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No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games

November 24, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

A wise man once said, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." This vital life lesson can certainly be applied to the medium of video games; in recent years, we've seen quite a few titles miss the mark completely when it comes to making us laugh.

This widespread comedic failure may be the reason why explicitly funny games are so disproportionately unpopular when compared to humor in other forms of entertainment. After all, Hollywood has its multimillion dollar comedy blockbusters (usually starring Will Farrell), while games with the same goals are usually met with an abundance of skepticism and retail apathy.

For every game that gets it right, there's a handful of pretenders that smear a layer of tacky, watered-down humor over tired game mechanics in the hopes that these two bad things will go great together -- like some Bizzaro World version of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

In a desperate search for those responsible, who do we blame -- developers for not getting it right, the audience for not caring, or the medium itself for being unsuited to humor?

Luckily, we do have a few exemplars on both sides of the comedic spectrum to help us measure the success of humor in gaming. Take Psychonauts, for example; Double Fine's last-gen pet project set a new benchmark for funny games, and with good reason.

Instead of existing as a meaningless gimmick, the humor in Psychonauts feels completely organic, being a thorough comedic (and psychological) exploration of several uniquely hilarious personalities. Protagonist Raz doesn't mindlessly spout Gex-caliber one-liners as he travels through weird worlds; Tim Schafer and company expertly crafted Psychonauts' humor to be a holistic part of a fully-realized universe.

The jokes in something like D3's Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, on the other hand, didn't benefit from this same creative insight. It's hard to pin down the definitive unfunny game, but Hazard delivers just about every overused gaming joke under the sun. It's a generic, mediocre action game -- and the humor is intended to save it, repeatedly quipping on the subject of why it sucks. Hazard cracks wise with toothless, inoffensive jokes about tutorials and spawn points, subjects that became old hat for web comics nearly a decade ago.

Even in so-called "controversial" hits, humor exists in a certain "safe zone," disappointing those used to much more subversive and intelligent humor; the thought of a video game with the content of MTV2's subversive and strange Wonder Showzen would be unthinkable -- and even network-backed offensiveness like Family Guy had to make serious comedy concessions for its video game debut. Forget photorealism and perfected motion controls; if there's anything we need to aspire to in video games, it's simply being funnier.

What We've Lost

Al Lowe is no stranger to humor in video games; throughout the 1980s and '90s, he helmed Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry series, a franchise famous for its raunchy humor. His career in the video game industry took place in an era where it seemed like a great many popular games were funny -- at least on the PC side of things, with titles like Space Quest, Lowe's own Larry, and the multitude of LucasArts adventures, like Maniac Mansion.

For Lowe, this period was especially fertile: "I thought we had a handle on [humor] at some point. Back in the late '80s and early '90s with the Space Quest games and Larry and Monkey Island and some of those games... they were quite funny. I thought we were holding our own. But when the adventure game format passed away, and other formats became more popular, humor seemed to be left by the wayside."

Lowe certainly isn't shy about his stance on the current state of humor in games. When asked if he could name any recent notably funny titles he's played, Lowe replied, "No. And I don't mean 'no comment.' I mean no." Of course, you can't blame him for being so negative; after working at one of the most notable PC developers in the history of gaming, seeing the Larry series prostituted for the frat boy set has to dim your view.

But Lowe's stance is about more than seeing his personal creation disfigured by boardroom comedy; for him, the difference between today's funny games and those of the PC adventure boom rests entirely on just how much is at stake with a modern video game release; the development of the first Leisure Suit Larry took two men -- one of them only working part-time -- a total of four months to complete.

But having such a small team allowed Lowe to achieve a unique personal perspective with humor that he believes is essential for comedic success. "When committees work on things they tend to get watered down and unfocused -- particularly with humor," says Lowe. "Somebody, somewhere has to have the authority to say, 'This sucks. This has gotta go.' Humor is editing. When you don't edit, when you just put up anything that anybody on the team thinks is funny, then you get games like the games we've seen lately."

Lowe does have hope for the future, though; he sees small-budget indie games carrying the torch that he and his contemporaries held years ago. "Funny doesn't have to be expensive, and funny doesn't have to be huge. If you do a comedy, people don't expect it to last for hundreds of hours," says Lowe.

The past few years have given us some great examples of games that do just this; Tales of Game's Studios' Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden exists as quite possibly the harshest burn on the entire JRPG genre. And yet it presents itself completely sincerely, not making a point to identify the horrid tropes (neologisms, pretention, and excessive brooding) it's lampooning.

Of course, a game with such a dry, subversive approach to a topic of limited interest is only financially possible today with an old-school Sierra-sized team. "When you're talking about millions of dollars," says Lowe, "It's really tough to say, 'Sure, go ahead. Do whatever you want to. Whatever you think is funny.' [Money] makes a big difference."


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Comments


Martin Hollis
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People say Games hasn't had its Citizen Kane moment yet. Well forget Citizen Kane.



Games hasn't even had its Charlie Chaplin moment yet.



I'm looking forward to it.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

jaime kuroiwa
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Shhhh! Ix-nay on the Ane-Kay, Martin! That phrase generates way too much unnecessary discussion.



I think the solution is pretty simple: Show, don't tell.



Portal's Companion Cube is an excellent example of sdt in a contemporary (i.e. non-Adventure) game. Whose idea was it to put a little heart on that cube? That one detail alone made it much more iconic than the cake. People (used to) chuckle at the phrase, "the cake is a lie," but if you show them the image of the companion cube, you'll get a whole range of emotions. Powerful stuff!



For me, the funniest parts are found when you're not expecting it. I tend to avoid games that are "designed" to be funny, since there's no mystery where the humor will come from. If I see cover art with a cartoonish character mugging at me, I already know where it's heading, and I'll most likely pass it by.



Do you know what's the best innovation for humor in games?



Two words; Rag...Doll.

Jake Romigh
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A quick recommendation for a recent well-crafted funny game would be the two-pack (available on Steam) of 'Ben There, Dan That!' and 'Time Gentlemen, Please!'. It's an Adventure Game Studio made.... game... which is genuinely both funny and fun to play. It's made by a small indie developer, of course.



Perhaps we should be looking to the smaller studios for humor; they have the ability to be risky in both gameplay and content, both of which are key criteria for a quality comedic game.

Mike Lopez
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@ Jaime K. I completely agree. Random, unexpected, laugh-out-loud comedy is excellent and one thing that rag doll physics create at enjoyable intervals. That pretty much can be extended to other types of physics interactions (props, objects, vehicles) and teams should continue to find more ways to leverage those moments (like the driver ejections seen in some open world games).

Keith Nemitz
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Hey, if writing comedy is hard, satire comes from sea urchin needles sticking up from every key on the keyboard. Try 'Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!'. Another indie game that, while not comedy, is deeply humorous.

Kevin Reese
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Hmm ...I think something that might be worth thinking about on this topic is that humor in games might be very hard to do successfully because in many comedy games, the humor is overlain on-top of a design for another type of game.



Like for example, the game designers design the game, then sort of leave all the actual 'humor making' to the writers. Instead of conversely , trying to design gameplay mechanics that inherently funny. Like uh, I mean, the humor is sort of put on as a last layer thing, not from the get-go, in some situations. OR it is not cohesively saturated throughout the game.



Humor should be a game mechanic! More often, there is an over-reliance on just written jokes and sight-gags and what-not.



I imagine Office Yeti is going to be really funny yet there is nary a writer to be seen.



Hey anyone play Starship Titanic...?

jaime kuroiwa
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@Mike

Have you played Sumotori Dreams? That's an incredible use of ragdolls for comedic effect.(http://db.tigsource.com/developers/peter-sotesz)



@Kevin

Yep! I still have my 3D glasses stored away somewhere!

Jim McGinley
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Coincidentally, today I released "Restraining Order"

http://www.bigpants.ca/restrainingorder

a black comedy action game.



In order to make the comedy better,

I had to make the gameplay worse.

That's something I hadn't expected.



It was the right decision, but a hard decision.

Can only imagine the fights this would have caused on a team.

Tim Williams
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I agree. While I was at Planet Moon I designed and wrote some games that were funny (I hope), and it was a big help to not just be the writer on them. I was always thinking of design and character/story/humor at the same time. Therefore, when dealing with writers, I think it's important to include them at the very start, and create a synergy that will give the game a greater depth.

Maurice Thompson
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i agree with you whole heartedly kevin.

Larry Ravenwood
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I'm trying to make a comedic zombie game sort of based on zombieland. I downloaded a tutorial from http://www.juniorgamemaker.com. That should get me started.

Andrew Goulding
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In my latest game - Jolly Rover, the humour was the most important thing for me to attempt to get right. Some of my favourite comments about Jolly Rover are:

"... there is one other major similarity it does share with the Monkey Island series: it's very, very funny." – Explicit Gamer (8.1/10)



"Jolly Rover is a charming and highly amusing romp that's pretty much a must for any self-respecting adventure gaming fan." – PALGN (8/10)



"... solid gameplay, hilarious writing, and gorgeous visuals". – Gamezebo (4.5/5)



I send a free copy of Jolly Rover to Al, but he didn't play it because he didn't want to install Steam. I'm not sure how many games he plays these days... So I sent him a link do the demo and hopefully he'll give that a shot.



Oh, if you want to check it out, it's here: http://www.brawsome.com.au/JollyRover/. Maybe funny games are coming out, but people just don't know about them. The indie developers that have the capacity to make the funny games don't have stellar marketing budgets after all.


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