6 tips for writing video game dialogue that's actually funny
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 jokesThis 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 charactersSince 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 countNever 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 funnyI'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 testFinally, 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 punsIf 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.