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No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games
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No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games

November 24, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Working With Limitations

Like Lowe, Telltale Games' Chuck Jordan also has an impressive amount of experience in the field of funny adventure games, though Jordan's work is limited to the later days of the genre and its recent episodic renaissance.

As the lead writer on Sam and Max: Season Two, Jordan can speak to the difficulties of making games funny. He identifies the sheer amount of writing for a single episode of the game (which lasts three to five hours), as well as the lack of a defined act structure for the medium as two major hurdles for comedy in video games, but the challenges of pacing -- a very important aspect of humor -- also prove difficult to overcome.

On the subject, Jordan states, "There's been a lot of discussion recently about how to apply traditional narratives to an interactive medium. With comedy, you can take all of those concerns and multiply them by 10."

In a more passive form of entertainment, like a novel or a movie, the artist has complete control over every element of the humor; with games, interactivity poses new problems for the comedy writer.

"[The player] can hear your punch line before the set-up. He can skip the set-up of a joke altogether," Jordan says. "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."

Problems can also arise when players interpret irrelevant gags as puzzle-solving hints; this was especially an issue on Sam and Max, a series known best for its non-sequitur humor.

According to Jordan, one of the biggest obstacles with designing Sam and Max was entertaining players without misleading them: "It's in Sam and Max's character to suggest the most ridiculous and/or violent solution to a problem, so we'll have cases where Max says he needs an iron maiden or a sample of the ebola virus. And in every playtest, there's at least one player who gets frustrated trying to find an iron maiden or a sample of the ebola virus. It's perfectly natural for the player -- he's looking for answers, after all -- and the real solutions are sometimes just as weird as the throwaway gags."

Sam and Max: Season One

Despite these issues, Telltale has definitely made some progress in mastering the art of humor in gaming; those skeptical over early efforts like the now-abandoned Bone adaptation were quickly won over by 2006's Sam and Max: Season One, and this year's unexpected Telltale takeover of the Monkey Island series.

But even with such an established comedic history under his belt, Jordan still feels that humor in games can be improved, mostly in the area of dialogue writing. "There's still this idea of 'good enough for video games' that we all just kind of accept, and it usually comes across sounding stilted and overly expository, instead of sounding like the way real people talk," he says.

For Jordan, comedy shouldn't have to be entirely resigned to dialogue and writing; the designer cites Valve's Team Fortress 2 as a comedy game that was never marketed as such. Like Schafer's Psychonauts, Valve invested a great deal of care into the creation of Team Fortress 2's world; but unlike the former, TF2's humor is rarely sold through dialogue alone.

While the characters do have spout out some short utterances for the sake of teamwork (or trash-talking), most of the non-interactive absorption of comedy -- watching funny dialogue and animation -- is limited to out-of-game content, like the comedy shorts featuring the iconic TF2 characters. The humor inherent in playing Team Fortress 2 comes from inhabiting one of these uniquely funny characters, and, well, blowing the rest of them up.

And Jordan's comments about the unified comedic vision of Team Fortress 2 mesh with Lowe's opinion on how such a mentality is necessary for humor to work in gaming. "It feels like everyone on the team is in on the joke, from the character designers to the level designers to the voice actors to the marketing team," says Jordan.

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