There are things you can learn from Goat Simulator - yet, unlike most other simulators which hope to enlighten the player about the subject, in Goat Simulator almost none of the lessons pertain to the titular caprid. Goat Simulator is not the best simulator ever made, and possibly not even the best simulator of the life of goats, but it serves as a reminder of two very important truths of video gaming.
The first of these truths (to paraphrase some guy who wasn’t even in a video game) is that the game is the thing. Almost anything can be made into a game and if it works, it works, and it really doesn’t even matter what ‘it’ is. Whether it's stacking falling blocks, making a bird flap to dodge a (suspiciously familiar-looking) series of pipes, or managing Derby County all these can be games.
The second of these truths is that games don’t need to take themselves seriously. Some of the best games in recent years have hardly themselves seriously at all, while some of the worst have taken themselves so seriously that they’ve barely even trusted the player to affect the game at all, lest they ruin the perfectly-crafted narrative. There is a balance of course - players love games, they devote time and energy to them, and a developer has to take their work somewhat seriously out of respect for the time and money of the players. Goat Simulator gets this balance right. It is knowingly lightweight and silly and is priced accordingly.
In terms of how you actually go about playing it Goat Simulator is effectively three different types of game rolled into one - and, thankfully, with none of the three having any particular relevance to the actual life of a goat. On the first and most superficial level it is a game about charging around breaking stuff in long chain combos, akin to the mini-games of the Saints Row series... except that you're a goat. Instead of shooting people or bouncing from the rooftops of cars to fake insurance claims, however, you tear up a small town. There are still explosions, but there is also baaing and butting. On the second level it shares some similarities with skateboarding games: you can make the goat do flips, or you can bounce around and use the terrain (and the more fancy your goat-styles, the more points you get).
Lastly, it’s a puzzle game. The world of Goat Simulator is full of objects and characters, things you can kick, butt, lick or baa at to get differing results, and there are challenges to complete of escalating difficulty; sometimes simply running around butting things won’t suffice. None of the three established styles of game that make up Goat Simulator are particularly fleshed-out or well-implemented, but it’s a good synergy and it’s also funny.
Being funny is something Goat Simulator really excels at, actually, which is a hard trick for a game to pull off. It’s one thing for a game to feature funny dialogue or characters, essentially operating in the same way as a TV show or movie would do by ladling out prepared jokes, but it’s quite another to make the actions of the character within the game world a source of laughs. Charging around a destructible world as a rampaging goat with weird ragdoll physics provides plenty of silly physical comedyin its own right, but the game also sets you up for some set pieces - workmen sitting on the edges of scaffolding, a family sitting down to have a nice dinner, the classic easily-exploded petrol station. Situations just crying out to have an indestructible malevolent goat fired into them.
Meanwhile its self-awareness - even of its own (many) bugs - is refreshing , to an extent that it's almost enough to excuse them. For instance, not many games give you an achievement if they crash. There’s an air of slightly cruel anarchism to the game too, like the original GTA, the human population of the game world do not fare well.
Even in a conceptual sense the game is a timely joke about the way that there seem to be simulators of everything these days, from driving trains, buses and trucks to managing forests, farming, landing on Mars and air combat. It's not the first spoof simulator of course - Surgeon Simulator has been around a while and that game has its tongue so firmly in its cheek that it’s a wonder it doesn’t include a procedure to remove it - but it takes the joke to the logical conclusion. Going further back into the mists of time and budget Codemasters games on the Spectrum used to always be called "simulators", regardless of the content or subject of the game. The fastidiousness of the video game simulators has always been a broad target for parody, often by the games themselves; even Train Simulator 2014 has zombie missions.
This is a very weird time for simulators, or at least games carrying simulator in the name. The current crop of them on PC includes some that are detailed and enthusiastic attempts to replicate the skills and experiences of the things that they claim to simulate; for example, the aforementioned Train Simulator 2014 has to be one of the most endearingly-earnest titles ever released, and the DCS series pulls no punches at all in the realism and complexity stakes. Meanwhile, Euro Truck Simulator 2 lacks quite a lot in the realism stakes, yet perhaps because of this it has a legitimate claim to being among the best driving games of recent years. Once you’ve beaten the lights on a railway crossing or overtaken a line of trucks down the grass verge or taken the off-ramp onto the autobahn riding on only half your wheels, all in a 730 horsepower articulated lorry lugging twenty tonnes of hydrochloric acid, racing in a vehicle you would now consider to be merely a speed bump loses its appeal. But the genre also includes so many games that are complete garbage it can be hard to know what you’re letting yourself in for. (Yes, I’m looking at you Woodcutter Simulator 2013.)
Goat Simulator is not such a game. It’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s got vaguely satanic overtones, so what’s not to like?