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Speaking at the Game Developers Conference yesterday afternoon, developer behind The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game Grace Bruxner shared her process for writing jokes and subverting the film noir genre to create humor.
Bruxner's biggest goal when developing the game was to make players laugh. Considering The Haunted Island's low budget, short development, and self-marketing strategy, she did pretty well.
One of the factors behind The Haunted Island's success was attributed to subverting the film noir genre it was inspired by.
"Think about most genres that are used in games," Bruxner began. "With the right amount of effort and work into subverting it, you can create something new and amazing.”
Referencing noir tropes, Bruxner explained that she wasn’t seeing the genre subverted in a way that hadn't been seen before. “Find a genre that fits your setting, but not your tone.”
"It's best to start at the genre you’re looking at and get a feel for it so you know what you’re working with," she continued. She referenced L.A. Noire as a starting point for thinking of how to interject humor into her own game.
When doing genre-specific research, developers need to find what features makes up that genre and then pick what works for them. “Choose which elements you will use," she said.
“I chose the music, story structure, camera angles, and episodic structure of the noir genre for The Haunted Island.”
Bruxner went on to advise that players need to recognize what the genre is when they’re playing it. Developers should "decide which parts of the genre [they] don’t like," and subvert them, but must still maintain explicit in what's being advertised.
For The Haunted Island, Bruxner cited her pet peeve in the film noir genre as the driving force behind the game's feel. She found that oftentimes, detectives in film didn't "care about their jobs but [were] amazing at solving cases.”
So the protagonist of The Haunted Island was the opposite. He was friendly to everyone, apologetic, a little aloof. He was a more pleasant character with an added flair of silliness. Quite the opposite of how one would imagine a detective.
“I also made it so that nothing dramatic ever happens in the game," Bruxner added. "There’s no murder or grand conspiracies (yet.) I want the story to have an air of mystery without anything sinister happening.”
But developers should be cautious when subverting genre to create their own games. “When you subvert genre make sure it’s still recognizable," she said.
Bruxner noted that fans of the genre may be disappointed if it's not clear in the marketing what the game is. “While I normally wouldn’t care too much, I think leaning into that may improve the games. If you forego mechanics or something, you have to be explicit about it in trailers and promos."
In closing, Bruxner encouraged developers not to think too hard about comedy writing.
“Not every joke will land and that’s absolutely fine. Not every joke works on every person, but I wanted to have a high success rate as possible. I tried to get enough jokes in there were universally funny.”