Who is going to tell Ian Bogost that the shopping list missions were optional?
The Untitled Goose Game is more rewarding to wade through than his article about it.
Well, Ian Bogost had a take…
I'm told that Ian Bogost is a respected professor and a very learned expert on the subject of play, perhaps the very learnedest expert on it, and that everyone who is laughing at his article in The Atlantic "Don't Play the Goose Game" has missed that he hid several very important points among obfuscatory language and deliberately inflammatory framings, which is just his way and if you'd taken one of his classes you'd know it.
Well, I can easily believe this.
I mean, at one point, he refers to the model village at the center of the Untitled Goose Game's climax as a "Potemkin village". A scale model village is a fake village designed to resemble a real one. A Potemkin village may also be described in the same way, but it is not the same thing and does not perform the same function. Here we see the post-doctoral equivalent of a freshman reaching for a thesaurus to sound smarter: Ian Bogost misuses a synonym in order to... I don't know, get you to do more work.
"Yes, that's it! He's trying to make you the reader think."
Sure he is. He's trying to make me think about the article he wrote, which he constructed as a labyrinth of set pieces that must be navigated through, avoiding tricks and traps and false trails and dead ends, in order to reach the prize at the center: an actual point.
"Aha! You have just described the structure of many a video game! So you are willing to perform this labor when it's wrapped up in a bright package but not when it is wrapped up in academic language. Now you see the point he was making."
I'm willing to do things when they're fun and when they're not, I need a reason. Or to put it another way: the joy of fun is in and of itself reason enough to do things.
Ian Bogost having inflicted enough Stockholm Syndrome on his students that they speak glowingly of his habit of trolling audiences isn't a good enough reason for me to play his game. I played through the goose game because I wanted to play at being a goose. I don't want to play at being an Ian Whisperer.
If he wanted me to think about the Untitled Goose Game or the nature of play, he could have invited me to think about them. He could have transparently raised the points he wishes to consider, like an adult. Like a serious thinker arguing in good faith.
The goose game is fun, as he concedes. The physics are simple and your ability to interact with them limited. It's easy to grab objects, difficult to manipulate them or control their orientation (which can make it difficult to maneuver). The game is forgiving in some regards (human must not harm goose) but relentless in others (even the humans who are most afraid of you can provoke you into dropping an object if they get too close).
Your path through the world is strictly bounded, and indeed the point of the tasks on your list is to provoke the humans in the area to the point of frustration where they will alter the environment in a way that opens the path forward for you, a point which I think has been lost on many commentators. But it's important because it means that you don't need to do every item on the list, nor are you doing them just because they're on the list.
Within the framework of the game, the goose has a master plan to get to the bell, and it involves making the humans in each area so fed up they forget they're supposed to be keeping you penned in away from it.
In each case, the fatal mistake they make ironically involves assembling and displaying some sort of "No Geese Allowed" sign... which has absolutely no effect on you, horrible goose that you are.
It's a really kind of sublime point in a game that is defined by barriers and limitations that the signs do nothing. You can pull them down, move them around. Take them back to your lair as trophies.
As you progress through the game, you can even get around to the other side of the locked gates you previously passed, unlocking sort of "fast travel" paths between village areas and turning the game into more of a true sandbox.
Now, Ian talks about games being work, and defines "gameplay" paradoxically as "the work of working a game". Not the work of playing it. The work of working it. Gameplay, he asserts, is irritating. Not the gameplay of the goose game in particular, but just the concept inherently. You don't have to work at a book, he says, which raises the suspicion that he's never sat down to read his own. Movies are passively consumed.
Do you passively consume movies? I'm sure some people do. It's never exactly been the way I interact with them. Books, neither. I suspect Ian relationship to media must be quite different than mine.
It's funny, as I think about it. When I was quite small, my mother ran a licensed in-home daycare and she encouraged children to keep playing -- doing the work of working, as Ian would have it -- if the TV was on, outside of designated quiet times (which were essentially nap times without the expectation of pretending to sleep, so long as we were still and restful), and maybe this is why I don't find gameplay as irritating as he personally does in his own individual experiences, and why the most annoying way for me to watch a movie is when I'm expected to just sit there and take it in.
The multiple-part "shopping list" task in each area, which after the first area ("have a picnic") are explicitly phrased as chores (go shopping, do the washing, set the table) are completely ancillary. Doing them does not involve annoying any humans (and indeed, if you can't assemble your items without attracting human attention you're likely to lose your progress towards them) and does nothing to advance you closer to your goal. They are more challenging tasks, for players who want something more challenging.
I'm sure at this point Bogost might feel like I'm driving very close to getting the point without getting it, because he's not getting the point: people go that extra step because it is fun. He invokes the very useful concept of "playbor" (coined to describe things like logging into Facebook hourly to water imaginary crops and promote the game to your friends at the same time, thereby doing advertising for Zynga like it's your job) but collapses the concept it describes to the point of meaningless.
It is fun to send Mario jumping through the air in a perfect arc to collect the coins hanging there. Nintendo has our money when we buy the cartridge; they get no further value out of us performing the labor of enjoyment upon it.
Is it still work? Sure, I guess, for a definition of work… in much the same way that picking up a book in order to read it is “work” in the physics sense. But that being work isn’t, as the article’s tagline says, a problem. It’s a trivia question about the definition of work you’re using, not a reason to do or not do something.
Now, the thing that defines most Mario games for me is the feeling of freedom of movement. This sense of freedom is created not by giving you absolute freedom but by finding a sweet spot where the constraints guide you into a particular experience.
Super Mario Bros. mostly constrained you to a single path with one way forward and no way back, yet it had some of the most forgiving jump physics. In most video games up to that point, jumping meant pressing a button and hoping for the best, because once the character’s feet left the ground their trajectory was fixed.
While you had more control over Mario's jumping trajectory through variable height jumps and the ability to maneuver left and right in midair, the designers also imbued him with a sense of weight and presence so you couldn't just freely reposition him but had to work against momentum. He can slide and skid to a stop. They even used a precious frame of animation for him going into a turn.
Super Mario 64 gave you a list of tasks to complete far longer than the goose's to-do list... but let you run, jump, swim, and fly in cartoon 3D environments. The first time a college roommate showed me the secret paths on Tall, Tall Mountain, I fell in love. I played that level over and over again... played on it, I should say, as I was not concerned with completion. Oh, I did complete it. But I kept coming back, kept climbing the mountain and sliding down it. Double jumps, triple jumps, wall jumps, long jumps... if this is the work of being Mario, I'll take it.
Years later, I rediscovered this same feeling of joy playing the game A Short Hike, which is entirely structured around a tall, tall mountain. In that game you play as an anthropomorphic bird who is initially very much bound to the ground, but who learns to jump, climb, and fly with greater and greater stamina as you go on.
How fun is that game? Even after finishing the main goal, I stuck around and helped a jerk pay his college tuition. That's how fun.
Ian Bogost says all this is irritating, that gameplay is inherently irritating. Well, Mario has his limitations. There are questions of timing in all those acrobatic leaps and bounds, and if you don't hit them just so, you may do anything from screw up a stunt to sending Mario tumbling to his very temporary doom.
It's the difference between playing at being Mario and directing Mario, I think. The difficulty is what vests you in the character. If I could just declare that Mario does a perfect triple somersault in midair, ricochets off the cliff face, grabs the hanging vine, and swings to the mushroom up above, I’m playing at being a director, not inhabiting Mario.
Maybe it’s my background in tabletop design that helps me see things this way. A roleplaying game is nothing more than a game of “let’s pretend” where you sculpt the infinite expanse of human imagination down to a particular size and shape by carving pieces off of it until what you’re left with looks like the experience you want to create.
Now, Bogost briefly praises the goose's endearing waddle-physics but then remarks on how they become a hindrance. I noticed this, too. Or rather, I noticed that the pleasingly goose-like movements of the goose formed a part of the gameplay. Take away all the physics and just let the player move the goose directly in whatever direction desired and the goose becomes less like a goose and more like a cursor you move around the screen to manipulate objects. Even with limitations about moving through obstacles and avoiding people, the game becomes very different and altogether less goose-like.
Limitations are how you turn a pure sandbox in which players can make their own fun into a game itself. Specific limitations are how you create a specific game. Figuring out how to work towards a desired experience (being a horrible goose) through limitations that evoke that experience without becoming annoying are a balancing act similar to (and related to) the balancing act of finding a level of challenge that is rewarding more than it is frustrating.
All those playborious games on Facebook take the very short shortcut of using behavioral psychology to put players into a state of anxious flow, weaponizing multiple forms of cognitive dissonance to first suck players in and then keep them invested.
But the Untitled Goose Game? That's a work of art. They made a game that's easy to play but challenging to complete. They created limitations that are invisibly organic to the scenario (the layout, the interactions between human and goose when caught) or charming and invisibly organic to the gameplay (the goose's movements).
I was told on Twitter that it's one of the very good points hiding in Ian Bogost's bad take is about the distinction between playing a thing and doing its job. The person who told me this did not explain what the distinction is, and having read Bogost's piece, I don't have the impression he sees one.
I am not a college professor, nor a very learned expert on anything. I remain as ever nature's perfect dilettante. I am, however, an adult who was once a child, and I'm qualified to tell you that "playing at being" something or "doing the work of" something is a huge and rewardingly joyous form of play. We played at being letter carriers, we played at being dog walkers, we played at being shoppers and cashiers, we played at being knights and wizards (and come to think of it, we still do).
There's nothing profound in pointing out that the child who stands behind the plastic and particle board check-out station, shining a light on plastic veggies, has been "tricked" into performing labor that they might find tedious and mind-numbing as an adult. The grocery store is part of the child's world, and running the register is something that is within their periphery but beyond their experience. Of course they will feel a sense of curiosity and wonder about it.
I've been party to a conversation a few times among adults talking about the moment they realized they would never play again. Now, these were writers and roleplayers and LARPers and gamers kinksters and people who will play things, who will engage in play within a structure in which play was allowed. What they meant was that they would never... just play. Never get down on their knees with action figures and invent a scenario, never go outside and argue over who's going to be Batman, never just invent a game... and I don't mean a video game or a tabletop game or board game, I mean a game.
They were lamenting the loss of a habit or capability of childhood, the gaining of an inhibition, some confluence of factors that made something simple and joyous a psychological and practical impossibility. They might be able to go through the motions, with some self-consciousness, but the ability to give themselves over to the experience is too atrophied. The magic would be lost.
The magic is still there waiting for us as adults, at the base of Tall, Tall Mountain or in the incessant honking of a horrible goose. Doing the work of a character? No. Playing at being a character? Yes! And in playing at being something we are not, we can lose ourselves and give ourselves over to play.
If you can't lose yourself in a particular game, it might not be the game for you. If it's not the game for a wide swath of people, it might not be a well-made game.
That so many people are enjoying the goose game is not a sign that we haven't thought about it deeply enough, nor is Ian's studied disdain for it necessarily a sign that he has thought about it too much. I mean, I daresay I've gone deeper into it than Ian, who again, missed the basic logic of the progression.
It's strictly a matter of taste, and you can wrap that up in as much academic language as you please, but you're still going to sound like Angelica Pickles at the end of the cardboard box episode of Rugrats, yelling at the babies to stop having fun.
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