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6 tips for writing video game dialogue that's actually funny
6 tips for writing video game dialogue that's actually funny Exclusive
August 21, 2012 | By Ian Adams

Want to write a great video game script that's actually funny? Z2Live content designer Ian Adams (Battle Nations, Trade Nations) has tips on writing genuinely funny dialogue for games, and common pitfalls to avoid.

Writing for video games is a lot like writing for pornography. Even fans of the medium are likely to skip past it as fast as they can to get to the action.

That might help explain why the writing in games is so consistently mediocre. In fact, even when the story is good, the dialogue tends to lag behind.

The constraints of forthcoming translation, the desire to keep things short, bad voice acting, the desire to give agency back to the player, all of these lead to a world where the most basic rules of storytelling are dropped in favor of characters just saying exposition.

We're not going to fix that in one article. What we can do, is try to make all that clunky dialogue a little more pleasant to read.

1. Don't just write a bunch of jokes

This comes first because it seems to take the longest to get this through to people. When an actor or comedian delivers a joke, it's funny because of tone, cadence, pacing, context, charisma, and more.

Unless you're writing for a seriously talented voice actor who gets the sense of humor you're working with, dialogue consisting of a bunch of jokes just won't land. Your dialogue will wind up feeling corny and awkward.

If these lines are something you're planning to have repeated over and over, this goes double. Players get tired of any line they hear more than three times an hour. A joke that elicited a small smile the first time will be groan-worthy and painful two hours in.

While having sarcastic or quippy characters is fine, don't write every single character as a one-liner slinging machine. It destroys any attempt to create unique voices, and weakens the player's ability to care about the cast.

2. Know your characters

Since you're not going to write a bunch of one-liners and zingers, this is where you'll find comedy. Know who your characters are, know what they want, what they like, dislike, and fear. Know what makes them comfortable, where they want to be, then put them somewhere else. Challenge their assumptions. Tease them with their greatest desires.

Don't take my word for it, this is the formula of, you know, every successful sitcom since I Love Lucy. Knowing who your characters are, and writing them so that the player knows who they are, then putting those personalities through the paces, and watching as they strain to stabilize things and get back in control is the foundation of storytelling, let alone humor.

Only by first creating characters that feel real and honest can you tweak, bend, or upend their reactions to comedic effect. Create a funny situation, and the jokes will just show up for free.

3. Keep it brief, make it count

Never say with six lines of dialogue what you can say in two. Cut ruthlessly. If a line isn't giving meaningful exposition, motivation, or characterization, cut it. Even if it IS, try to find a way to combine it with an existing line.

Is your favorite joke distracting the player and ruining the pacing? Cut it. Always remember the player is here to play the game, and unless you're contributing to that experience, you're wasting their time.

4. Don't be afraid to not be funny

I've already asserted that the key to funny dialogue is characters that players can believe and get invested in. That means when something serious happens in the plot, it's your responsibility to make sure that you respect that investment. Don't feel like every exchange needs a laugh, and if the story is taking you somewhere sombre and serious, don't shy away from it.

That's not to say there's no room for comedy during bleak or dark events. Often, gallows humor helps establish a tone of bleakness and despair better than any melodramatic speech. Just know that if you've done a good job, players will trust you to take them through something heavier, even in a game with a generally upbeat tone.

5. Use the Human Being test

Finally, always ask yourself, "Are these words an actual human being might say?" Many games, often in an attempt to evoke some fantastic setting, use archaic or artificial sounding language. That can be great if you're going for a consistently serious tone, but if you're trying to get people to laugh, do your best to use the vernacular.

It's not just that people are more comfortable laughing at something that feels at least a little familiar. It's also a matter of getting out of your own way, and letting the moment and the emotions feel real, and connect. You know the phrase "you had to be there"? Let the player be there.

To be clear, while the vocabulary should be similar to that of everyday use, phrasing is another thing altogether. Allowing a character to phrase something in an unusual but internally consistent way is a valuable tool for surprising the player and reinforcing that character's unique personality and point of view.

I know this was supposed to be five tips, but I have one more thing that needs to be said.

6. Lay off the damn puns

If you want to hide puns, in jokes and references in meta-gameplay text, like mission titles, object descriptions, out of character event synopsis and the like, feel free. They can be charming and give the player a sense of shared experience and inclusion, which is a good place to be if you want someone laughing.

But please, if you take any piece of advice from this, please lay off the puns in dialogue. Even when they're funny to someone outside the development team (which is the extreme minority of the time), they create a level of distance and detachment that works to do the exact opposite of everything else that makes a good, worthwhile story.

Nothing makes a world feel artificial and false like a character who won't stop punning.

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Nathan Champion
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It probably wouldn't hurt to take it easy on internet memes, either. This might be a subset of Rule 5, though.

Andrew Wallace
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1 Step for Making Your Game Feel Outdated and Irrelevant in 6 Months:

1: Put in memes.

Jordan Carroll
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I heartily disapprove of point #6.

Ian Uniacke
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I also disagree. I don't think it's rare to like puns at all...animation companies like Pixar and Dreamworks have made billions from it. It's just that most people who make puns make terrible puns. (Pardon the pun).

Cary Chichester
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Indeed, sometimes puns can actually be beary funny
-Persona 4's Teddie

K Gadd
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P4 is kind of a bad example since Teddie doesn't lay the puns on thick in the original Japanese version - IIRC he just has an affectation that wasn't easy to translate so they made him make bear puns instead.

Ian Adams
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I wouldn't presume to ban puns entirely, but a side effect of game development tends to be sleep deprived, punchy game developers. Bad puns can seem pretty funny right then. Generally, they're not.

Now, if one of your characters is a cornball Fun Dad type, go all out. These are tips, after all, not laws.

Kevin Fisk
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I thought Kid Icarus broke so many rules but still managed to be some of the most entertaining dialogue I've gone through. It could've been so bad but I think the VA job was just so great that they pulled it off.

Phoenix Wright 1 was pretty damn funny too I thought. The others were good but PW1 in particular was outstanding.

Ian Uniacke
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Yeah K.I was incredible for its humor. :)

Paul Laroquod
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"Use the Human Being test"

It is sad and yet entirely believable, judging from experience, that a game writer would have to be told this.

Wagner James Au
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I'd say the Portal games are a great counter-example to the "keep it brief" rule.

Ian Adams
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If you don't think they cut ruthlessly, I'd recommend reading about their writing process. Portal is an incredible example of the economy I mentioned. Play again, noticing how often nothing is being said, and how much impact it has when dialog is spoken. Another old saw version of the rule is "As few words as possible, but no fewer."

Joshua Darlington
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Since most of this post seems to be basic screenwriting advice, I will add the reminder that everything should be based on conflict. So sidekicks can be very useful. Think of all the famous comedy teams.

I would also question the assumption that game writing and game dialogue writing is mediocre. Game writing, feature film writing, TV writing, radio play writing, play writing, opera writing, short story writing, pulp novel writing, picaresque writing and epic poetry writing are all going to have their own balances. Similarities between forms can be distracting and lead to unfair crit. Stand up comedians and improv comedians are not going to have the same balance. That doesn't mean anyone sux.