There really aren’t proper words to describe the real conundrum surrounding Coffee Stain’s unlikely hit. Seeing (and playing) is believing, and is truly the only way to “get it,” and even then, there’s no guarantees that you’ll find Goat Simulator to be the hilarious, wild-living meme it’s been championed as. It’s an obvious matter of personal preference, like any game, but this isn’t like any game, is it?
I’ve reviewed a good number of games in my time, and even though each game is different, with reviews that reflect each one’s singular uniquity, they are all based on similar ground rules. Does the game run well? Is it enjoyable to play? Does it do anything to advance the genre or medium? So what do I do with a game that deliberately headbutts those concerns like a rage-fueled farm runaway? Play it, obviously, but damn well not review it.
It would be unfair to put Coffee Stain’s project through the same ringer as other games, as it really wasn’t developed like other games. After Sanctum 2, the team needed to “blow off steam” according to CEO Anton Westbergh. In an interview with Gamasutra, he described the development process of Goat Simulator, and how it differed from their other titles.
A game design jam was thrown after Sanctum 2, in order to spark new ideas for potential next projects. “After about two weeks of jamming we had this goat roaming around a map and wrecking stuff,” Westbergh explained, “and we all thought it looked pretty hilarious so we uploaded a video to YouTube and it just caught fire.” After reaching 1,000,000 views, they realized Goat Simulator was their next project.
By making very important design decisions early, they were able to use only four weeks of dev time to get the game into a working state. By omitting big meetings, ignoring the normal roles of the team, and focusing on releasing only to Steam, the process was far less pressured, and far more efficient. That, and they left all of the bugs in, which has the dual purpose of making the Q&A stage pretty much non-existent, and adding that sort of broken silliness that is the game’s signature.
Playing Goat Simulator for the first time is a sandbox gamer’s dream. There are no real set goals, just a plethora of stuff to play with, and other people’s business to get into. You’re given a bare bones list of controls: jump, headbutt, lick (akin to grabbing), as well as a slo-mo button and a toggle that sends your protagonist into a flailing heap of unchecked physics. The latter is a one-touch metaphor for the entire experience, really. At any moment, should it suit your whim, you can reduce the game to a throbbing pile of ragdoll at its most perverse.
I spent most of my time exploring/destroying this little suburb you’re dropped into, with all it’s Smallvillian charm. White picket-fences serve as boundaries so easy to surmount with my mighty horns, that they might as well be welcome mats. Stiffly animated, horribly textured, block humans can be found in small groups doing various things: picnicking, protesting, eating breakfast in the overstated safety of their homes. My favorite group to disrupt was easily a band of hillbillies, racing cars out in wheat fields, causing the kind of ruckus that a mischievous, thoroughly invincible goat can get down with.
As you go along head-butting passers by, or kidnapping them with your super sticky, stretchy tongue, you can begin to see what Coffee Stain saw when they chose to keep the bugs in. Bodies casually drifting behind you, crashing haphazardly into trash cans and telephone poles, creates a sort of morbid humor. Fence posts and basketballs get stuck to them as if they were covered in a highly potent bullshit-adhesive. If they hit a bump a certain way, they could randomly get launched into the air, only to be slingshotted back to Earth thanks to the kung-fu grip your tongue has on them.
The real value of this is truly based on how funny you find the occurrence of random mishaps to be. If the the trailer of Goat Simulator made you laugh, then you at least find the idea of a goat being launched through a house via catastrophic gas station explosion to be hilarious. The truth of your play through is, though random acts of insanity do often break out, its rarely as well timed and film-worthy as that particular piece of marketing magic. Many more times you’ll blow up the station, and hurdle into a nearby car, which will also blow up, sending objects distances far less gratifying. Thus is the double edged sword of complete chaos.
There are legitimate scripted surprises littering the area, that are way more fulfilling than the opportunity for randomness. Most involved a little goat detective work, fiddling with things and exploring every nook and cranny. Among my favorites are a sandbox castle, that if you climb and enter, transports you to an actual castle, where you are greeted by loyal goat subjects urging you to assume a throne of skulls. When you take your rightful place on the seat, you’re brought back to the normal playspace, gifted with magical, royal goat powers. This was the most out-of-left-field moment I’ve run into so far, and it was really what sold me on the experience. You can also sacrifice people in a pentagram and gain devil goat powers, as well as enter underground goat fighting, all of which are rewarding challenges that follow normal “do this, get this” sort of game design tropes. In standard games, they’d seem trite and half-baked, but in Goat Simulator it’s a thankful break from what has, after my 4th playthrough, become a quest to find something worth doing.
But this goofy experience wasn’t supposed to be something with real longevity. It was born through a two week session of unfocused code slinging, gained cult status on notorious fad developer/destroyer YouTube, and was marketed as the “pinnacle of Goat Simulation technology.” By its very existence its both a living lampoon of not just the unconsciously silly “simulator” brand of games, but games in and of themselves. It’s broken on purpose, and giving it a low score puts you in a caste of folks who just don’t get it, or take games too seriously.
On the other hand, though, the game is broken. It’s humor is really only based on your tolerance for your own slapstick violence. Coffee Stain didn’t write quippy dialogue, or funny characters; they made half a game, and stopped. Giving that a score you would give something like Stick of Truth, Diablo 3, or Second Son would be disingenuous to those creators, who did make good, complete games, the traditional way.
And so I cop out, and decide not to score it because it doesn’t need or deserve one. It’s a light-hearted joke that you’ll either get, or you won’t. Your $10 is a risk you’ll have to take figuring out which side of the fence you’re on. Or not. I know that I’ll never look at a goat quite the same way again.