me a bad person? Not any more than owning a cell phone or driving a car to work, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t interrogate those practices anyway! It’s almost 2020, fuck couching your opinions, embrace chaos, be a goose.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.