The Trickster Archetype in Pop Culture, Part Four: The Trickster is YOU!

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When I talk about “the Trickster archetype” here, I’ve been using it to refer to fictional characters, with “archetype” being essentially a synonym for “really old codified trope”. But this phrase has also been used in more psychological contexts, specifically those drawing from the work of Carl Jung, who played with the idea that we each have our own inner Trickster, a manifestation of our playful, childlike, perhaps even animalistic subconscious. Creativity can be considered a “trickster impulse”, as can the urge for rebellion (a combo of the two is perhaps the most powerful modern Trickery there is—Helena Bassil-Morozow talks about this a fair bit in The Trickster and the System). I keep saying that we come back to this character type again and again because it means something to us, and whether I intend to or not I’m being pretty Jungian with that statement: maybe Trickster characters have such a strong appeal because they scratch a deep subconscious itch, call to us on a fundamental psychological level, and are ultimately “fantasy figures who do what we cannot or dare not” (to quote Lori Landay), fulfilling an ancient and intrinsic yearning for power and playfulness, and, well, to be a bit of a shit now and then.

With all that in mind, the idea of Trickster player-characters becomes very interesting. It’s long been said that video games can fulfil fantasies for the players who insert themselves into their worlds, such as having magic powers, finding romance with smokin’ hot aliens, being able to control how many hours of sleep you get, and getting immediately tangibly rewarded for completing a task. Many RPGs also (famously) provide you the ability to play as A Bit of a Bastard, in a manner that affects the overall story in big and small ways. This Customisable Bastardry, was, for a long time, incorrectly cited as an example of how video games encourage violence and bad behaviour; but more recent studies (and general popular opinion) reveal that getting our inherent Bastardry out of our systems within virtual environments can actually reduce violence and crime.

Being A Bit of a Bastard in a video game scenario doesn’t mean you’re a bad person with horrible urges, necessarily—Jung and folks who follow him might say it’s just an expression of your natural Trickster Impulse and an exploration of the subconscious desire to Cause a Ruckus within what you understand is a safe space where it’s not going to actually have any consequences. I’d hesitate to call anything universal, but there is a degree of human nature at play here: sometimes it’s fun to cause some trouble, says the deep, subconscious, archetypal part of our brain. You’re a functional, polite member of civilised society, sure, but don’t you sometimes just wanna… listen to your latent feline instincts and see what happens when you knock that vase over? Metaphorically speaking?

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Are you tired of being nice? Don’t you just wanna go apeshit?

Part of what made Untitled Goose Game so outrageously popular and fun is, I think, that it took that psychological, philosophical question quite literally. Don’t you wanna revert to your animalistic desire for chaos? Don’t you wanna steal some carrots? Don’t you wanna let out your suppressed emotions with a good old honk?

I’m perhaps overthinking that, but hey, that’s what we do here. It remains true that The Goose is an excellent example of a contemporary Trickster character: they’re a liminal figure, pushed to the fringes of normative society (living in the woods rather than the town, because they are a goose); they aren’t part of the dominant structure of power (because they are a goose, not a human); they use cunning and sneakiness rather than traditional modes of straightforward strength (because they are a goose) and they use these methods to gently poke holes in the established order (by doing things only a goose could do).

The game’s tagline/premise may announce “it’s a beautiful day in the village, and you are a horrible goose” (emphasis mine) but in truth The Goose’s horribleness is relative: following Lewis Hyde, The Goose is “amoral, not immoral”—they simply do not conform to our human codes of ethics, politeness, and law, because, again, they are a goose. They have their own moral code going on. Why did you steal our pint glasses and throw them in the canal, Goose? Well, what answer can you hope to receive that you will comprehend? The Goose is as The Goose does. The Goose represents nature, chaos, change, an invasion of the animalistic impulse into a structured, neatened, “civilised” society, gently pecking the very notion of civility apart at the seams.

There are many incidences in the game where The Goose sets a ruckus in motion, but the human characters are by nature the ones who make it worse. The quarrels between the neighbours (the artist and the cricketer) are kicked off by The Goose’s shenanigans, but the intervention of The Goose really only exposes their own flaws and follies, which lead to the downfall of their pristine sense of order and peace: did The Goose hurl the precious vase over the fence and onto the paving, breaking it into pieces and causing an argument? No, The Goose just stole the vase and put it in the neighbour’s yard, prompting him to yeet it back over without abandon. Did The Goose dress up the stone bust in a mockery of the cricket player? No, The Goose just placed the stolen pipe, cap, and glasses nearby, leaving the rest to the creative Trickster impulse ticking away within the psyche of the lady artist.

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An exposure of naught but your own folly

The Goose returns to their nest at the end of the game—they have not upended the structure of power completely, nor have they gained power themself, but they have served their purpose as “an archetypal agent of change” (to quote Terri Waddell) by leaving a mess in their wake and returning, cyclically, to where they began, ready to fade into the background until their powers are needed again. Following Bassil-Morozow, The Goose does not really change as a character so much as they instigate change in the world around them. That is their role in the game’s narrative and in the small-scale mythology of the village, and, given the number of bells in their treasure trove, we can rest pretty assured that The Goose will return and do all this again next time the status quo needs challenging. Or just the next time they feel like making mischief.

All this would be entertaining and interesting on its own, but the most intriguing thing here is that The Goose is, of course, not a character in a static piece of media like a film or book, but a player-character in an interactive work. We are The Goose. We are encouraged to inhabit this troublemaker and find our own ways to cause mischief in the game’s setting, tapping into our own deep-seated sneakiness to think our way through the puzzles (some of which are multi-part and quite complex) and, of course, to have the most fun possible. As many others have noted, Untitled Goose Game takes that very video gamey urge to be A Bit of a Bastard way back to its playful roots—The Goose is not violent, The Goose is not evil, The Goose is not causing anyone serious harm, but oh boy, is The Goose a little shit. And don’t we all wanna be a little shit sometimes, even if we know we must suppress that urge for the good of functioning polite society? Yeah we do—that’s The Trickster Impulse. Jung said those exact words. You can look them up. That’s definitely a real citation.

A big part of the game’s appeal is that by playing as The Goose, we not only get to observe and root for a Trickster hero, but we can be the Trickster hero. There are definitely many other examples of this in the world of video game protagonists and the way gameplay enables you to fulfil these playful impulses, but The Goose is perhaps the most crystallised version of it I’ve seen recently. Following from Jung, we can ascertain that deep in the back of our minds, deep in our intrinsic psyche, we each have a horrible goose of our own, saying be creative, saying down with the system, or perhaps just honking with manic intent. Art is a perfect way to tap into that, and that, you could say, is why the Trickster has such a lasting home there.

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2 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

2 responses to “The Trickster Archetype in Pop Culture, Part Four: The Trickster is YOU!

  1. mythos

    I think moreso than many other games that have come out that play with the ideas of morality, Untitled Goose Game is the purest form of a specific type of morality. The player doesn’t have to choose between the option to kill or save others. Nor does it have to bring joy or tragedy, which I feel is many of the “good” and “bad” chooses in morality-based games. Instead, the player is just an agent of chaos, bringing change to a system that would otherwise never change.

    I think that’s what I like most about that terrible, wonderful little Goose.

  2. Pingback: Honk: December ’19 Roundup | The Afictionado

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