It’s been a long time since I’ve had a crappy game leave such an awful taste in my mouth. It’s now been a fortnight since I finished and reviewed Zenith, a comedy action RPG with the intent of ripping apart both western and Japanese RPGs alike. If you haven’t read that review yet, here’s the cliffnotes to save you from reading a good 800+ words: it didn’t work – in terms of both being funny and being a functioning game. And you know what’s weird now that I look back on it? If the comedy was actually good, I probably would have given Zenith a little credit, despite a lot of its shortcomings – even if it was still a buggy, hard to control, unsatisfying mess of a game. I love a good comedy game, so much so that the moment I see a game has some kind of comedic element to it, I’m usually sold right then and there. Of course this has led to a lot more disappointments than enjoyments, I can assure you. But it’s because of Zenith that I’ve been recently spending a lot of time thinking about comedy in video games. More specifically, why there are so few games that actively try to stay consistently funny, as opposed to sneaking in a few jokes over a game’s running time.
Comedy isn’t easy – in any medium really. Hell, I have difficulty trying to make anything I write at least worthy of a quiet chuckle. Not only is it a difficult task to nail the correct timing between a joke’s set up and punchline delivery, but you also need to deal with the subjectivity of comedy. Everyone has a style of comedy they enjoy, making it even harder to nail a joke that will widely appeal to various senses of humour. But at least in something like a TV show or a movie, a comedic creator is able to have complete control over every element of the humour. When it comes to video games on the other hand, a comedic creator has to not only deal with these initial problems, but also even more difficult ones introduced by something exclusive to the medium: interactivity.
Honestly, this was something I’d never even considered as an issue until I stumbled across a quote from Chuck Jordan, the lead writer of Sam and Max: Season 2, which explained just some of the issues he faced while trying to deal with an interactive element that he had little to no control over. It’s a fantastic example of just how many things a comedic creator needs to think about while trying to write comedy for a point-and-click adventure game:
“[The player] can hear your punch line before the set-up. He can skip the set-up of a joke altogether. He can hear 10 jokes over the course of a minute, or he can go off and wander around between each one. And the entire time, he’s not just passively waiting to hear the next joke; he’s actively looking for the solution to some problem.”
Because the player is trying to play the game while the jokes are delivered to them, they can misinterpret throwaway gags as puzzle hints which don’t end up working and can frustrate the player to the point of minimizing their play-time with the game – a feeling that no creative team wants their game to give players.
But with that in mind, I started to wonder how we even have comedic games. After all, games like Tellale’s Sam and Max series and Portal 2 not only exist for the purposes of being funny, but they’ve also been praised for just how hilarious they are. So how did these critically acclaimed games manage to pull off comedy in a medium that actively works against traditional joke-making? Well, after the last fortnight of mulling over that question, I’ve found two main methods of how comedy can and has been done in games: using what I’ll call a “Scripted” method and an “Interactive” method.
I think this method is not only the easiest one for creators to work with but also the preferred one. Timing is an integral part of comedy, one that needs to be carefully manipulated to pull off a joke – which becomes a problem when a player has full control over it. If that’s the case, what’s the easiest way to ensure that the player doesn’t mess it up? Take all interactivity away from the player and make them a passive audience to the jokes, instead of an active participant.
The best example of this style of video game comedy is seen in cutscenes or in-game voice lines which, beyond triggering them, the player cannot play a role in controlling anything that happens. This gives full control over every comedic element back to the creators, allowing them to craft jokes and gags without needing to worry about the player interrupting them or screwing them up. Take games like the Ratchet and Clank series which are well known for being chock-full of hilarious moments. Almost all of the jokes in them take place during either cutscenes or in-game conversations. Even Portal 2, while having only a small handful of cutscenes, used heavily scripted comedy by crafting carefully timed voice-overs during gameplay or putting the player in moments where the joke was the only thing they could look at.
But one of the main draws of video games as a medium is their ability to make you an active participant. Watching comedy is all well and good, but if it’s being presented in a way that you can join in, there must be a way to also make the player take part in the comedy.
As it turns out, there actually is. This is done through the game essentially acting as the setup for a joke, but leaves the timing and punchline all under the control of the player. Essentially, game mechanics act as a way for the player to carry out the game’s comedy. Take a fairly recent example of this concept, found in the Dubstep Gun from Saints Row 4, a weapon that the game sets up the joke for by simply offering it to the player and giving the name of it. It’s only when the player chooses to use the gun that the punchline hits – the player now has the ability to use literal wubs as a weapon. And for over the last couple of decades, this has been the primary form of interactive comedy, only to be found in otherwise normal games with comedic elements.
It’s only within the last few years that we’ve seen a new form of this kind of comedy in games, one in which the gameplay serves no intention other than to be purely comedic. Recent games like Goat Simulator or Octodad: Dadliest Catch essentially emulate the unintentional absurdist comedy found in game glitches by creating a world for the player before handing them the tools to turn the game on its head.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch, for example, does this by setting up a world to the player in which they take control of an octopus disguised as a human who goes about his regular life while trying to hide his octopus-ness from everyone. The punchline is that while the game presents you with incredibly mundane tasks like pouring yourself a morning cup of coffee, the controls are so intentionally horrible that the simple act of walking turns into a hilarious slap-stick routine. And this can be taken further in the game’s two-player mode which gives each control of separate limbs, creating a brand new spectacle as the two players try desperately to work together – almost always failing in the process.
But while it’s easy to point to games and explain how they manage to pull off their comedy, it’s important to remember what I said earlier: comedy isn’t easy. It’s not enough to know how to make comedy work in a video game, you also need to know how to craft good comedy in the first place. Which is why for every game with well-crafted comedy like Portal 2, you also see about fifty games like Zenith which rely on almost completely referential humour that tries and fails to be funny for the sake of being funny, rather than entertaining.