Stealth games became predictably codified with the release of Metal Gear, and later Metal Gear Solid. They were all about moving from Point A to Point B without getting noticed, imposing a big penalty on you if you did. But that’s a narrow interpretation of the concept of stealth, and there’s so much more design space that needs to be explored there. We need developers to tackle the genre from new angles, which is what makes Untitled Goose Game so refreshing. Untitled Goose Game is the most innovative stealth game in years, and it accomplishes this by utilizing stealth in a way that de-emphasizes not getting caught in favor of being as obnoxious as possible while your true objective is not being paid attention to. Stealth by way of misdirection is the name of the game here.
Not to say that misdirection hasn’t been a part of stealth games all along. After all, knocking on a wall to catch a guard’s attention is a primary mechanic in Metal Gear Solid. But Untitled Goose Game does it differently. You play as a goose in a small town populated by several people. Instead of providing you with a traversal goal to get to, Goose Game gives you a series of objectives before you’re allowed to move on to the next area. Most of them involve making a nuisance of yourself in some way or another at the villagers’ expense. All of them make you manipulate the environment in some way, which garners a specific reaction from the different NPCs you encounter. Since the characters are always hyper-tuned into any small change in their surroundings, a lot of the fun of the game is in affecting the world in some small way and watching how a character reacts to it.
But manipulating these ecosystems is how you complete the objectives, which is complicated by the fact that all the characters are dead set on keeping everything to its default state. Move an object while they notice, and they’ll chase after you to get it back and put it where it belongs. Of course, this is prime territory for the type of stealth game that wants you to complete your objectives undetected, but the areas you’re playing in are so small that doing so perfectly is next to impossible. Instead, you must use misdirection, diverting characters’ attention to something else while you complete your true objective. This can be as simple as honking at a person to put the focus on you while something else in the environment happens. More often, you’ll find yourself picking an object up, honking to get the person’s attention, running as far as you can before dropping the object, then completing your real objective while they’re occupied. It gets down to a formula after a while, but it never stops being satisfying when you pull it off.
This inversion of the expectations audiences hold about a stealth game – trying hard to be seen so you can be unseen – changes how the genre plays. Before, you’d be watching guard patterns, trying to thread the needle in between shifts, and maybe occasionally diverting their attention while hidden. But in Untitled Goose Game, the goose is front and center. You’re expected to be obnoxious and draw people’s gaze, meaning the game plays almost entirely differently than the usual stealth game flow, opening up so many possibilities should these ideas be explored more fully by other developers. It also proves that you can theme a stealth game in a way that isn’t just a military industrial complex skin. Making the goose be obnoxious is thematically consistent, and the way you make a nuisance of yourself feels like how a goose game should be in the end. Geese are evil, after all, and this game allows you to engage in some consequence-free, tasteful troublemaking, which has value.
It’s weird to hold up a game about being an annoying goose as the most innovative stealth game in years, but by inverting the normal stealth game formula and making yourself the focal point instead of taking it off of you, Untitled Goose Game feels so different from the rest of the stealth pack. The emergent gameplay of interacting with the environment and watching characters react to it means that there’s a ton of different strategies you can employ even in the tiny spaces you find yourself in. And best of all, this brand of stealth empowers the game to portray a goose in its default state: selfish and annoying.