Goat Simulator: Rammed Ewe in the Butt!
No wait! There’s something here to talk about, really. Simulator games (and I use this term with a capital S here, to denote games which are branded X Simulator) get a very bad rep in the industry, and often for very good reason. Aside from some diamonds in the rough, they are generally unfinished, bland, weird games with boring objectives and stupidly unrealistic physics. Sometimes, the games are totally broken and always feel hollow and sterile. I would have said there was not a single Simulator that I would play for fun up until last week. That’s when I got an email from a friend at the Swedish development house, Coffee Stain Studios, which included a copy of their latest game, Goat Simulator.
Coffee Stain is known for their Sanctum games. Combining both the first-person shooter and tower defense genres so wholly that the games seem to define a new subgenre. The games were impressive, offering very smooth, streamlined experiences. The multiplayer focus of Sanctum (and later Sanctum 2) really helped to emphasize the feeling of freneticism that first-person shooters often convey, even in the slowly-paced tower defense environment. Dungeon Defenders has followed up with that formula and given it a good deal of polish and even some role-playing game elements, but I feel that Sanctum was the first one to really hit that genre hybrid right on the head. In the past, Coffee Stain Studios have made smart games with neat mechanics, and that’s a solid place to start.
That being said, I really have to look for signs that the same development house which made Sanctum also made Goat Simulator. This commentary (I will sometimes hesitate to call it a game) has been put together with seemingly reckless abandon. The physics are janky, the animation is stiff, even the objectives are nearly non-existent. It sounds like a pretty standard Simulator game, but with one difference. Goat Simulator is hilariously fun.
Playing more like a toy than a game, the goat that you control is a pretty unlikely avatar for a sandbox destruction simulation. The main goal is to rampage through the environment and turn everything to tinder with your super-human (super-goat?) headbutt. You can lick things with your frog-like tongue in order to drag whatever you need into the positions that you need them in. This last mechanic comes into play when you find an Easter egg that needs to be placed some distance away in order to activate a secret, or for when you’re making a massive pile of twitching human flesh for no good reason. Some of the most fun I’ve had in Goat Simulator required me to get things into position and setting off a chain of events like some kind of demented Rube Goldberg machine.
Some games are more than just games.
I consider this game a commentary rather than a proper game in its own right for a couple of simple reasons. The game is rather smartly put together, especially for a title stuck in this hideous corner of the marketplace. The particular brand of humor Goat Simulator propagates is self-aware and ironic, playing on the pitfalls of other games with similar titles and making a joke of them. This kind of thing has been done with varying degrees of homage in the past: DLC Quest, Evoland, Breath of Death and Cthulhu Saves the World all come to mind when I think of clever parodies. Most of these sorts of messages are worth the play through and the reams of discussion they tend to generate. It’s fun to watch the transitions in Evoland and remember how these transitions reflected the industry and also how they affected the way I played games in general. That seems to be the end of their appeal though, you won’t find another Super Mario Brothers 3 in this vein of discussion. The statements are made, the discussion is had, and the game is forgotten.
That’s where this game comes up as a different breed of goat. Goat Simulator kept me coming back for at least a few hours, long after I had finished most of the actual content in this pretty shallow game. This is due to a secondary, maybe less intentional, comment on the industry. Goat Simulator is essentially both an Easter egg hunt as well as an achievement hunt at heart. Whether you are piling up as many walker figurines (an enemy from Sanctum) as you can find, playing Flappy Goat on one of the various computer monitors you come across or chaining headbutts for that high score trophy, you are always working towards unlocking the game’s plethora of secrets.
Achievement Hunting brings casual gamers into the fray.
Games as a whole have been leaning more and more away from solid gameplay, the core fundamental in games, and towards overarching metagaming like Easter egg hunts as well as achievement hunting. Achievements have started to be more of a component in video games with online gameplay, which has became more accessible as they give you a platform to shout out your skills as a gamer. The first time I noticed this quirk of the industry was during the beginning of the Xbox 360 era when achievements were given places of honor on your online profile. Points were awarded and there was a race to get more points than your friends. It was a fun time as achievements began to get more and more obtuse and challenging to get, so much so that you might only get a small fraction of the total points for a game when you play through it normally and not have special-achievement hunting sessions. I remember trying to run Halo 3‘s final scene with four ghosts and having to restart over and over again for the achievement. It wasn’t worth the badge or the points, it was much too frustrating, but it was certainly worth hanging out with my friends online and pitting ourselves against the challenge. There has always been this kind of one-upmanship with score-based games, but the Xbox 360 system of standardized awards, however meaningless, really brought that race to the average gamer.
Goat Simulator will certainly appeal to people who really just want to fuss around at a virtual BBQ and not have to worry about goals and gameplay getting in the way. Casual to the extreme, there is something oddly zen about breaking into your owner’s house and flipping the dining room table as they are trying to have supper or watching your goat don a jetpack and fling itself around the map at crazy speeds. Conversely, I feel as if Goat Simulator will also be a hit with dedicated gamers who will enjoy the overarching joke and join in the forum discussions about where the industry is headed. This kind of disparity may alienate the majority of gamers, so it’s hard to recommend this game to anyone who doesn’t fall into these two categories.
How do you feel about this kind of self-awareness in gaming? Would you play a game which consisted mostly of headbutting people into the distance for the sake of commentary? Is this game cleverly assembled? Or lazily slapped together? Let us know in the comments section!