Social media users might have recently noticed an abundance of goose-related jokes and images in their news feeds.
There is a reason for that. An independent video game released in September for the Nintendo Switch and PC has made the goose an unlikely star.
The game, “Untitled Goose Game,” has the player controlling a simple, run-of-the-mill goose whose goal is to torment a farmer and others unfortunate enough to cross the bird’s path. The player accomplishes this by making the goose steal and hide the human characters’ belongings and by playing other pranks.
And that’s a level of notoriety that’s unusual for the goose.
Other forms of wildlife, such as dolphins and spiders, have played leading roles in video game titles. But the goose has remained mostly in the background. (Geese Howard, the villain of SNK’s “Fatal Fury,” is not a goose and, therefore, doesn’t count.)
This is true not only in video games, but also in literature.
“One of the weirdest things about geese is that … unlike similar birds like swans … they seem to be most often on the sidelines,” said Dr. Nicholas Mohlmann, assistant professor in the University of West Florida Department of English.
Broadly, geese have stood as symbols of bounty, husbandry, wisdom and prudence in art and literature. But works that feature geese as characters usually have them in supporting roles, with more economically significant barnyard animals, such as chickens and pigs, and animals associated with royalty, such as swans, often in the spotlight, Mohlmann said.
As examples, Mohlmann pointed to Henny Penny/Chicken Little, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Parlement of Foules.”
“Cock-a-Doodle Dudley,” a story by children’s author Bill Peet, provides a somewhat rare example of a goose as a main character. In that book, a goose called Gunther seeks to humiliate a rooster named Dudley, who serves as the story’s hero. Gunther tries to do this by demonstrating to the other animals that Dudley does not make the sun rise in the morning.
“He’s sort of brutish and jealous,” Mohlmann said of Gunther. “He bullies the rooster.”
The Wendell Berry poem “The Wild Geese” offers another modern example of geese playing the rare prominent role, Mohlmann said.
“The geese there are a wild, rugged kind of fowl that are sort of elemental,” Molhmann said. “When the geese appear, they bridge the gap between the physical world and its figurations and this emotional world.”
Mohlmann said the novelty and silliness of playing as a relatively unpopular bird might help explain why “Untitled Goose Game” has struck a chord with gamers.
“There’s this sort of Dadaist absurdity of playing as this animal,” Mohlmann said. “We’re in a period where we can ironically embrace the freedom of being a goose.”
Mohlmann added that shared experiences with geese likely help the game, as well.
“We all have stories about geese being aggressive and obnoxious,” he said.
This article was produced in partnership with the University of West Florida Office of Research Administration and Engagement.