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A Lamppost and a Goat: The Satire of the Simulation Game

Goat Simulator
Image: Coffee Stain Studios
By Leo Powell

Following the Zeitgeist of the weird, not-quite-a-game-but-still-a-game logic that fuels the likes of Goat Simulator and The Path, I stumbled across a 4chan thread about a theoretical game in which you would play as a street lamp:

“> All choices are resolved by doing lamp post things.
God I want this game.”

Having hashed out what seemed like an absurdly boring notion, as the thread goes on, they actually end up with something that sounds quite interesting. What’s going on there then?

The poster child of this attitude is undoubtedly Goat Simulator. It plays on the notion that, rather than paying to experience the traditional empowerment fantasy – for example, being an Übermensch that solves problems with bullets – we are happy to pretend to be a stupid, frolicking goat. It also riffs off the morbid intrigue that many newcomers to the PC platform feel when they see German Waste Disposal Simulator (1988-1989 Frankfurt Edition).

This is really the beauty of the PC platform. Anyone can make any game and distribute it themselves. Interested in making a game so niche that only 10 people would enjoy it? Why not! You can make games that bore, or games that make you think, and the need to meet a distributors normative, cash-cow focus won’t stop you.

In some ways, the only real criticism one can level at Goat Simulator is that it isn’t actually a simulation game. It doesn’t allow us to empathise with being a boring old goat. You don’t live a life of pellet-pooping drudgery.

So in the language of 4chan, here’s my face when I realized that Goat Simulator is actually a Goat’s “Triple-A” empowerment fantasy:

Goat Simulator 1-min

Since the inception of Goat Simulator, there has been… more of Goat Simulator, from the same designers. An MMO parody and a copy of DayZ (called GoatZ) is the latest offering (and you can check out Rich’s review here).  It’s getting pretty clear that the Goat Simulator franchise has progressed on from a satirical piss-take to, if we’re being generous, a bit of a critique of current game design tropes. What’s most interesting is the way this is actually achieved: gamers can be an acidic lot when it comes to the analysis of the medium, locking themselves away in a castle of “it’s just a game”, but Goat Simulator manages to critique games through populist satire.

This is really why a lamppost simulator is a great idea. However, it goes beyond that. After all, the same brand of satire over and over will just become propaganda, pushing home a point. What “weird games” allow for is the freedom to play with games, freed from normative constraints. Who knows what a lamppost game would look like, and what it might unearth? Through making and playing it, you might find a fascinating, novel bit of gameplay that unlocks a new perspective. It could be fun. Then again, it might not.

Goat Simulator angel-min

In terms of Goat Simulator, it is fun to crash around as a goat. It is refreshing not to have the burden of a plot, even if the lack of one does somewhat hamstring a sense of… oh god am I going to say this? …character development. Your goaty self is ultimately pretty one dimensional. There is no depth here.

The burning question we have of course is: does it go beyond a gimmick? The answer is… sort of. The developer, upon realising that they had something, obviously put a lot of time and effort into adding content and fleshing it out. It feels like it developed itself into other tropes as a matter of play. It feels somewhere between Tony Hawks and GTA, because, once you start running around and doing flips in a sandbox, and once you start head butting the people, it makes sense to reward such play. It’s an interesting model for game design. I could play with it all day and think “you know, if only I could race my fellow goats…” and a new game play element would evolve. If you were the developer, you would add it in. Or as a player, mod it yourself.

Goat Simulator bike-min

If you fancy something interesting and irreverent, then playing around as a goat is worth your time. I like to spend 10 minutes here and there running around, being a goat, causing havoc. It’s an evolving, weird, tongue-in-cheek franchise. It also proves that we are ready for absurd or bizarre game ideas, even if it unfortunately shuns the potential for a proper “goaty” game play experience.

Now excuse me while I go and frolic.