The chance to be a goose isn’t presented to us nearly as often as it should be. Thankfully, it’s a grievance that developer House House is looking to rectify with Untitled Goose Game. And this isn’t the only wrong that looks to be righted. If you go by most fiction, the rural village is a warzone – blitzed by dragons, bound by strings of murders, or the quiet seat of the world’s end. It’s about time for the truth: this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a honk.
So it is that but by flapping and snapping up treasures (hats, purses, bars of soap), we’ll be given a fresh chance to be bad. And it’s just as well, too. Murdering and stealing are well worn pursuits in video game bastardry; painfully absent, however, is the opportunity to indulge in the sort of everyday devilry that whispers in our ear. If you’ve dreamt darkly of moving someone’s bookmark when they’re not in the room, hiding their phone, or handing them an unscrewed shaker of salt, then Untitled Goose Game may be just the relief you’re after.
It may also relieve you of the recent spate of remasters, remakes, and re-releases. I emerged from the Christmas holiday with neck pain, so invested was 2018 in looking backwards, and it’s refreshing to look at the slate for 2019 and see so much strangeness on offer. A game like Sayonara Wild Hearts, for instance, whose trailer describes it as ‘a pop album video game.’ Based on that, you might think that Simon Flesser and Magnus “Gordon” Gardebäck, the two halves of Swedish developer Simogo, had had their minds mushed by the marathon of a long development cycle.
A quick glance at the game’s official website yields further bracing, bonkers claims: ‘sensory overloading,’ ‘a pop culture mash of electric pop, dance, fashion, anime, arcade games and subcultures,’ ‘characters based on tarot cards.’ It feels like a game born of an allergy to the old and established. The trailer also lacks the self-conscious swagger that Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes seems silted with. It may be an odd cocktail of genres, but a motley shot of neon colour and careening motorbikes might just be the heady brew we're in need of.
Not that we have to completely throw out the rule book for the sake of newness; it may just need rewording here and there. Thankfully, we have The Textorcist: The Story of Ray Bibbia for that. ‘Can you read and spell latin while you dodge bullets?’ asks the blurb. It’s a question that, if presented in the pamphlet of a public school, might give parents second thoughts. On the other hand, it would prod some life back into the language. Just as The Textorcist seeks to reinvigorate the typing genre, whose failure to thrill hardly needs spelling out.
How is The Textorcist going to achieve this? Well, by combining the genre with bullet hell and charging players with performing exorcisms by typing out the incantations. Duh. With a synthwave soundtrack, composed by GosT, and a story set in Rome that promises a showdown with the pope himself, it seems the story of Ray Bibbia – ‘a private exorcist’ who must also ‘deal with his dark and sinful past’ is one in need of telling.
Elsewhere in the battle between light and dark, there is Disco Elysium, from developer ZA/UM. And how best to illustrate the clash than to mix not just isometric RPGs with detective adventure games, not just dialogue that deals in paragraphs with open-ended mysteries, but to take a world the colour of mud and soapy water and make it… beautiful? It’s set in Revachol, a place that looks like the ashen ghost of the USSR lit by hellfire. Artist Aleksander Rostov is the person responsible for that, and Robert Kurvitz, a writer and designer, is the one charged with delivering an engaging mystery along with it.
Then we have Atomic Heart, which doesn’t just look like the USSR but is in fact set there, though a decidedly more leafy version. The trailer shows off slabs of stark concrete packed in with pine trees, the skies patrolled by birling drones, and the interiors haunted by rippling pillars of blood. What intrigues about Atomic Heart isn’t that it smashes genres together but that it offers a fresh battleground for the action RPG. Developer Mundfish describes the alternate future setting as, ‘All the things that could have happened in the reality of the USSR but didn’t.’ It looks to me like what could have happened if Bioshock and Metro 2033 had a child but didn’t.
There are kids trying to outdrink the devil to escape hell. There are kids trying to imagine their way out of Cornwall. Some people are partying like it’s 1999. Some robots are aspiring to become musical instruments. There are bananas who have seen fit to start talking. And there are birds who have opted to forego flight in favour of skateboards. Perhaps 2019 will be a great year for games. But more important, maybe, is that it's the year of the weird pitch, with its eyes looking every which way but back.