Brother, Can you Spare a Smile?

Happy, Fluffy Kitties

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
--
Erma Bombeck

[justify]“Nurrrrrgghhhhh. 5 more minutes...”
“Spaz, you said that 10 minutes ago!”
“Fiiiiiiiiiiiiine.”

And so I begrudgingly dragged myself out of bed, to spend a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning sitting in a theater, watching a trash compacter with googly binocular eyes roll about a dystopian Wasteopolis. I quickly tossed aside the Downy-soft allure of my mattress, marveling instead at how Pixar was able to make an audience of 200 early-risers care about a dirty robot and his chirpy roach sidekick. His story was told through physical language. This was communication via personality quirks, little nods and squeaks that approximated very familiar, very human, motions; Intricate dialogue need not apply. I could have spent an hour just watching the little guy go about his nine-to-five routine. I would have walked out of the theater with a spring in my step, humming a tune from Hello Dolly into the afternoon air.

It's then that I started to ask myself how it is that games, interactive, engrossing, poly-hour epics that they are, could so often fail to craft similarly riveting experiences. Like a 20-ton anvil, the answer hit me: How many of them make you laugh?

Genuinely laugh. Break-out-chuckling-like-a-maniac-at-the-very-thought-of-the-scene laughter. A guffaw that comes out of the game's narrative, not something that's the result of a situational anomaly. As I tripped into the welcoming arms of a Zach Effron standee in the lobby, scattering a precious cargo of Goobers to and fro, the answer was made apparent: “nowhere near enough of them.”[/justify]

[justify]Comedy in the gaming sphere is a fickle bear to pin down, primarily because of the tendency towards cross-pollination. Your modern first-person shooter will most likely, like a newborn sapling, crawl close to the nurturing light of graduated unlockables and RPG-lite sidequests. Your action game will toss in dramatis personae that impart a sense of compassion for their wretched lot in life before they jump off the cliff of mustachioed twirling, cliché evil. Your annual sports fix will spryly toss in statistics sheets with enough numbers to make a CPA giddy, reminding you that the 344 you see here was a less impressive 328 last year (whatever that means). But while inter-disciplinary game design has cribbed from a spectrum of mechanics, humor is often an unintended tag-along. We see elements of comedy, but hardly anything is explicitly structured around the concept.

Take Halo 3 ... please! (*drumroll*). It's thoroughly soaked in masculine adrenaline, armored testosterone, against-all-odds sweat. And yet, the folks at Bungie were able to use their RPG-lite metagame modifiers to inject some levity into the end-of-the-world seriousness. With the proper toggle, a headshot produces the laughter of children and a rainbow of confetti. Another enables similarly colorful language from the game's many NPCs – sourced from a scene in Halo 2 where a character remarks “I would have been your daddy, but the dog beat me over the fence.” Additions like these add a bit of extra texture to the game, but I'd be more impressed if the Master Chief wore big floppy shoes and shot pies at people from a tricycle. That's the problem with comedy, one man's Caddyshack is another's Epic Movie.

Truth is, the golden age of chuckles and chortles was probably locked away with the passing of LucasArts' SCUMM engine. In a time before gaming became a Big Money Industry, before studios dedicated upwards of three years to coding and development, before the concepts of PR, Focus Groups and Marketing latched onto development houses like an icky growth, we were all at the mercy of a cadre of nerds, geeks and outcasts. Their particular brand of subversive, referential humor essentially defined the idea of comedy in video games - especially in point-and-click adventure titles - at a time when games were relegated to the domain of childish entertainment. Maniac Mansion, for example, was a send-up of b-movie horror flicks (complete with mummies, aliens, mad scientists, haunted mansions and a socially desirable maiden in distress). It was a quiet kind of comedy that made you laugh under your breath. A little absurd, a little tongue-in-cheek, but cognizant of its medium of delivery. The message was “You can get funny, but don't expect Shakespeare.”

And that's really what the stumbling block for most game-related comedy is: You need a good frame of reference to catch the joke, because it usually doesn't aspire to more than a quick barb or ludicrous moment. It's a winking nod, a subtle type of chuckle that's supposed to make you feel clever for catching what so many others will miss.

For instance:

Clayfighter isn't just a weirdly animated game, it served as a whipped merengue to the face of all the serious Street Fighteresque knockoffs that emerged in the 90s. Super Mario RPG's “Axem Rangers” were a generic version of the Japanese sentai groups that seeded themselves through TV shows and resurfaced in the U.S. as the Power Rangers. GodHand? A slantwise look at Japanese popular culture and television, its ridiculousness orchestrated to revel in the tropes of the genre – hell, why not punch an enemy into the sun?

In-jokes like these may be absolutely endearing to those in the know, but to everyone else they can fall dreadfully flat. Or worse, can be written off as “weird.”

When comedy fails, it's fails hard, leaves a gaping crater in the ground. The Simpsons Game was supposed to lampoon the tired standards of modern gaming - World War II shooter, anime-inspired turn-based JRPG, free-form sandbox roamer. But parody in the gaming sphere requires at least an interesting experience to help the medicine go down. A little something else to build upon, if only to tear it down later. Besides, it's of no use to remind the player that, yes, there are an awful lot of WWII shooters around if the audience is already aware of the fact. You might as well break into a Seinfeldian “What is the deal” rant, it's so obvious. American McGee's Bad Day L.A., a game that was going to use offbeat whackyness to shock us to attention, wasn't very interesting at all - a fatal misstep for anything trying to be amusing. Its hobo protagonist wasn't enough of a personality to appeal to players, and its 5th grade humor didn't entice anyone to stick around. There's no use trying to be funny if your audience will be struggling with bad controls, spotty missions, and an all-around weak game. They just won't stand for it.

But when a ripe vein of funny is tapped, it soars skyward like milk shot out of a kid's nose. The Neverhood, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, Earthworm Jim, Sam and Max Hit the Road, these are all fondly remembered for their quirky approach to gaming. It's not just the great writing that established them as darlings of the medium, as their creation of great characters was instrumental in producing a timeless, enjoyable escape. The players in Team Fortress 2, angular tough guys they may be, were sculpted with distinct and distinguishable personalities. They're a little odd looking, to be sure, but it's their behavior that keeps them from being dully interchangeable. The result? They're funny to watch, and the pyro and medic are as much identifiable for their appearance and actions as their in-game functions. Likewise, this focus on characterization is one of the many reasons why last year's Portal keeps clanging around the collective gamer unconscious. Anyone can do a rogue AI with murderous inclinations. But making it funny, consciously lying to the player and messing with his expectations? That's the work of madmen and geniuses.

So while we may never again see a string of offbeat releases akin to Sierra's Space Quest games, there's fertile soil for funnymen to till. We've become so transfixed with photorealistic CGI wankery and gritty, true-to-life ACTION gaming that other potent roads of entertainment have fallen into regretful disrepair. And really, with the newfound emphasis on casual gamers, there's no better time to take a gamble on something that can make people laugh. Just imagine a game where players are compelled to find new ways to die. One where exploration is rewarding, and dying a sight-gag. Where death isn't met with frustration, but rather with a chortle. Perhaps something with adorable little Lego men mucking about.

Now, wouldn't that be fun?
[/justify]

Wario Ware / Nintendogs
Monkey Island's three-headed monkey
Day of the Tentacle's "Chron-o-Johns"
Grim Fandango's Manny Calavera
The Neverhood / Klaymen

Comments

Interesting article. There have been a few games that made me laugh. The first two Broken Sword games were quite amusing, as were some scenes in Beyond Good and Evil. On the whole, though, gaming all seems very serious, with a few notable exceptions. I wonder what proportion of games are 'funny' as compared to different media like, say, tv or film.

If i'm honest, I believe that the gaming genre is more suited to drama than comedy.

Comedy requires a level of timing and reference that are destroyed by the ability to interact with that set up. Sure, there are games that have 'done' comedy - and by 'done' i mean they have commentary that's funny that you listen to.... but visual comedy is something that's very difficult to appreciate when you've got two degrees of separation between the voice actor and the action on screen. Assuming of course that the player even witnesses the action in the first place.

I would love to see more humour in games, but...

The way I see it - comedy in gaming is a big risk. Comedy is very personal. The majority of the time humour in a game is going to miss the mark for x% of people playing. Miss enough times and they'll be alienated... A game can spend years in development and be awesome, but if it contains bad humour people will most likely be put off.

The 'recent' game that leaps to my mind that contained comedy was Timesplitters 3. It's comedy was in it's cut scenes which I enjoyed. Whenever I saw anyone else play they'd either groan in horror at the jokes or skip the scenes entirely.

My 10 pence...

The first game that came to my mind was [/i]Portal[i]. The second game would have to be Baldur's Gate II with Minsc and his "space" hamster. Oh, and I loved the humor in the first two Lego Star Wars games.

NOLF and NOLF2 are good for the laugh factor alone.

I haven't read the article yet (I plan to once I get to work), but jumping online and seeing a lolcat picture on the front page of GamersWithJobs has just made my day

Edit: Very good article. I would have to tend to agree with Duoae. My first thought when you had brought up comedy in games was how hard it would be simply because of timing. In a movie, the director has complete control over when those "special comedic" lines are delivered. In a game, your only way of having complete control is with a cutscene. Granted, that is not to say that it is impossible to have comedy in a game, I just think the process of delivering that comedy will have to vary greatly from movies.

Anachronox.

In particular THAT scene of them drifting through space in an escape capsule..but the whole thing was pretty darned funny

Anachronox (One of the Greatest Games that Hardly Anyone Played) had a ton of humor in it, and literally had me in tears I laughed so hard at some points. I think the funniest moment for me involved an old, disgusting beyond belief, radioactively glowing sweatsock.

Max Payne 2 had some good humor in it, most notably the scene with Vinnie stuck in the Captain Baseballbat Boy costume.

Woops. Sorry stevenmack, you posted that while I was writing my post.

Nice. The space capsule was a hilarious scene as well.

WizKid, the space hamster was awesome. BGII is one of the few games from the distant past that I consider playing again and I think it's 99% because of Minsc.

BUTT KICKING FOR GOODNESS!!!!!!

As far as laughs per minute go I'd put the Simpsons game way up there. It's self-referencial, has simpsonized parodies of certain games (Medal of honor, generic japanese platformer and JRPG, the "Game engine" where sonic and mario are put to hard work making games for EA, and even has a few suprise guests (see sig).

The game itself isn't anything special, but the writing is top notch. My biggest complaint is that while it is co-op it was implemented really half-assedly, where whoever is player 2 will not receive any acheivements for playing. It is, however, definitely worth a rental.

I think it's interesting how quickly we are inclined to dismiss gaming as being unable to handle comedy, and yet how quickly we can think of games that have done humor well. Let's review a bit:

No One Lives Forever 1 & 2 (both tremendously funny games)
Sam & Max, Day of the Tentacle et al (LucasArts' golden years)
Battlefield Bad Company (Surprisingly funny)
Portal (Genius in a box)
Psychonauts
and others that have been mentioned.

Yes, comedy is hard, but my experience with all of these games is that the problems have far more to do with the writing than the delivery. In other words, what gaming needs is better comedy writers. I think the talent is in place to deliver comedy, and certainly the technology, but the talent to write comedy is a litttle lacking.

So, in short, I agree with Spaz.

Don't forget the talking sword from baldur's gate, Lilarcor. That thing was hilarious.

"Mmmm... tastes like chicken!"

There are only a few developers that excel at comedic writing.
Tim Schaffer springs to mind immediately, and is probably at the top of my list.
Tim Williams of Planet Moon is there as well. (Armed and Dangerous, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, MDK and MDK2 were all funny games).

Zug, Zug!

I firmly believe that one of the reasons for Blizzard's success is the inclusion of humor in their games. While the clicking easter eggs might not be part of Blizzard's games' narratives, I would wager every member of GWJ can mimic the voices and quote the funny lines.

Stop poking me!

I think one of the tricky parts is to balance gags with recurring themes. Game can roll out over a span of 10+ hours and eventually beating up mimes just isn't as funny as it was the first time. In fact, few things can hold up and remain funny multiple times throughout a game. Team Fortress 2 is a great example of doing it right by making the characters so well realized, they don't have to rely on being overt to get the funny moments across. Nearly every death is kind of hilarious to me thanks to the freeze-framing shots and expressions on the faces of the characters in the scene.

Games seem to struggle with it because we're so used to them establishing core mechanics and then repeating them with some level of variation and increased challenge. Comedy is counter-intuitive to that mindset, it requires a different approach. I think Elysium has the right of it, find some better writers and I'll add that we could use more people who have an intuitive sense of what's funny designing the games too. There are so many elements that need to be right before anything can be intentionally hilarious.

For some reason I found No More Heroes funny... I think what's great about that game is that it doesn't take itself seriously, so it acts as a sendup of beat-em-ups at the same time as you're genuinely having fun beating people up.

A lot of the humor in that game was off the wall, or cultural references, but sometimes it would bring you into the main character's perspective in a way that made you agree with him that yes, this was a ridiculous situation.

So in order to find some kind of generalization here let's say I make up an arbitrary list of stuff that needs to happen in order for a game to be funny:

1. At least one character must be worthy of empathizing with.
2. All the normal rules of humor apply - the joke should be unexpected, make sense in context, not repetitive.
3. Please don't make me watch a cutscene over again, I'll kill you all. This makes a funny or charming moment into a horrible waste of my time.

As Duoae said, timing is key and I agree with the main article and what others have said about the need for better writers. Of the games mentioned, the majority of the humor is born from the script and independent of gameplay. Adventure games, like the SCUMM games, are story centric which is where the humor comes from. Or it's contained within cut scenes as in Anachranox. Or the world and characters are funny. All these things are out of the player's control. If it's there, humor appears in gameplay within tightly controlled one shot actions or scripted sequences. For instance, the tricycle chase in NOLF2. The joke would get stale if it was part of the core game mechanic.

Hear Hear!

I loved the Neverhood. The burping fruit and the mailbox on the underside were a source of endless fun at my house. I still have it around somewhere. I wonder if it'll run on this new box....

Though I do have to point out that a game like the one you asked for in your last paragraph was made. It's called Voodoo Vince, for the original Xbox. In it you play a voodoo doll off to save your maker from being kidnapped by a nefarious idiot. Your powers are based on you doing stuff to yourself. So, for example, you need to knock out a bad guy and there's a safe hanging from a rope in the corner (bear with me). The trick isn't to lure the bad guy under the safe; you have to find a way to set it off and drop it on yourself properly and then the bad guy takes the damage.

Between that and the excellent design, the sly humor, and a great jazzy soundtrack, this is still one of my absolute favorite games for the system.

I'm also very fond of the new episodic Sam and Max games.

I love comedic aspects in many games. Serious Sam springs to mind with those banshee screams as the "horde" thunders over the nearest ridge. Afternoons playing "Worms" with my kids, laughing as we blasted one another to bits and watched the silly animations of the worms doom. Even the old Thief series had its moments of dry humor.

We run an old writer's risk here however. Analysis is comedy's worst enemy. I have to agree with what several have said here, writing is the key to good comedy. Let's not fall into the trap of over-examining it. Comedy demands a certain amount of spontaneity. Without that it is doomed to appear rehearsed and overworked. A sudden fart is funny. Watching some kids eating bowls filled with beans and giggling about whats to come...not so much.

Earth Defense force 2017 -- unintentionally really funny.

Duke Nukem 3D! Theme Hospital! Leisure Suit Larry (when you're 12)! Many many Infocom text adventures!

Certis wrote:
Team Fortress 2 is a great example of doing it right by making the characters so well realized, they don't have to rely on being overt to get the funny moments across. Nearly every death is kind of hilarious to me thanks to the freeze-framing shots and expressions on the faces of the characters in the scene.

I wonder if part of the reason why we seem to find Team Fortress 2 so funny is because of the people we play it with. I can think of numerous sessions of people laughing out loud over voice chat in TF2, but it's almost always a result of the dynamic between fellow goodjers.

Playing on any server other than Stan's looses most of that level of funniness. Not all of it, but a lot of it.

I loved Portal, the NOLFs, and the Planet Moon stuff.

Going back a bit, I thought some (SOME) of the Conker's Bad Fur Day stuff for the n64 was really funny too. I mean, I still remember the Mighty Poo lyrics..

(Yes, I enjoyed the singing poo full of sweet corn. Call me lowbrow if you must.)

EDIT: Oh, and I thought the most recent Bard's Tale could be quite funny too!

EDIT: Oh, and I thought the most recent Bard's Tale could be quite funny too!

How far did you get with that game? It's one of those titles I was interested in, but other games and middling reviews kind of scared me off.

I had held off on the yoink until you upped the sig ante.

Cramps wrote:
Earth Defense force 2017 -- unintentionally really funny.

Hilarious and surprisingly awesome.

The NOLF games were the first that came to mind. Then Psychonauts. The GTA titles also manage some quality humor on occasion.

Certis wrote:
EDIT: Oh, and I thought the most recent Bard's Tale could be quite funny too!

How far did you get with that game? It's one of those titles I was interested in, but other games and middling reviews kind of scared me off.

Middling reviews are about right. 70-75ish, I guess?

I got about three-quarters through it -and it's not that long of a game- when the humor started to wear a bit thin and the repetition of the Dark Alliance style hack and slash got a little tiresome. I too got distracted by other titles and never finished it, but there was enough good early stuff to leave me with the impression that it was a decently funny game.

SBCG4AP!

Technically not out yet, but I know I'll laugh at it.