Oddly, it wasn’t even close. Only The Outer Wilds and Control held a candle this year, with exploratory, calm melancholia in space and eerie phantasmic combat.
For mastery of play, though, for physical comedy and non-violent power struggles, Untitled Goose Game conquered even the most overblown of budgets and highly-advertised mainstream efforts.
Developers House House may have known they had a charming, short and unpretentious gem on their hands before release, but they cannot have anticipated its success. Goose Game achieved that hallowed status of meme within days of its debut, and deserved the acclaim.
“It’s a lovely weekday morning in the village and you are a horrible goose,” as the game tells you in its introduction. No more context is required, because there is no overwrought plot to grapple with. You’re a goose in middle England, cry havoc and make a mess for people.
You have a short checklist of tasks to complete in each of a handful of small, interconnected play areas, which segue into each other as you chase people around — forcing them to open locked gates, for example. These tasks promise great fun, guiding you through your capabilities with hints that you could steal someone’s glasses, or lay out a picnic for yourself on the shore of a pond.
Controls are limited to a button to honk, another to sneak, one more to grab items and a final option to flap your wings. That control scheme, brilliantly, showcases a success in roleplaying that the likes of BioWare or Obsidian would boggle at. You could plod around the village doing the bare minimum to progress and check off boxes.
You won’t, though. “It’s a lovely weekday morning in the village and you are a horrible goose.” You will pull on every loose item, to see what you can grab; you’ll honk at every opportunity to see what shocked injuries and curses you can cause; you’ll flap menacingly in the hope of scaring old ladies; and you’ll sneak into places you’ve no need to access, all in the spirit of your assigned character.
All the while you’ll be serenaded by brilliantly sliced and diced tinklings from Debussy’s Preludes, modulated to chime in as your naughtiness reaches new heights, fading away as you figure out your next move. It’s a soundtrack reminiscent of Breath of the Wild in its clever minimalism, but happily obliging when climactic moments demand a bit more oomph.
In its essence, as you go about these dastardly tasks, Goose Game is absurdly fun. Its cartoonish rendering of British village life is acutely well-observed, and the characterisation it lends to its villagers, despite their blank faces, meaningless to a goose, is a delight.
Whether a cringing boy whose sensibilities you will scar, or a no-nonsense grocer who couldn’t give a shit if you honk, you’ll understand each character’s attitudes implicitly almost instantly. That’s a small triumph, and a challenge with which far larger design teams have struggled.
Sometimes it takes a small idea, executed to perfection, to shine a light on the power that videogames hold. Untitled Goose Game is such a morsel, and a deserving the game of the year.