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Comedy in videogames

What makes a game funny? What makes a funny game?

Can a videogame garner an audience when humor is its primary source of engagement? How much of a “game”, in the traditional sense, needs to be built around the comedy for the gaming audience to embrace a comedic title?

These are questions that are thrown around a lot and rarely met with satisfying answers. We have seen many games over the years have such unpredictably variable success with humor. Why are we not seeing a pattern that we can reproduce? Why are we not able to draw a ‘through-line’ that connects these scattered data points? How can a team of writers, programmers, and developers create a great comedy game?

Let me begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Humor is subjective. What one person finds funny may be entirely lost on another. One may admire the dry wit of Oscar Wilde while turning their nose up at the physical slapstick of The Three Stooges, while another may have an appreciation for the expertly-choreographed timing that composes the complex ballet-of-errors that makes up a Stooges routine while finding The Importance of Being Earnest suffocatingly haughty.

The writer and poet Oscar Wilde and Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine, otherwise known as The Three Stooges
The writer and poet Oscar Wilde and Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine, otherwise known as The Three Stooges

How can we ever establish enough common ground to have this discussion? Surely, the games that seem funny to me may seem boring, pretentious, childish, rude or any number of things to another. For that reason, I am less interested in talking about “funny games” and more interested in talking about comedy in games.

Comedy is an art with form and structure. Like poetry, it adheres to certain rules. There must be a build-up – a laying down of kindling – followed by a reversal, a surprise – a spark that sets that kindling alight. Comedy can be a word that undermines the meaning of the sentence we were led to expect. Comedy can be a hint of madness in an otherwise mundane world, or, conversely, an uncharacteristically normal reaction to a world of lunacy.

Comedy can be everything falling to pieces when the stakes are high, or things falling into place perfectly when disaster seemed unavoidable. Comedy follows the same rules of good drama in that it makes use of irony, contrast, suspense, and poetic justice.

Comedy, as an art, can be written well in the same way that a symphony can be masterfully composed. Whether or not it is appreciated by its audience, a certain amount of credit must be paid to those who can wield these dramatic and poetic tools in a way that creates a finely-crafted comedy.

So, for the duration of this conversation, I ask that you and I surrender our opinions of what we personally find funny and try to look at the creation of comedy in games more objectively; certainly not to place a black mark upon subjectivity in enjoying humor, but to give us a strong base off of which to build, so that we may learn from all avenues, allowing us to create more complete and diverse comedic experiences.

There are several challenges that present themselves when writing comedy for videogames. The most substantial of which revolves around comedic timing. Good comedians know that timing is the key to successful delivery. Stand-up comedians will prune their jokes to the exact number of words needed to build the necessary tension before the punchline. Those who create slapstick comedy, like the animators who worked on the Tom & Jerry cartoons, will experiment until they find – down to the specific frame – the optimal point to deliver each hit.

A punchline is only viable for a short amount of time. How can the game developers possibly execute a well-timed joke when the player is in control of the moment-by-moment progression of the game? We have all been in those immersion-breaking situations. We are walking down a long hallway with an NPC who is giving us exposition by way of long speech. We get distracted by a detail in the environment and wander off to explore it, spending some time poking around the hallway. We return to the NPC, who has quietly and politely waited for us, and he continues his speech right where he left off like we had never even left. It’s mildly jarring in a serious game, but it’s an absolute death-blow to any joke trying to be told.

Gearbox's Borderlands 2 and Rare's Conker
Gearbox’s Borderlands 2 and Rare’s Conker

How can we avoid this? The easy answer is to take control away from the player. Take Conker’s Bad Fur Day or Borderlands for example; both play as fairly ‘straight’ examples of their respective genres. Much of the comedy takes place in cut-scenes, dialogue, or context-sensitive action prompts. Scripted moments. The player can put down the controller and enjoy a short comedy sketch play out for them.

The developers remain in complete control of the timing, and the player still feels connected to the events playing out on screen. While this is a perfectly serviceable option, I feel that it slightly betrays the unique avenues available to games. We know how to craft comedic movies and written narratives. Defaulting back to these options under-utilizes the very thing that makes games special in the first place.

How frustrating would it be for an action movie to cut away to slides of written text describing the explosive action scenes instead of showing them? While I have no problem with Metal Gear Solid-style cut-scenes breaking up gameplay, let’s challenge ourselves to think about ways that we can deliver good comedy without disrupting player interaction. So how do we create interactive comedy? Let’s table that question and come back to it later.

Getting back to the original question, timing can be protected by writing jokes that can be delivered at any point during the gameplay. For example, let’s look at Gex: Enter the Gecko. Gex, voiced by stand-up comedian Dana Gould (veteran English actor Leslie Phillips in the UK version – Ed), had a grab-bag of quips and riffs written around the theme of the world he was currently inhabiting that would be triggered at random intervals during gameplay. This allowed for the jokes to be fresh, potentially only delivered once, and relevant. What it lacked, though, was the immediacy of scripted comedy.

The comedy traded on-point reactivity for broader utility and variety. The writers were bound to short riffs, unable to create anything more substantial without entering a cutscene. This randomness of selection addresses another major problem with writing comedy for games. A joke, upon repeated hearings, is never as funny as it was the first time you heard it. This rule does not play nicely with repetition (a die/repeat cycle) being one of the most common mechanics of videogames. This leads to triggering the same joke many times, each time with greatly diminishing returns.

If, like Gex or (for a non-comedic example) Dear Esther, speech samples are chosen at random, this problem can be avoided. Those writing comedy for games should also take note of the narration in Bastion which, although not a comedy itself, manages to retain the best aspects of randomly selected dialogue and on-point specificity. Though more reactive to the player’s influence of the game world, it still brings us around to the same problem we presented earlier; the jokes are exterior to the gameplay. Although a bit more meta-textual (in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way) than comedic cutscenes, the jokes are not fundamentally woven into the play. How do we create interactive comedy? Patience, dear reader, we will arrive at that answer before long, I promise.

EA's The Simpsons Game
EA’s The Simpsons Game

A rather innovative solution to the problem of comedic timing in an interactive medium is structuring the timing around the player and not the character – the real world and not the game world. Think of these as jokes external to the game. Jokes that react to the actions and feelings of the player rather than the events taking place within the game fiction. The Simpsons Game rewarded players with the “Press START to Play” achievement or trophy for pressing the start button while on the title screen. This is a self-aware ribbing of the achievement system. A wink to the player that says “these achievements can be pretty dumb sometimes, right?”.

Similarly, Dark Souls II “rewards” the player after their first death with the “This Is Dark Souls” achievement or trophy. The achievement or trophy is a note being passed from the developers to the player. Because it is “external” to the game (appearing on the console’s UI as opposed to a message that appears within the game), it feels more personal. More directed towards the player. It’s a bit cheeky, for sure, but it gave me a chuckle as the developers warned me of the road ahead. But that still leaves us with the question, how do we create interactive comedy? Let’s see if we can answer that.

This push for interactive comedy is not to dissuade developers from using other forms, but rather to encourage the exploration into new forms of comedy that only videogames can create. With the amazing set of tools that interactive art gives us, I am simply encouraging exploration in the direction of greatest novelty. That said, let us begin to untangle the question, “how do we create interactive comedy?”. How do we build comedy into the gameplay? How do we create comedy that could only be created within an interactive medium? To do that, we must look at what makes videogames special. What does interactivity fundamentally add to the tradition of storytelling?

Interactivity adds audience agency to the story. The player can choose to obey or disobey the rules of the world as he or she chooses. The choices that the player makes directly affects the manifest content of the game. If Link runs around in circles and throws pots at his neighbors’ heads instead of rushing off to rescue Princess Zelda, that is what happened on screen for that specific playthrough of the game. That is the story being told. Link’s character is fundamentally redefined by the actions chosen for him by the player.

Naked Snake may choose to compulsively eat every small animal he comes across during his infiltration mission, violently vomiting just out of sight of the Soviet guards patrolling the base. In that instance of the story, that is who Big Boss was. Those are the choices that he made. Those details must be reconciled with the content being presented during the cut-scenes within the mind of the player. Who does that make Link? Who does that make Snake? Who does that make the other characters for pretending things were normal?

This idea is amplified by another fundamental aspect of videogame storytelling: the storyteller with whom we are interacting is completely blind to our choices. A development team may try to predict the actions of the player and may even program responses for each possible eventuality (an idea that was played around with beautifully in The Stanley Parable), but it remains true that the game doesn’t “know” what you are doing, strictly speaking. This “blind storyteller” creates one of the essential dynamics in comedy: the straight-man.

For comedy-in-absurdity to work, there has to be an established baseline of normality that the agents of absurdity are deviating from. If absurd things are happening in an absurd world to absurd characters, they are no longer “unusual”, per the rules established by that world, and thus, the comedy is lost. A straight-man is required.

Sometimes this is a character, acting as an audience surrogate, reacting to the absurd in the way that the audience would in that situation (like Lewis Carroll’s Alice during her adventures in Wonderland). It could also be the setting. An otherwise sane setting can play the foil to the absurdity of its inhabitants (consider the example of The Coneheads, or other fish-out-of-water comedies).

To cite an example within videogames, observe the carefully crafted dynamics within Deadly Premonition (Red Seeds Profile in Japan). That is a game in which every character appears absurd. But watch the cut-scenes a bit closer and you will find that, in each scene, there is one character consistently playing the straight-man to the other characters’ absurdity. It is not always the same character, and sometimes the roles switch mid-scene, but that dynamic remains true throughout the entire experience.

The blind storyteller as straight-man dynamic allows for magnificent reality-breaking. The player, the only agent in this dynamic cognizant of the rules that govern reality outside of the game, can exploit the game’s artifice to produce moments of hilarity played, by the game, entirely straight-faced. For example, failing to drink coffee correctly in Heavy Rain defeats the self-serious tone that the game heralds. Riding a motor scooter into a dance club in Sleeping Dogs, tooting its little horn at the dancing young adults, bends the reality in a way that the game is not aware enough to appropriately react to.

Similarly, consider the endless hilarity of glitches that suddenly, unpredictably, and rapidly catapult the tone of the scene on display in the opposite direction. Videogames are different from many other art forms in that they are being simultaneously created and experienced. Unlike paintings, movies, and books which are finished projects by the time that they make it to their audiences, videogames put the pieces together right in front of them.

In-engine cut-scenes are rendering, events are triggering, and physics are being calculated in real time. In this way, videogames share a lot with live theatre, and, like live theatre, things can go wrong (but unlike live theatre, videogames do not have the awareness and intelligence to compensate for or lampshade the mistakes).

The game, again playing the perfect straight-man, is completely unaware of the lunacy of a guard in Skyrim getting stuck inside of a door, flopping around like an agitated fish. It is the suddenly inhuman behavior of Ethan Mars repeatedly calling out to his son Shaun at inappropriate times in Heavy Rain that reminds us that we are not observing real people, but rather are watching a puppet show. It peels back the illusion and reminds us of the artifice of the game while positing an unintentional “wouldn’t it be funny if…” at its bewildered and smugly amused audience.

Another aspect of the interactive experience that is ripe for comedy is the disconnect between the player and the character. As the technology has advanced, developers have worked tirelessly to create more intuitive control schemes that better allow the player to project onto the character on screen. We have certainly all had moments where we feel so ‘one with the character’ that we forget that we are pressing buttons and tilting thumb-sticks, instead feeling like we are Mario, running and jumping from galaxy to galaxy.

Breaks in this illusion create a certain unique dissonance. The same kind of dissonance achieved when trying to write one’s own name when looking into a mirror. Our own body, or the body that we perceive as our own for the purposes of the game, is not behaving in the way that we want it to. While usually manifesting in frustration, this dissonance can be turned into comedy.

Young Horse's  Octodad: Dadliest Catch
Young Horse’s Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Consider the example of Octodad: Dadliest Catch. The game is about an octopus dressed like a man trying to pass as a human, avoiding the suspicion of his family and neighbors by approximating human behavior as well as he possibly can with his floppy, skeleton-less body. The game tasks players with performing simple, mundane tasks but complicates these simple tasks with a loose, wacky control scheme that adds great physical comedy to each situation as the octopus in disguise stumbles his way through each situation, knocking vases off of tables and making a mess of his normal, suburban home. This game is perhaps the best example of a comedy entirely unique to videogames. It creates comedy that could only work in interactive media. Other examples of games that create comedy in the same vein include Goat Simulator, Surgeon Simulator 2013, and many of the Kinect-enabled games.

Yet another thing that videogames do exceptionally well is hiding subtle jokes within their larger game world. Because one of the prime directives of videogames is exploration, some wonderful comedy can be hidden for players to discover. Consider the often-humorous stories told through the placement of skeletons and items in Fallout 3.

Another example is the Where’s Waldo-like comedy-in-congestion of the world in Katamari Damacy. The player may encounter a parade of gorillas on unicycles making their way down the main street of an urban center, leaving the player to ascribe meaning to the stories playing out in front of them. Alternatively, these small, hidden touches can be hidden within the dialogue or flavor text.

Mass Effect’s conversation trees or the interaction descriptions in classic point and click adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Sam & Max Hit the Road can lead to all manner of nooks and crannies in which to fit clever comedic writing. I needn’t even mention the amount of hilarious content in the Portal games that could only be observed if the player deviated from the main path of the game. Hiding the comedy in small Easter eggs can also serve as a way of protecting the tone of the game. A serious game may choose to divert all of its comedy into side missions, peripheral to the driving narrative (as is the case in Fable, Skyrim, and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes).

Videogames, as an interactive medium, presents writers and developers with certain challenges when trying to create comedy. While aping other mediums, primarily by temporarily removing the unpredictable element of interactivity from the equation, serves the comedy well, I continue to challenge writers and developers to think beyond what we already know how to do.

In what ways can interactivity be a benefit to your comedy? How can the player input serve your purposes? How can you create comedy that is stronger when the player is in control? I, for one, am hoping that Octodad and his ilk issue in a new era of exploration of novel and satisfying comedy in games. There is still much to explore and discover, and there are still many laughs to be had.

2 Comments

  1. Great article, Ryan. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on where South Park: Stick of Truth fits in your analysis.

    It’s certainly one of, if not the, funniest game I’ve ever played but I think that’s more to do with the source material than the implementation of it in a videogame setting.

    Although, having said that, the bits where you’re given a prompt to ‘skip’ Jimmy’s stuttering marries mechanics and humour quite nicely.

  2. Thanks, Brian.

    I haven’t played Stick of Truth yet, mostly because I’m not all that invested in the South Park franchise (nothing against it, it’s just not something that I’ve spent a lot of time with).

    The example you’ve provided sounds like a great example of the metatextual comedy mentioned in the article (my examples being humorous achievements). I really like when that kind of thing is done well. It can create a real sense of comradery with the developers — like you’re both laughing at the game instead of one side being the “performer” and the other the “audience”.

    I’ll play Stick of Truth eventually. Until then, I would like to give a hearty recommendation, for those who enjoy comical games, to try Zoink’s Stick It to the Man and Double Fine’s The Cave. They are written like the old-school point-and-click adventure games without suffering from the genre’s pacing problems (read: hitting brick walls with needlessly difficult puzzles).

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