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Funny Games: A Definition for and Study of Comic Videogames
Long Island University Post
720 Northern Blvd
Brookville, NY 11548
In this paper, I define the genre of Comic Games and discuss its categorical independence of other genres. Comic Games are those whose primary and prolonged purpose are to evoke laughter from the user. This is different than humorous games that passively include humor. A Comic Game is one that is predominantly defined as being humorous, not as belonging to another genre and containing humor. The Comic Game’s intent is not to innovate within its sub-genre(s) but to use generally accepted standards as a vehicle to carry its comedy. If a Comic Game innovates at all within its sub-genre, the innovations seek to provoke laughter and further the comic nature of the work as a whole. Since gaming is an interactive medium, there are many ways that a game can achieve the Comic genre status. Parody is a type of Comic Game that mocks pre-existing culture. Surrealistically Comic Games primarily deliver laughs through their visual stylings, often making use of surrealistic situations and imagery. Interactively Comic Games invoke hilarity through user inputs and/or in-game tasks. My definition of Comic Games is focused on a deliberate authorial intent rather than a subjective sense of what is or is not funny.
comedy, humor, video games, surrealism, genre
I don’t intend to bore the reader with definitions of ‘comedy’ and discussions of its origins. The truth is that comedy has likely been a part of culture since before the Greeks gave it a name. It is similar to but separate from play, which has preceded culture and humans. In Homo Ludens, cultural historian Johan Huizinga posits that comedy “provokes to laughter,” and that “in itself play is not comical either for the player or the public” (6). Since Huizinga’s landmark study on play in the 1930’s and 40’s, comedy and play have been married and presented through several digital examples. Humor has long been a staple of video games, a medium that often doesn’t take itself too seriously. Early text adventure games like Zork (Infocom, 1977) used a sarcastic tone in responding to player actions. Zork can scarcely be called a Comic Game, though, since its primary motives are to make the player think, experiment, and explore a virtual world. A Comic Game is one whose primary intent is to provoke laughter. This can be achieved through a game’s overall parodic tone, its surreal graphical style, its player interactions, or a combination of these elements.
As a subset of comedy, parody seeks to mock artistic normalities without necessarily vilifying them. Take, for example, Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), which spoofs nearly every trope within the Western film genre. Blazing Saddles can also be considered a satire due to its commentary on racism. Parodic Games may target works inside or outside of the video games medium, but rarely attempt to elevate or innovate. Like works of parody in other media, Parodic Games often wear the very garments they seek to ridicule.
Cultural Parody in Games
Popular culture has long been a target of video games. One of the most apparent examples of this relationship is the You Don’t Know Jack series of trivia games (Jackbox Games, 1995). The game’s title itself is a slightly shortened version of a popular phrase that declares a person’s utter ignorance. Similar to Jeopardy! and other trivia games, You Don’t Know Jack uses contextual clues within its questions to hint at answers. Where it separates itself from being simply a trivia game is in its writing and its host, Cookie Masterson. After every question, Masterson derides the subject(s) of the question, the player, or both. This isn’t a game where only the winner is rewarded, but rather a comic outpouring enjoyable by all in attendance (players and lookers-on). Its focus is not to make players smarter but to make them laugh.
Another example of culture being put under the microscope in video games is ToeJam & Earl (Johnson Voorsanger Productions, 1991). The game’s title characters are alien rappers who have crash-landed on Earth. Though the object of the game is to find ship parts in order to escape, the main attraction here is the interpretation of our planet as seen through the eyes of other-worldly beings. First off, the main characters themselves clearly parody the overwhelming cultural influence of 1990s hip-hop music. (ToeJam and Earl bear a striking resemblance to contemporary rappers Flavor Flav and Chuck D of Public Enemy.) The duo successfully “poke fun at the whole over-the-top appropriation of urban culture” (Fahs 1), holding a mirror up to what was happening in the world at the time. What’s more, nearly all of the inhabitants that ToeJam and Earl encounter on Earth are hostile, or at the very least annoying. A human pushing a grocery cart with screaming child in tow, packs of angry nerds, and closely creeping rosebushes are a few examples of what our planet has to offer to visitors. The entire game makes light of our planet, our people, and our culture.
Figure 1: ToeJam & Earl parodies 1990s culture with panache.
Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms, 1996) is an interesting case in that it parodies pop culture and games almost equally. Its cover art apes that of an earlier popular First-Person Shooter (FPS) game, Doom (id Software, 1993), which in turn was clearly inspired by the promotional poster for Army of Darkness (Raimi, 1992). The rabbit hole goes deeper when you consider the fact that Army of Darkness itself is a parody of Horror films. The few innovations within Duke Nukem 3D expressly exist to carry its comedic message. For one, the player’s character has a full script of catchphrases that are almost entirely derived from popular action movies at the time. At the time (and since, really), it was uncommon for the main character in an FPS to talk at all. This innovation is proof that the game’s major intent is to be comic. Its other innovation lies in the fact that the player can interact with many environmental objects. One such interaction is to throw money at non-playable strippers. I am uncertain whether this (or many of the other interactions) perpetuates or parodies misogynist behavior in popular culture.
Figure 2: A parody within a parody.
Games Parodying Games
Games stay within their own medium as much as, if not more than, looking without it for comic inspiration. An early example of this is the Leisure Suit Larry series of point-and-click adventure games (Lowe, 1987). 3D Animated Adventure games grew out of Interactive Fiction (IF) games such as the aforementioned Zork. Just like IF games, the Adventure genre involves exploring and puzzle solving. In Adventure games, though, there are graphics for the user to behold. Instead of typing “Get lamp”, the user might simply click on a lamp to send a character to retrieve it. Leisure Suit Larry parodies this genre that King’s Quest (Sierra On-Line, 1983) pioneered only a few years earlier. The comic nature of the game is inherent in its subject matter - a 40-year-old balding, paunchy, sleezeball trying to pick up women in the fictional city of Lost Wages - as well as in its in-game interactions and supremely sarcastic narrator. As an example, an early portion of the game presents the option to flush a restroom toilet. After clicking the toilet lever, the narrator proclaims, “Don’t do it, Larry! Too late. The toilet begins to fill… As the water reaches your head, your life flushes before your eyes… Turns out a flush beats everything.” There is no real repercussion to reaching an end state in the game, which motivates the player to seek out humorous situations. The true objective in this game is to laugh; all others serve as a means to that end.
By the early 90s, technical capabilities allowed for Adventure games to grow to new heights. Enter Myst (Cyan, 1993), a 3D First-Person Adventure game set on a mysterious island. Myst’s unprecedented success attracted the attention of comedian and writer Peter Bergman. With the help of publisher Parroty Interactive (whose logo is a parrot with a Groucho Marx moustache and cigar) Pyst (Bergman, 1996) became a reality. Rather than targeting the genre as a whole, Pyst is a direct parody of Myst. The games apparently take place within the same world, on the same island. Comic actor John Goodman plays King Mattress, who early on in the game proclaims, “All the world’s a game and you are a pest.” Everything in Pyst is meant to provoke laughter. Dialogue is cheeky, clicking a flying bird plays a pooping animation and noise, and even the help button displays decidedly unhelpful computer/programming error messages. If Pyst can be called a game at all (there are very few interactive actions the player can take), then it must be categorized as being Comic.
In the mid-90s, 3D Platformers were all the rage due to the success of games like Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996) and Banjo-Kazooie (Rare, 1998). Developer Rare took a shot at parodying the hitherto colorful, family friendly genre by releasing Conker’s Bad Fur Day in 2001. The game’s titular hero, Conker, is as soft and cuddly as other games in the genre. The open worlds burst with color. Conker’s Bad Fur Day, however, is rated Mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board for “Animated Violence, Mature Sexual Themes, Strong Language” (ESRB). The game begins with a cinematic that mimics the opening to A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent societal satire film. By beginning the game thus, Rare juxtaposes Conker with Alex, the film’s protagonist, a “sociopathic delinquent whose interests include classical music... and rape” (“A Clockwork Orange”). Rare have signaled early that their cuddly hero will be a pie in the face of former 3D Platformer characters. Conker’s only innovations, which include excessive alcohol abuse and tortured critters, serve to solidify it as a Comic Game.
A more recent crop of Parodic Comic Games has grown out of an otherwise serious genre known as Simulation games. Simulation games attempt to realistically replicate real-life experiences. These experiences can range from playing soccer in the FIFA series (Extended Play Productions, 1993) to piloting an airplane in the Microsoft Flight Simulator (Aces Studio, 1982) series. In 2013, developer Bossa Studios released Surgeon Simulator, a game that sounds both serious and educational but in reality is neither. The player manipulates a surgeon’s hands in three dimensions with only minor control of fine motor skills. This control scheme makes simple tasks - picking up a scalpel, for instance - very difficult, and difficult tasks - performing a double eye transplant, say - uproariously impossible. Surgeon Simulator is comic on many levels, but it is preeminently funny because it claims to be a simulation game. This is what being a surgeon looks and feels like, apparently, a falsification so ludicrous that the only sensible reaction is laughter.
Figure 3: Rare mocks the 3D Platforming genre it helped to define.
Also notable in the Parody sub-genre of Comic Games are:
● ClayFighter (Visual Concepts, 1993), a violence-light clamation fighting game whose producer claimed “we wanted to add something new to the genre and make it funny” (Husko).
● Boogerman: A Pick and Flick Adventure (Interplay, 1994), a 2D platforming game featuring a superhero who uses burping, farting, and booger-flicking to fight evildoers.
● Serious Sam (Croteam, 2001), a first-person shooter whose name ironically hints at its true intent.
● Saints Row (Volition, 2006), which drove open-world action games to uncharted, facetious new heights.
● Divekick (Iron Galaxy Studios, 2013), a teasing study of nearly every trope in the fighting games genre.
● Goat Simulator (Coffee Stain Studios, 2014), an open-world arcade game wherein the player controls a goat.
● Catlateral Damage (Chung, 2015), a first-person cat simulator where the objective is to trash rooms by swiping at items.
● Soda Drinker Pro (Snowrunner Games, 2015), a directionless soda drinking simulation with only two user inputs: move, and drink.
● Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015: Do You Still Shower With Your Dad? (marbenx, 2015), where the player can rack up “Dadstreak” points by showering with the correct male guardian.
SURREALLY FUNNY GAMES
Surrealism is a slippery subject; one that avoids formal definition or categorization. In his “Manifesto of Surrealism”, French poet André Breton2 classified the countless varieties of Surrealist images as having a common virtue:
For me, their greatest virtue… is the one that is arbitrary to the highest degree, the one that takes the longest time to translate into practical language, either because it contains an immense amount of seeming contradiction or because one of its terms is strangely concealed; or because, presenting itself as something sensational, it seems to end weakly… or because it derives from itself a ridiculous formal justification, or because it is of a hallucinatory kind, or because it very naturally gives to the abstract the mask of the concrete, or the opposite, or because it implies the negation of some elementary physical property, or because it provokes laughter.
The stream-of-conscious lead up to surrealistic images provoking laughter is comic in it of itself. It is worth noting that like play, surrealism is not always interrelated with comedy. Back to Bed (Bedtime Digital Games, 2014), a puzzle game that relies heavily on surrealist imagery, can hardly be categorized as being Comic. Surrealistically Comic Games predominantly provoke laughter by using their overall absurdity and illogical imagery as slow-burning punchlines.
Of a Hallucinatory Kind
Self-proclaimed “internet gang” Arcane Kids bears special mention in this offshoot of Comic Games. In their own manifesto, the group claims that “the fastest way to the truth is a joke” (Arcane Kids)1. One of their first major releases, Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective (2013), is less a riff on the ill-fated 1996 PlayStation game with the same surtitle and more a farciful psychedelic experience. Bubsy 3D is a Comic work through and through. In the game, gigantic frogs urge the player to visit an art museum in the distance. The environments purposefully buck current conventions in favor of looking like primitive 3D platformers of the mid-1990s. There are arbitrarily collectible objects within the gameworld such as rainbow-colored balls of yarn that bounce outside of their typical on-screen position and obscure the player’s view. Bubsy 3D claims to be an educational exploration of the player’s relationship with art, a ridiculous formal justification of an abstract joke.
An example of a Surrealistically Comic Game that follows more traditional game conventions is JazzPunk (Necrophone Games, 2014). Nearly every possible interaction that the player can encounter is a gag. Take, for example, a pizza box in an alleyway that transports the player into a cheese, pepperoni, and zombie infested horror scene. Another point in the game has the player wielding a fly swatter. When slapped, otherwise featureless pedestrians grow wings and fly off of the screen. These surreal interactions are deliberately placed by the designers in order to be discovered by the player, making JazzPunk a stellar example of authorial intent within a game making context. The game’s narrative is a thinly veiled shot at spy story conventions, stringing the player along numerous missions that are initiated by ingesting psychotic pills3. As a game in any other genre, JazzPunk would be deemed too easy, too short, and too limiting. As a Surrealistically Comic Game, its irreverence shines.
Figure 4: Surreal imagery provoking laughter.
Other games that hinge on surrealism for laughs:
● Earthworm Jim (Shiny Entertainment, 1994), a bizarre platforming game featuring a worm in a super suit fighting an evil crow, all to the slapstick sounds of head bonks and banana slips.
● Noby Noby Boy (Namco Bandai, 2009), a game in which you control two sides of a wormlike creature that can eat and defecate people, places, and things.
● Sonic Dreams (2015), a fictional unearthing of lewd games starring characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog series of games (Sega, 1991).
● Room of a Thousand Snakes (2013), a faux treasure hunting game with a startlingly out of context musical twist and a dramatically futile control scheme.
The final form of Comic Game I would like to propose in this piece is one that is exclusive to video games. Interactively Comic Games derive humor from player input; the way a player interacts with the game controller/controls. Though video games are a relatively new medium, there are established preconceptions that players carry with them when picking up a controller for the first time. Designers often rely on these preconceptions in order to make their games intuitive; readily playable. In some cases, shattering these preconceptions leads to positively hilarious experiences
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up
The earliest example of a game that deliberately bungles its controls in order to provoke laughter is QWOP (Foddy, 2008). The game’s title is also its controls. The player controls an Olympic runner, Qwop, by manipulating his thighs (pressing Q and W) and his calves (O and P). Ironically, boiling down the complex idea of a runner’s movement to just four different button presses is actually way more input than is typically required of the player. In most games, making a character run takes only one input. The result of quadrupling this preconceived simple action is fast and funny failure. In response to the player’s button presses, Qwop tumbles over himself forwards and backwards, legs and arms exaggeratedly splayed. There is a dedicated community of players who have mastered this control scheme and who can run the entire distance of the game, but the overwhelming majority of players experience delight in their utter incapability to progress. Overwhelming, bizarre controls (coupled with goofy visuals) are what makes QWOP a Comic Game.
One of the funnier control schemes for Octodad: Dadliest Catch (Young Horses, 2014) requires the use of PlayStation Move controllers. The wiimote-like, capsule-shaped peripheral has a sphere at the end of it that lights up in order for movement to be tracked by a PlayStation Eye camera. As the game’s title suggests, the player controls an octopus who is also a father. The narrative punchline that quickly dawns on the player is that said octopus is disguising himself as being a human being. His wife and children are humans. His neighbors are humans. No character besides for a deranged chef seems to notice that Octodad is an octopus, and it’s up to the player to keep up that ruse. Unlike other games that focus on enemy avoidance and stealth, Octodad’s main obstacle is its controls. Octodad is in constant ‘ragdoll’ motion, proof positive of his invertebrate status. The game’s controls make an action such as grabbing a key and unlocking a door wackily difficult. If playing with Move controllers, the player is forced to flail their arms about along with the character on screen, which makes the typically stationary act of playing more of a grand comedic performance. Even without Move controllers, the game’s controls are at the core of what makes it ring true as a slapstick masterwork.
More Interactively Comic Games include:
● Super Pole Riders (Foddy, 2014), a pole vaulting sports game wherein players use tall, wobbly shafts to fling themselves into a ball on a string.
● Starwhal (Breakfall, 2014), a competitive game with flying, flailing gnarwhals aiming to pierce each other’s heart.
● I Am Bread (Bossa Studios, 2015), where you control a piece of bread on a quest to become toast.
Figure 5: QWOP and Octodad: Dadliest Catch both feature wacky control schemes.
Comedy has been a staple genre in all media, but has not yet been clearly defined in video games. I offer a definition of Comic Games as being those games whose primary and prolonged purpose are to evoke laughter from the user. There are many ways that a game can achieve this classification. Parodic Comic Games poke fun at culture within and without the video games medium. Surrealistically Comic Games feature illogical, hallucinatory, and/or abstract imagery as laughing points. Interactively Comic Games drive players to laughter by implementing difficult, unintuitive, or altogether silly control schemes. These sub-genres of Comic Games are neither all-encompassing nor set in stone. In many cases, the proposed examples cook up humor with a recipe comprising multiple comic ingredients. Ultimately, I hope to establish the Comic Games genre as relying less on subjective tastes and more on objective, observable attributes. At the very least, I hope to spur serious conversation about Comedy in video games.
1 This is actually the second bullet point of their manifesto. The first is “shut up about video games.”
2 In this author’s opinion, André Breton would have loved video games.
3 JazzPunk’s missions are quite literally of a hallucinatory kind.
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