No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games
November 24, 2009 Page 1 of 3
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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