Tom Abernathy's a funny guy. So when he got a contract job on a game project featuring a grim alien invader who can read minds, to write the thoughts of 1950s-era Americans for an E3 demo, humor came easy.
"How can you not be funny - how can you not go to twisted places with that? And so that's what I did," he said to an audience Thursday at a Game Writers Conference panel during the Austin Game Conference.
The game, Destroy All Humans!, was never originally intended by Pandemic to contain multiple layers of comedy, Abernathy said, but that's what happened, organically. Being the pissed-off alien and blowing things up goes right along with terse conversations with farm animals, pop-culture references and lots of, well, anal probing. It's an alien thing.
Matt Soell is also a funny guy, and was also on the panel. He used to work for Bungie, makers of Halo, and now is at Wideload Games, which states as part of its purpose to make games that are funny. Games like Stubbs the Zombie (Soell pointed out that the full title includes the words "Rebel Without a Pulse") that were meant from the beginning to be funny, albeit the dark kind. He recalled pitch sessions to publishers, one of which ended with a representative asking if the game could be about humans hunting zombies, rather than being about one zombie hilariously stalking humans and eating their brains.
"I think if we'd done a Resident Evil clone, they wouldn't have said anything," Soell said, adding that a company founded by ex-Bungie developers might have been assumed to be working on a new Halo, just with a different skin.
The panel was supposed to have a few more jokesters, notably Al Lowe, creator of the Leisure Suit Larry series and recently founder of iBase Entertainment, and Erik Wolpaw, who worked on Psychonauts and is now at Valve Software, and was once more known as one half of the game satire Web site Old Man Murray. Both were no-shows, and moderator Richard "Reese" Bryant, recently of Microsoft Game Studios and once of the writing team for the ABC sitcom "Spin City," kept the panel talking.
Comedy has evolved much in the past 15 years, Abernathy said, but the panelists early on declared that comedy, like story, will always be secondary to gameplay unless a truly novel way to make humor into a core mechanic could be devised - Abernathy suspects it might come from Japan if it ever comes. That means there probably won't ever be a "Comedy" section for games on the shelf at Best Buy - like there is for movies - though Bryant suggested there might be a few customers who want to purchase games that way.
Mainstream games might include too many serious-themed games, Soell suggested, probably owing to the first-person shooter genre where the hero character is a grim, gun-toting killer. But even Doom had the "BFG," Abernathy said, which was funny if you knew what the initials stood for, and the brooding Max Payne had joke moments. Comedy can be the glue to hold stories together, or as Soell put it, provide moments of levity so the player doesn't become exhausted.
Comedy is yet another thing for game marketing departments to get wrong, Abernathy said. Pushing a game as "funny" seems to make sense more often for children ages 8 to 13, he agreed, but an older, educated demographic of players - some of whom might not play games regularly - might appreciate the humor. Word of mouth about Destroy All Humans! humor among older gamers helped drive sales after the initial release, he said, and Pandemic is about to release a sequel.
Localization is also a challenge for comedy. Not every country in the world would appreciate jokes told from an American perspective, Abernathy said, case in point developers from Pandemic's Australian office, who did most of the work on DAH! 2. A joke about the alien's flying saucer engine - "It's a Hemi" - went right over their heads, Abernathy said.
Timing is also key for any humorist, and funny character dialogue that might work fine in the pace of a TV show can get gummed up with the pace of a game. The more freedom players are allowed, Abernathy said, the more jokes that depend on observations and placement of characters fall flat and need to be changed or avoided.
There's a danger to comedy, Bryant said, at least in the old risk of having too much of a good thing. He recalled running people over in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and listening to the chatter of paramedics as they hurried to collect the injured. As he was about to drive off in the notoriously wanton and violent game, he heard one of the medics utter, "... OK, I've got a wallet here, some keys ..." In the context of the game, Bryant said, it was a humorous moment that helped define the world, but he wondered if there was a risk of pushing it too far.
Soell admitted not all games have to be comedic, but his current employer goes by the SubGenius mantra of "too much is always better than not enough." "We will happily go down that slippery slope," he said. "We'll put on skis."