It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose. That’s the premise of the indie hit Untitled Goose Game, a comedy/stealth/puzzle hybrid, developed by House House, and released in 2019. You play as a mischievous goose, and your task is to cause as much havoc as possible, annoying the villagers of a quiet English town. In this episode, composer Dan Golding, and sound designer Em Halberstadt break down how the game’s dynamic music and sound effects influence its unique humour and charm.
JAMES PARKINSON: It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose. That’s the premise of Untitled Goose Game, a comedy/stealth/puzzle hybrid, developed by the indie studio House House. You play as a mischievous goose, and your aim is to cause as much havoc as possible, by annoying the villagers of a quiet English town.
JAMES PARKINSON: Each level of the game takes place in a different area of the village. You’re given a checklist of different tasks to complete before progressing to the next section. Like, stealing the farmer's keys or making him hammer his thumb.
JAMES PARKINSON: When Untitled Goose Game was released in 2019, it quickly became a game that everyone was talking about. Twitter was flooded with goose memes and it received a lot of positive reviews and press coverage. For starters, the whole concept is just completely unique, which I think is what makes people go, “Hang on, what? You’re an evil goose?”. But then once you play the game, you understand what it does so well, which is a kind of slapstick comedy in the form of a game. And one of the key components to pulling this off is the way the game approaches sound design and music.
EM HALBERSTADT: I think the biggest thing was the subtlety of the humour, I mean, part of it isn't really subtle, because it's this really loud, obnoxious goose. But for me, the humour, or the influence that I got from the humour is like, the voices being kind of understated, and letting the goose be the biggest thing in the space.
DAN GOLDING: You know, I think music for comedy games can't be in on the joke. I think once the music starts winking at the audience, it doesn't work anymore. I mean, that's the kind of way that I've approached it, I guess. And I guess my musical style, to some degree, is just kind of taking things seriously in order to be funny.
JAMES PARKINSON: While some games can be blanketed in sound, Untitled Goose Game takes a minimalist approach, and the result is a soundscape that’s both charming and really, really funny.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
JAMES PARKINSON: House House is a small developer based in Melbourne, Australia - a team of only four. But for Untitled Goose Game, they commissioned two more people to craft the sound design and the music.
EM HALBERSTADT: I'm Em Halberstadt, and I'm an Audio Director at A Shell In The Pit Audio in Vancouver in Canada.
DAN GOLDING: My name is Dan Golding. I'm an academic, is my day job. But I also am really into music. I make music for games, I made music for Untitled Goose Game.
JAMES PARKINSON: The story of Untitled Goose Game starts with a joke. Designer, Stuart Gillespie-Cook randomly posted a photo of a goose in the House House group chat, as the team were discussing several ideas for their next game, and that’s all it took. The guys were off on a wild discussion about everything they found funny and interesting about geese. The more they talked about it, the more other ideas and prototypes fell away, and making a Goose Game became their focus. This was in mid-2016, and a year later the game was in early development. Because it was still a work in progress though, these early versions featured placeholder sounds, until Em Halberstadt came on board. Em’s work can also be heard in indie titles like Night in the Woods, Chicory and Wandersong.
EM HALBERSTADT: House House actually reached out to me after they - I think they watched - I did a talk at GDC on Night in the Woods and how the sound tells a story for that game. And I had seen the trailers of Goose Game before, so I was very excited at the prospect of working on it with them.
JAMES PARKINSON: Sound can sometimes be an afterthought or secondary to the gameplay, but when it’s considered at the beginning of the development process, it can really enhance the whole experience.
EM HALBERSTADT: I think one of the things that interests me about sound is that it does a lot of its storytelling subconsciously. And I think that's really interesting, to be able to almost manipulate people with sound, and kind of enhance the story without people necessarily thinking about it. I really enjoy, also, the feeling of being able to take people into a space that sound gives. So one of my favourite parts of sound design is building ambiences. So that's all the environment sounds. And really just helping make people feel like they're there as a part of the story.
JAMES PARKINSON: Ambience is what helps to set the scene. For Goose Game, there are 5 levels or sections, each with their own unique atmosphere; the first area when you begin the game is the Garden. Then there’s the High Street, the Back Gardens, a more suburban setting, the Pub and the Model Village. These ambiences include several layered sounds. There’s scatter sounds - for example, the occasional bird chirping, or a distant bell ringing. And there’s spot sounds, which are more constant but get louder as you approach them, like a river or other things in the environment.
EM HALBERSTADT: I usually start out by making what I call a sound palette. And that's generally just I go about and record as much as I can use for the rest of the game so that thematically it all kind of fits together.
JAMES PARKINSON: The next component of the sound design is foley.
EM HALBERSTADT: Which is all the footsteps and the cloth of all the different characters. Each animation is tagged with specific cloth foley, which I actually went in and did. And it took a really long time. And it's a really subtle thing, but I think it was just like one of those details that was worth it.
JAMES PARKINSON: Then there’s the sound effects for all the objects that the goose can interact with, which is the core mechanic of the game. Whether it’s turning on a garden hose or pinching the farmer’s keys when he’s not looking, every item has a unique sound, all recorded from scratch.
EM HALBERSTADT: For Goose Game, there was so many props, that it I think almost would have taken longer to try to find them in a library. And it would have been a lot less cohesive. So there's grabs, releases, there's different velocities, depending on how hard you drop an object. And there's drag sounds for the objects that you can that are big enough to drag. They were all recordings outside, mostly. This was me picking objects up and actually dropping them on the surfaces that you see in the game, which was a lot of work to do on, you know, unique objects on each individual surface. But since that is most of the game, it felt like it was worth it in the end, to have that level of detail, and gives the player a sense of satisfaction, depending on what surface the goose is dropping the objects on.
JAMES PARKINSON: In practice, this was Em in her backyard with her microphone and portable recorder, capturing sounds of various garden and household objects.
EM HALBERSTADT: Yeah, a lot of it was kind of rifling through the shed or the house and finding - not all the objects are exactly what they are in the game. And then I actually was working and traveling around New Zealand for a big portion of while I was working. And then I was just finding objects wherever I was there, and recording them as I went. Which was a little bit challenging, but it worked out.
JAMES PARKINSON: Sometimes a real life object won’t actually sound like what it is, once it’s recorded. So sound designers will experiment with different objects to find the right tone they’re looking for. This can lead to some creative solutions, like a mallet in Goose Game, which is actually a ball attached to a rubber spatula.
EM HALBERSTADT: The watering can was not a watering can. I think for that, I used a big kind of metal lid, of a little portable fireplace. So that aspect of that, that it gave enough to be the watering can was this like, big kind of hollow metallic sound. So for most of the objects, I would first think of what material it is; is it wood? Or stone? Or plastic? Or whatever. And then think about the size, and what kind of how resonant it's going to be against the ground. It was really different to record on grass versus on concrete. So on concrete, the object is going to ring out a lot more, so it kind of has to have that appropriate feel to it. But the main thing that I kind of always have in mind is what sounds pleasant and what sounds good, not really what should what should this object make? But like, if you close your eyes and don't think about what it is, how does that sound?
JAMES PARKINSON: Recording physical objects and having them sound more realistic, was a stylistic choice that helps to ground the player in the world, despite the art style of the game being more playful.
EM HALBERSTADT: For most of the sound in the game, the direction was that we wanted everything to sound tactile and satisfying, for you know, all the objects and things that you pick up, and also subtle.
EM HALBERSTADT: For me, personally, especially for this game, I was thinking about, or trying to do, kind of a soft performance on most of the sound. Because I wanted the whole soundscape to be this thing that was really pleasant to listen to. Even if an object is dropped for, like a higher velocity, nothing really stands out too much. There's a few bigger events that are like crashes and whatnot, but yeah, I think overall, all the foley, and the voice, and the objects are there to kind of blend into this softer soundscape.
JAMES PARKINSON: For the muffled voices of the villagers, House House provided some direction on how they felt they should sound. Then Em recruited some of her fellow team members from sound studio A Shell In The Pit to perform them.
EM HALBERSTADT: I recorded VO here and then kind of sent them little samples and they would give some feedback and we would tweak if necessary. I did, myself, a few of the voices; the shopkeeper and the messy neighbour. Maybe a couple in the pub.
JAMES PARKINSON: The subtle style of the soundscape serves to elevate the star of Untitled Goose Game: the goose.
JAMES PARKINSON: The first gameplay trailer from 2017, which features those initial placeholder sounds, is a little different to how the game ended up. But you can tell that House House had a clear vision of how the game should sound. And of course, the goose was a focal point from the start.
EM HALBERSTADT: The biggest direction they had was around the honk, naturally. They had a honk in, before I started working. And it was actually a quack from a duck.
EM HALBERSTADT: They didn't actually - they kind of let me do what I thought would be good for the goose to start. And I thought, “wow, geese can make incredible sounds”. So I cut all these honks that were kind of horrible to listen to, they were all over the place. And they were funny, but House House had this direction that I thought was really good, which was the thing that they liked about the honk that they had before was that it was very neutral. And so the player could really put themselves into the honk. They could put whatever emotion they wanted into this honk. So after taking that, we did a whole bunch of revisions on it. Because this was obviously the most important sound in the game. And it really did have to be just right. And then eventually, we ended up on these little takes that I took from a library of a goose recording and just made it really short and really neutral. And that's what we ended up with in the game.
EM HALBERSTADT: I originally was really wanting to record a goose myself just because that's like a fun thing to do. But then I found this library recording from a recorder recordist called Mattia Cellotto. And it's this library called Animal Hyperrealism. And it's these really high quality, close up recordings of these animals. That was just it was kind of too perfect to pass up on. And I probably wouldn't have been able to get as close to a goose myself anyway. So yeah, it's pretty much just straight from the library, except I did edit so that it's kind of like snippets from the sounds that the goose made, but yeah.
JAMES PARKINSON: The way the honk was implemented is a really satisfying input too. It’s just a single button press, but you can also just button mash it as much as you like and the goose will just keep on honking, which is so much fun.
EM HALBERSTADT: Yeah, so that actually was kind of an accident, how that happened. It was when I was implementing it, I originally didn't put in a limit. Usually, the sounds that you can spam, you would want to put a limit on how many at once you can hear, but I hadn't originally done that. And then when I heard it, I just thought it was just, like, another opportunity to be as annoying as possible, so I left it in.
JAMES PARKINSON: Some of the best laughs I’ve had playing Goose Game is when you pick up an item that actually changes how the honk sounds - like honking into a glass milk bottle, a harmonica, or a well.
JAMES PARKINSON: The personality of the goose isn’t limited to the honk either.
EM HALBERSTADT: The footsteps were recorded with a rubber glove - kind of, not on my hand but wrapped around and I would kind of just lightly tap on all the different surfaces. And then there's different actions for whether it's running or stopping or whatnot.
EM HALBERSTADT: And the wings, I believe, are some kind of cloth. I don't remember exactly, but it was probably cloth mixed with, kind of like, a burlap material.
JAMES PARKINSON: With the soundscape in place, the next component is of course the music.
EM HALBERSTADT: I think for most of the game I was working kind of without music. So it was kind of funny when it all came in, and I had just been working on this kind of silent ambience with all these, kind of - nothing too huge is ever happening. It's mostly objects being picked up and dropped. It's a very different game without music. And so when music came in, it was very exciting. And that's when I could really start mixing the sounds properly, to see which ones I could bring up and stuff. We were mostly working, I would say on our own, and then it kind of all came together to form magic.
JAMES PARKINSON: That’s coming up, after the break.
JAMES PARKINSON: If you open the audio setting on a game and play around with the volume sliders, you can get a sense for how it feels to play without a particular component of its audio mix. Doing this on Untitled Goose Game, like turning off the music, reveals just how much influence it has on your experience, which is all about how it plays off the sound design and responds to the players actions. The concept House House came up with took inspiration from silent films. Here’s composer Dan Golding.
DAN GOLDING: We imagined that it should be like, there's a silent film pianist, sitting next to you watching what you're doing, and just kind of improvising a response to what's happening on the screen.
JAMES PARKINSON: The music for Goose Game was conceived quite early in the development process - even before Em Halberstadt had started her sound design work. Dan Golding had created the music for House House’s first game Push Me Pull You, and they came back to him when they were creating the first gameplay trailer.
DAN GOLDING: Originally, they just wanted me to create a performance of one of Claude Debussy's piano Preludes. He was a composer who lived sort of around the turn of the 20th century, and was writing, you know, in the 19th century, and lived I think, up until the very early 1920s. And he wrote these piano Preludes, some of which are reasonably famous, but most of which are less famous than his most famous piece, which is Claire de lune.
DAN GOLDING: I'm just playing that by ear. But you know, that it's used in trailers, it's used in video games all the time.
DAN GOLDING: So it wasn't that, it was that more the regular pieces that are not quite so famous. And in particular, this one particular Prelude.
DAN GOLDING: Because the compositions are in public domain, but the recordings generally aren't. So they wanted me to create a version of that, because that was to be used in the game’s first trailer, which really was more like gameplay footage, I suppose. This is very early on in the project. And they wanted something to play on the radio when the ghost picks it up. So the farmer in that first area of Untitled Goose Game has a radio and you know, you as the goose, you when you pick it up, it starts playing, and the gardener rushes over to switch it off.
DAN GOLDING: And so it was going to be this piece. And that was just simply that. So that was decided before I came on board. That was Nico Disseldorp, one of the four members of House House, who I think had just been listening to perhaps a playlist of classical music while working on the game, and sort of made a mental note that this was kind of a bit of a funny sounding piece of music. And it is. So yeah, they just asked if I could do that, you know, didn't create a version that we're happy with. And then Firstly, the trailer went off. It was very popular. And not only was it very popular, but a lot of the comments were all like, you know, gosh, I can't wait for the music to react to what I'm doing in the game as it does in the trailer. And of course, the music was doing nothing of the sort. It was just because another of House House’s members, Jake Strasser, he actually I think was trained as a film editor, did a film degree. And he’d just done such a fantastic job of editing what was happening in the game to the beats of the music. And so, you know, a couple of weeks later, we all just sort of sat down and went I guess we have to figure out how to do this because that's kind of what people are expecting now and it seems like a really kind of funny challenge actually, because none of us had really worked on dynamic music systems before. So it was really yeah, we just kind of sat down and we're like, “Okay, I guess we’ve got to make this happen now.
JAMES PARKINSON: Dynamic music has become more and more common in video games, thanks to audio engine software like FMOD, which the House House team used on Goose Game. It allowed them to achieve the silent film aesthetic which was hugely important to the humour of the game.
DAN GOLDING: And I began by cutting that first Prelude up into a number of sections, which we ended up calling stems. And so that was like, I think I cut it up into originally, like, 26 stems. Now this is, as a Prelude, this is a piece of music that goes for about two and a half minutes usually. So just wait too long, basically. So when you played a piece, you know, it might be 11 seconds long, one of these stems, and so it doesn't really comment on what's happening in the game, except for like, the first second when those 11 seconds are triggered. So it just sort of bulldozes through the micro narratives of each moment in the game. So to make that work, I then created two different performances of the first Prelude. So one, which would be what we call the high energy performance - which is more or less what you'd hear if you'd go to a performance of Debussy's Preludes, that's what you'd expect to hear as a Debussy fan. And then another one, which was a low energy performance, which I changed - I played it a lot slower, changed the dynamics to be a lot quieter. And in some cases, changed the arrangement as well, so that perhaps you’re playing in a lower register. So instead of playing a regular G, it might be much lower, just to take the energy down a little bit, into a different register.
DAN GOLDING: And then basically tried to cut them up into much more finite or smaller stems. And I really went through with a fine tooth comb, almost sort of from a musicology perspective, like, where are these phrases, where are the little phrases that happen in this performance? Like I think, you know, the first one is like, sort of something like that - I don't have the sheet music in front of me. And then to sort of identify the game’s state, I suppose. And the state works by how the goose relates to the world around it - or rather how the world around the goose relates to the goose. So if, you know, you're causing a huge ruckus, and you're being chased by the gardener, you've got the radio and you're running away. Then it's in a very high state of awareness. And then the loud version of the Preludes will play. There is a second state below that, where the world around you is kind of aware of what you're doing, but not actively chasing you. And then that's when a low energy version will play. And then there's the sort of basic state where it's just silence.
DAN GOLDING: And so then it became a question of figuring out how to cut up the Preludes into the most effective form to work here. So in the end, I've still got the little file on my computer, the folder, where I called it “radical experiments”, where I basically forced the digital audio workstation that I use, which is Logic, to cut the audio file up. I think it is actually every beat. So in most cases, we're talking about sound file lengths of about, you know, like four hundredths of a second. So incredibly short. So we're talking about instead of, you know, like, we're talking about, as the length of the audio. And then once I realised that worked, which was a miracle that this was actually working and didn't sound completely awful. I then went through and ensured that the stem length was the same for the other performance, the lower energy version. So that basically, you know, I think I ended up with, I think it's about 360 stems for two and a half minutes - maybe about 357, I think, for that first Prelude. And so, you know, if you go to stem number 211 in the high energy version, it's exactly the same as stem number 211 in the low energy version, just a different arrangement. So it means that if the game plays through the stem sequentially, so 1-357, all in order, but it means that when you're at stem 211, the game is constantly checking, do we need a high energy version or a low energy version of stem 212 and so on, and so on. Which means that for all practical purposes, the game's music, even just from that first Prelude, is basically infinite - in terms of the possible performances, even though there's only two performances from me, the human, in there. Yeah, I mean, I got some maths people, which I am not one, to do the calculations, but basically it's like, the amount of possible different performances of just the first two and a half minute Prelude is basically, meaningfully infinite. It's a number with, like, I think 60 zeros or something after it. I also got the maths people to calculate that if you started Goose Game off playing a different possible performance of that Prelude, every second I think it was, at the Big Bang and kept going through to now, today, we'd be about a quarter of the way through the possible performances. So it's just, as I said, practically speaking, it's kind of an infinite musical performance generator. And then of course, there are four other Preludes in the game - five, sorry, that use the same system.
JAMES PARKINSON: Without getting too technical, there is some work happening on the backend through the FMOD software to pull this off. But Dan says it’s also achievable because of the way the piano works, which ensures everything sounds natural and maintains the human element of the original performance.
DAN GOLDING: Part of how the little stems work together is, basically I exported all of them, performance wise, with what's called an audio tail, which just means that it keeps playing them until the echo, the reverb, the delay is complete. And so for piano, that's actually perfect because it just kind of sounds like someone's holding down the sustain pedal. You can just immediately stop and not move on to the next phrase, and it sounds as normal as it would if you went straight on.
JAMES PARKINSON: All of this works so well when you’re playing the game, as the music reacts to the goose’s behaviour. Creep up behind a villager and the piano playfully responds. Steal an item and get chased by a villager, and the music increases in tempo to match.
JAMES PARKINSON: Dan’s adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Preludes has been compared to films Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and even Looney Tunes. Take the music away and it’s a very different experience. But the game isn’t covered in music either. Moments of silence ensure that both the music and sound design work together effectively. Here’s Em Halberstadt.
EM HALBERSTADT: Yeah, the room for silence that this music gave was pretty unique, and it works so well, and is like always something I think, as a sound designer, we would love as opposed to a game that has kind of music blanketed all the way through it really, I think it highlights both the sound and the music wonderfully, when they kind of both give each other room and space.
DAN GOLDING: I should probably give credit about silence and the game’s use of silence to House House because, you know, obviously, as you can probably tell from this conversation so far, I love music and I'm inclined to put music in everywhere and anywhere I can. And you know, I think House House on the other hand, probably have the good taste and restraint to know that using a lot of silence, as the game does have, really means those moments when the music kicks in are just that much more effective, and a big part of the game’s success.
JAMES PARKINSON: Untitled Goose Game received numerous game industry awards, including several for its achievements in audio. The soundtrack also received an ARIA Awards nomination in 2020 - the highest honours for the recording industry in Australia, making it the first ever game soundtrack to be recognised.
JAMES PARKINSON: 12 months on from the game’s initial release, House House added a multiplayer update, which unleashes two geese on the village, for you and a friend to control. The idea was for this second goose be the Luigi to the original Goose’s Mario. Em used a recording of a French Toulouse goose for an all new, squeaky honk, which adds even more charm to the game’s unique sound.
JAMES PARKINSON: It’s incredibly challenging for indie developers to break through the noise and create a game that reaches a wide audience. But the simplicity of Untitled Goose Game and the way it leverages music and sound design is what makes it memorable.
EM HALBERSTADT: I think part of what was really overwhelming and nice about the reception was how many people were noticing the sound, which I think I said earlier, something I like about sound is that people don't notice it. But it's also nice when they do. And to be able to see the reaction people had to these little details, that I often imagine aren't getting noticed, like, honking into the bottle or whatever. And like watching people play that on Twitch and seeing them honk into it, and then laugh after that was very, very rewarding.
DAN GOLDING: Yeah there's some really - still disbelieving, cool things that have happened. Like I mean, you know, the Muppets at The Game Awards did that sketch and they made a Muppet goose.
[The Game Awards Presentation]
Dr. Bunsen Honeydew: “The award for Games For Impact goes to…”
Muppet Goose: “Honk!”
Dr. Bunsen Honeydew: “No, not geese!”
DAN GOLDING: Like, what? How, what, how? It just seems absurd to me, like totally, totally absurd. Like, it's so rare, I think, in creative life, to make something hoping that it'll be received in a certain way. And then to have it actually received in that same way is just, you know, I don't necessarily anticipate that ever happening again. Like, it's such a cool and such a rare occurrence. You know, I'm so, so lucky to have worked on something that so many people really love. It’s just super, super cool, and I definitely don’t take any of it for granted.
JAMES PARKINSON: A big thank you to Em Halberstadt and Dan Golding. If you haven’t played Untitled Goose Game, I hope this episode inspires you to give it a go. And you can also listen to the full soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music in the episode from Breakmaster Cylinder.
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