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Article
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Gaming

‘The goose came first’: game development as a cultural project

Many videogames have commercial or critical success, but rarely does one comes along that really penetrates the public zeitgeist.

Rockstar Games can cover every bus in every capital city in Red Dead Redemption 2 advertisements, make millions upon millions of sales, and still most people you speak to have probably never heard of the game. But they have heard of Fortnite, Pokemon Go, Angry Birds. These games don’t just sell well. They get talked about on morning news shows. Memes about them get shared on Facebook by distant family members. Celebrities talk about them. In short, they become part of broader popular culture in a way videogames rarely do.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Untitled Goose Game, the latest game to be added to this prestigious list. It has spawned countless memes, been tweeted about by supermodels, gotten shoutouts from Blink 182, and made it into The New York Times.

In Untitled Goose Game, you are a horrible goose in a nice village. Mechanically, the game brings to mind typical systems-driven stealth franchises like Hitman or Metal Gear Solid. But the fiction these mechanics are wrapped up in is something entirely different. You’re not a spy or an assassin. You’re just a goose trying to steal a hat or make a gardener wet. It’s the presentation of the goose, with its clear and expressive animations, that is key to the game’s success. Regardless of whether you are playing it well or poorly, or watching someone else play, Untitled Goose Game remains funny and engaging in the same ways: because the goose is doing mischievous goose things. This is what has allowed the game to become a viral, meme-able success. You don’t need to have played it – in fact, you don’t need to have played any videogame to understand why it is funny.

There’s one key difference between Untitled Goose Game and the Fortnites and Pokemon Gos of the world: that it wasn’t made by a large studio owned by a massive corporation, but by a team of four close friends in north Melbourne. Perhaps this group can be accurately compared to Notch, the lone games programmer who made the first version of Minecraft as a side project, or Dong Nguyen, the lone creator of Flappy Bird. But even these comparisons fall short. Notch and Nguyen each had backgrounds in game programming. The four members of House House, on the other hand, have backgrounds in film editing, art, and the humanities. One of them is currently halfway through a PhD on museums and videogame exhibitions. They are not who you traditionally think of when you think of videogame developers.

Yet, these days, there are a lot of game developers who are not your traditional idea of a game developer. While the 2000s saw radical changes in how videogames could be distributed, opening up new audiences to ‘indie’ and ‘mobile’ games, the 2010s have been the decade of a widening of how videogames could be developed, and just what skillsets and resources are required to do so – what Anna Anthropy called in 2012 the rise of the videogame zinesters. Alternative tools such as Twine and more recently Bitsy have become fertile grounds for marginal and queer creators (especially trans women) to explore new genres and ideas the traditional games industry,  indies included, has little interest in exploring. Meanwhile, the increased accessibility of powerful engines such as Unity and Unreal has put countercultural game production on a more level playing field with mainstream game development than ever before.

Thus we’re seeing around the world a great widening of who makes games, what games they make, and why they make games in the first place. Effectively, game development is no longer simply ‘an industry’ but has instead become a fully-fledged cultural field where professionals and amateurs, developers and artists, communities and scenes and collectives, commercial and artistic ambitions, all co-exist across an ecology. In layperson terms, what we’re seeing is the emergence of videogame communities.

When I try to explain how these communities are different to how we traditionally understand the videogame industry, I typically find myself falling back on analogies to other cultural industries. We are used to thinking of videogame studios as structured somewhat like tech or software companies, as many of them indeed are. In these new scenes, however, we see gamemaking groups come together more like music bands, both in the ways they collaborate and cross-pollinate but also in the ways they talk about their craft and future ambitions. Many are content to do their creative work on the side of a day job, rather than jumping in the deep end of starting a formal company. Just like a successful rock band doesn’t hire ten more drummers after a breakthrough album, many of these game development teams are more interested in keeping the team than in growing into a larger studio. The members of these videogame scenes are simply approaching what it means to be a game developer from different perspectives, thus creating videogame works of a different flavour.

Crucial to these communities is their locality. It’s very easy to talk about the ‘game industry’ as as globally homogenous beast, with large companies like Rockstar and Ubisoft producing franchise sequels across three or five interchangeable studios on different continents. But for this wider net of non-traditional game developers – what the British Council has termed artist-gamemakers – it’s the local context that is crucial to the games that they make and the context they make them in: who they collaborate with, the funding they have available, who they share a workspace with, where they are able to exhibit and present their work.

This is particularly vivid in Melbourne, which is home to a vibrant artist-gamemaker scene that overlaps with, but isn’t interchangeable with, the Melbourne ‘game industry’, and which is intimately supported by Film Victoria. House House have long been involved in this local scene, teaching into RMIT’s games program, attending the warehouse parties, winning awards at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival (previously run by Untitled Goose Game’s composer, Dan Golding). Their members have been involved in different ways in other local collectives like Hovergarden (which run local game parties) and Playreactive (a group that combines play and theatre). Throughout Untitled Goose Game’s production, House House shared their coworking space (a literal three-bedroom share house on Melbourne’s north side) with other artist-gamemaker teams like Paper House (creators of the beautiful Paperbark; and also collaborators with programmer Cherie Davidson) and 2pt (responsible for a diverse range of commercial and artistic titles about cats). House House’s first game, Push Me Pull You, was originally made in a bespoke web engine developed by team member Nico Disseldorp, which made it next-to-impossible to release the game on consoles. Another Melbourne studio, League of Geeks, then worked with House House to completely remake the game in the Unity game engine so that it could be commercially released on PlayStation 4.

All this is to say, one can’t fully understand Untitled Goose Game or where it came from without understanding the local communities of practice in which its creators are immersed as not only a ‘game development studio’ in the traditional sense, but as part of this much broader trend of ‘artist-gamemakers’ approaching videogame creation from different backgrounds, with different ambitions and sensibilities, participating in different communities

On the surface, Untitled Goose Game doesn’t seem that experimental. It still features key videogame tropes and ideas that are relatively easy to recognise. It’s still driven by systems, with mechanically familiar stealth-play styles, and the physical comedy seems perfectly tuned to the contemporary YouTube and Twitch influencer crowd. But there are also particular sensibilities that make Untitled Goose Game something more than a good videogame idea well executed. It has a specific charm to it, an aura in the traditional Walter Benjamin sense that one rarely associates with the seemingly depersonalised and hypercommercial videogames that most typically enter the public sphere. It feels handcrafted.

Consider how the game idea was first conceived by the team (as memorialized in a now infamous tweet) when Stuart Gillespie-Cook posted a stock art image of a goose into the team chat channel. Or how vital Strasser’s film editing background skills were to the first trailer that went viral in 2017, setting the scene for everything to come.

You can spot the fingerprints of the creators in every moment of the game. They’re in the bespoke font that McMaster created for the game, the goose’s expressive walk animation, the timing of the physical comedy, the very Australian imagining of ‘Britishness’, the acknowledgement of un-ceded Indigenous country, or the careful procedural adaptation of Debussy’s Preludes which is at once remarkably simple and spectacularly over-engineered in its execution. Consider how the team discuss the game design process in interviews as ‘bottom-up’: ‘We sort of muddled our way into making a systemic stealth-ish game,’ McMaster recently told Vice’s Patrick Klepek. ‘The goose came first.’

This is what it ultimately means for videogames to be taken seriously as ‘art’: not simply games about more ’serious’ topics or to be less ‘fun’, but for them, quite simply, to be made by creators who consider their practice as artists. By this I don’t mean these creators are ‘more creative’ than traditionally trained videogame developers, but that they are approaching game creation from different perspectives, with a particular focus on minute details that can only come from a close attention to craft, and which emerges out of specific communities of practice and collaboration.

Untitled Goose Game is the most popular and visible product of these local (and digitally trans-local) artist-gamemaker communities that have emerged over the past decade, arguably due in no small part to how its particular sensibilities line up with what traditional videogame consumer cultures are already primed to enjoy. But behind it are many other creators and collectors both around Melbourne, across Australia, and indeed around the world, who are all reimagining how to approach videogames as a medium, but whose work remains relatively obscure as broader publics struggle to understand the breadth of the videogame medium (and as core videogame audiences continue to aggressively and violently police its border).

Consider Nathalie Lawhead’s visually striking and abrasive body of work, drawing from net art and other digital aesthetics. Or thecatamites’s appropriation and reimagining of 90s videogame nostalgia and primitive 3D worlds into striking reflections of the modern world – as reflected by their spectacular blog, which offers some of the most challenging and important current writing about videogames. Or Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s essay from May this year on the elusive concept of ‘jank’ for the Dire Jank exhibition. Or the new online scenes emerging around Bitsy or on itch.io.

For journalists and critics, for cultural institutions, and for players generally, Untitled Goose Game’s visibility and mainstream success is an opportunity to develop a new language and understanding of this broader field of videogame creation that does not fit neatly within traditional understandings of ‘the videogame industry’. It’s an opportunity to re-evalutate where particular videogames come from, who creates them, and why they do so. To understand that videogames aren’t just an industry that makes a lot of money, but a cultural field where a range of different people express a range of different aesthetic ideas.

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