Hatred, Postal, Grand Theft Auto, Untitled Goose Game. What do these games have in common?
Violence is a go-to staple of video game design to say the least, whether in the form of flying gore and viscera or swift ‘bad-ass’ executions from the shadows, so it’s good to see a rise in the number of non-violent titles in recent years, especially in the indie scene. Untitled Goose Game (UGG from hereon) is not one of these.
If you’re one of the 5 people who hasn’t played it yet, UGG is a flat-shaded romp around town as the non-titular goose in his endless crusade to harass, trip, annoy, and torment people ostensibly minding their own business. UGG is many things, but it is anything but non-violent. It’s not graphically violent, of course, lacking arterial sprays and gibs soaring through the sky like small bloody geese as it does, but it fits into its own little niche of violence through psychological torment, one all too easy to excuse and internalize.
Were I pressed to describe what UGG sets out to do, I would say that it presents an experience with all the catharsis of screaming at an underpaid cashier at Starbucks for half an hour with none of the social consequences. Now, I’m not one to judge either the game or those that enjoy it considering how normalized violence of all forms is in interactive media, however I do believe it’s important to approach it from a critical perspective so that we can engage with it in a way that doesn’t internalize the more problematic elements at play (as is important with any game where socially and morally unacceptable acts are framed as core mechanics).
Full disclosure: I don’t like UGG, the experience it offers evokes a sensation all too akin to the one I experienced with Hatred and Postal but fundamentally different from many other ultra-violent titles. The distinction is subtle, but important: in many violent video games you’re set against a force, existential or otherwise, that is determined to visit violence upon you, mirroring a sense of self-preservation. This is, of course, problematic in its own ways, but UGG et al. present us with a game centered around one core trapping: visit violence upon the innocent, upon those minding their own business, whether that be through mass-murder (Hatred, Postal, etc.) or through harassment, petty inconvenience, infliction of stress, or setting up situations in which others happen to come to harm. It’s an experience that doesn’t sit well with me on a personal level, although I understand the power of the cathartic release it offers to those for whom it does.
UGG is the answer to the question once asked by Daisy of Mario franchise fame, “Aren’t you tired of being nice? Don’t you just want to go ape-shit?” The game, of course, troubles me on a personal level, but in a broader sense I find myself troubled by the bleak glee with which countless players engage with its central thesis, the joy that many appear to uncritically derive from just ruining some random person’s day ad infinitum.
There is no one-and-done with violence, there is no easy to recognize and simple form that it takes, a reality that I am personally far too familiar with for my own peace of mind. Violence is usually understood as gibs, blood, gore, viscera, weapons, headshots, but the focus on this as violence in itself tacitly erases the smaller violences we experience on a daily basis. As much as violence can be gore, it can also be a raised voice, a divestment of personal autonomy or power, an infliction of a stressful situation, an intentional annoyance, a cavalcade of small psychological paper-cuts of violence that we face down every day, whether it be from family, bosses, or just someone who wishes to take a bad day out on a bystander.
We are all intimately familiar with the petty violences in life, none escape them forever, and for many of us we’re lucky to avoid them for even a handful of hours. UGG offers us an intoxicating experience, that of a guilt and consequence free pastel-washed opportunity to visit those one thousand and one violences we are subjected to every day upon facsimiles of the innocent: to be the subject visiting violence upon others instead of the object of the petty annoyances others subject us to for their own cathartic release for a change.
The difference between UGG and titles like Hatred, Postal, or Grand Theft Auto isn’t a fundamental one, but one of scale. In all 3 cases the goal is to visit violence upon others, to inflict harm on an innocent who has done nothing to invite it, the shape that this violence takes, however, is the distinction between the titles.
Does this mean that if you enjoy UGG you’re a bad person, or that House House are bad people for making it? No, not really, it’s a facet of the human condition to vicariously blow off steam (even in cruel and terrible ways) in safe arenas that won’t cause meaningful harm to others. It’s an experience that takes countless forms, anything from taking up boxing, to imagining scenarios in which we totally ruined the day of that one annoying customer, to playing a game where we make a young boy trip over and maliciously honk at him while laughing at his predicament.
However, as with all experiences that we engage in, it’s important to turn a critical eye both outwards and inwards. What are we actually doing in this game? What does that say about the character, about us? And what lies at the core of our perverse pleasure at a young boy falling over and losing his glasses?
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.