Brother, Can you Spare a Smile?
“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!”
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.
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?