Uranus is ..

My youngest son is interested in the planets, and so we have a series of short books written for pre-schoolers that teaches him about each planet. Every night before bed we read some of these books, usually beginning with his favorite planet, Saturn, and then cycling the others in and out of the rotation. These books are filled with short facts that should not be comical in the least.

“Uranus is much larger than Earth.”

I’ve always pronounced Uranus with the long A sound. It is a pronunciation I’ve clung viciously to, refusing to be swayed to the short A sound just because part of my more familiar version is a homophone for describing someone’s posterior body part. When I am wearing my grown-up face, I say the word with all the conviction and apparent obliviousness that is appropriate so I don’t seem like a tittering child. But, on the inside, I titter.

A war for class and taste is being fought on the hills and valleys of my brain. The part of me that has a mortgage, job and life-insurance policy holds grim dominion over my actions and usually my words, but an inane man-child is entrenched deep in my broader psyche, and he thinks the word Uranus is hilarious.

“Uranus is very cold.”

A smirk plays embarrassingly at the edges of my mouth, and if you’re listening for it you can hear my voice twinge just a little bit. At that moment, my four-year-old who is enraptured by this information on alien worlds is the adult in the room.

It is this inner idiot that is entertained by Reddit memes, bad knock-knock jokes and, on the very darkest of days, AFV. This was also the part of me that truly revelled in the reckless joy of Saints Row 3, and though more sublime and subtle parts of me could appreciate the tightly tuned gameplay and design, there was an undeniable draw exerted on a more prurient segment of my psyche.

Had someone in Saints Row 3 announced that Uranus is orbited by more than 40 moons, it would have had me rolling on the metaphorical floor with gales of undeserved laughter.

The thing is, I too often try very hard to repress this side of me, and the older I get the more I think that’s just a terrible idea. As odd as it may seem, the more mature I become, the more I realize that life is just better when I let my juvenile side out to play. There’s some old saying there about being as young as you allow yourself to be, to which I think there is truth.

Being irreverent, or even just allowing myself to laugh at and appreciate the irreverent, is strangely freeing. It can certainly be abused and misused, of course, and there are times where even if I want to snicker at some childish musing, the time might not be right (for example, during business meetings or doctor’s exams). However, and perhaps you can relate to this, I play a lot of video games. And, almost anachronistically, I think video games should primarily be fun. Thinking back over recent time, I’m surprised how much of this supposed play time has become very, very serious, both in the way I approach gaming and the way games present themselves to me. I feel like we have entered this unnecessary place where a lot of the games try too hard to position themselves as serious ruminations on complex topics.

It seems like every action game these days has to take you to the heart of its own personal darkness, and while that can be a good experience when it’s a story in the right hands, it’s also getting to be a bit of a downer. I loved Dishonored as much as anyone else, for example, but I look back on that game as being something that seemed to spend a lot of time discouraging me from feeling like I was having fun. I may have been allowed to be entertained, or emotionally engaged, or challenged, but I’m not sure I have ever or would likely now say I had a lot of fun with Dishonored.

In February of 2011 EA published Bulletstorm which was developed by People Can Fly studios (now part of Epic Games). The game was reckless, obscene, juvenile and — in several important ways — the most fun I’d had with an action game in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was the best or even a particularly great game, but it brought with it a whimsey that has become so unfortunately rare in this day and age, that it just made me enjoy playing it.

While not nearly as juvenile, I also recall with fondness the classic No One Lives Forever series of games by Monolith. And I remember a game called Giants: Citizen Kabuto by Earthworm Jim makers Planet Moon, and the largely average but still surprisingly fun to play Armed and Dangerous also by Planet Moon. These were games that made me laugh, that seemed to really want me to walk away with a smile on my face in a way that I don’t think a lot of modern games seem to.

It’s not that I don’t want to be challenged intellectually or emotionally by my games anymore. But some levity every now and again would be a more-than-welcome change, and just letting loose and taking a chance on making the player feel a little bit like a child again is far from a sin.

I fear that this is a cultural thing, though. I worry that this kind of joyful abandon is being avoided because it’s out of style, or because these kinds of games aren’t always the AAA blockbuster franchises that publishers so deeply adore, or because the industry has become wrapped up in trying to prove itself as all grown up and mature — much like I did back in the days before I was actually mature and realized that proving you’re mature is fruitless, pointless and self-defeating.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of those things. What I do know is that I could really use more fun in my life. I could use more bad jokes that I wouldn’t necessarily want to laugh at around other people. I could use more games that say screw the subtext, here are a bunch of fun things to do just because. I could use more levity and less evening news. I could use a good Uranus joke.

“Spacecraft cannot land on Uranus, because Uranus is made entirely of gas.”

… classic.

Comments

Elysium wrote:

I fear that this is a cultural thing, though. I worry that this kind of joyful abandon is being avoided because it’s out of style, or because these kinds of games aren’t always the AAA blockbuster franchises that publishers so deeply adore, or because the industry has become wrapped up in trying to prove itself as all grown up and mature — much like I did back in the days before I was actually mature and realized that proving you’re mature is fruitless, pointless and self-defeating.

We can have it both ways to some degree. GTA is about about AAA as they come, and, while significantly more po-faced that something like Saint's Row 3, has plenty of juvenile humour loaded into it's various iterations (Beeeeg Ameeerrican Teeeeteees!).

Red Dead Redemption took itself entirely (too?) seriously, until we get to the DLC, where the "Dead" in the name came back to life. Does it get much more whimsical than Wild West Zombies?

But maybe you're right. Maybe the AAA crowd veer away from whimsy, because, when we get down to it, whimsy is kind of a one-trick pony, and it's difficult to maintain that charm over a 10 hour (or more) experience. Maybe that's precisely why its smaller titles that ask for less investment (time and money) from their players where we see the whimsical nonsense come out to bat pointing at the bleachers.

I love a humorous game! I have a rule though, the more the game hypes up the fact that it's a "Comedy Game", be that a bullet-point in the description, a trailer that seems like a comedy highlight reel, or gods forbid... a joke title (*shudder*), the less funny it'll actually be.

The games that made me laugh most in recent years don't have any indication they feature comedy at all. Saints Row 3, Orcs Must Die! 2, Portal 2 and even Bulletstorm, check out the Steam descriptions for each, none of them indicate they're humorous.

Not sure if this is really all that pertinent, but it's a little rule I've noticed that generally steers me in the right direction. Or more to the point, away from the wrong directions.

I've been thinking along the lines of puzzles in games, and the now seemingly ever-present 'go here' arrow that drags you through most games. It seems too often seemingly the game solves itself, with the ever present guide as a substitute for designing the game well enough to teach/guide the player where to go/what to do to progress. What happened to building up good geography and logic within a game that allows me to learn and figure stuff out myself.

Why can't I learn and research stuff within the game that helps me out down the road, make things with a few levels of complexity rather than just a linear task list. Why can't a game with real world setting need real world research and expertise to figure stuff out.

Is that too risky for modern gaming? Would it just be nullified today in the era of the internet and almost perfect information sharing, or should/could it take that into account?

hee hee...
Urectum.

"Uranus" is pronounced "YER-uh-nus", with the same stress pattern as JU-pit-er. That's the way my kindergartner is learning it from me, anyway. Yeah, I'm a killjoy.

However, "Bulletstorm" is pronounced "good Lord, what an awesome, hilarious game". I think the last time I laughed that hard during a game was -- and you nailed it -- No One Lives Forever 1/2 and Armed and Dangerous. And all of Double Fine's work, now that I think of it.

Note to game publishers: Funny still sells. It sells a lot. Just ask the industries you're trying to ape, movies and television.

Hate to be that guy, but Armed and Dangerous was created by Planet Moon as well. Lucas Arts published it. I was the biggest Planet Moon fan ever back in the day and even had a honest to god fan site dedicated to them.

Spoiler:

edit: I don't really hate being that guy.

Good call. Planet Moon made some great games.

Lots of juvenile humor in Borderlands 2. I think I've broken my juvenile humor button. I engaged in that sort of thing shamelessly all my life. Still do. The reason I no longer laugh at typical juvenile jokes anymore is because they've become cliche and blase to me. A joke has to be truly base and inventive to get me to laugh like that anymore.

It's not so much that it's improper and more like I'm over it. I think I could do with a little more repression for a change.

Yeah Bulletstorm was silly fun. Just try to kill guys in as crazy ways as possible and listen to Jennifer Hale make up new combinations swear words.

Elysium wrote:

I worry that this kind of joyful abandon is being avoided because it’s out of style, or because these kinds of games aren’t always the AAA blockbuster franchises that publishers so deeply adore, or because the industry has become wrapped up in trying to prove itself as all grown up and mature

IMAGE(http://www.lolbrary.com/content/669/haters-dont-know-about-my-moves-36669.gif)

Also, something from my personal SR3 screenshot library to reinforce the lulz:

Linked due to possibly being NSFW

Damn, I love that game.

Stele wrote:

Yeah Bulletstorm was silly fun. Just try to kill guys in as crazy ways as possible and listen to Jennifer Hale make up new combinations swear words. :lol:

Also:

Exactly.

Jonman wrote:

[W]hen we get down to it, whimsy is kind of a one-trick pony.

Good sir, I am forced to disagree. Whimsy is an attitude, an approach. It's not a single element that you can point to and say, "There is whimsy." It's like sincerity; hard to fake, but obvious when it's legitimate. It's what you get when you let the inner child out and stop trying to be so damn serious about things.

Saturn, eh? PBS and the Science Channel have had some remarkable documentaries on it and its moons of late, especially Huygens probe video of Titan. Pure awesome: water ice instead of rock, methane instead of water oceans, clouds, and rain. Get that kid on it!

Hell yeah, I've always said I'm a kid at heart and I like it. Mind you, I think balancing it with your adult responsibilities is important. It's funny, in some ways I'm the most "grown up" of my friends, but in other ways I'm purely juvenile. Finding that balance is tricky sometimes, but I think it's really important. Even in a work environment, I try to keep it appropriately light.

Anyway, yeah most games take themselves far too "super serial" these days, as Al Gore would say. I agree that most of the ones that are actively promoting the fact that they're trying to be funny really aren't. And some of the ones trying their hardest to be serious just end up being laughable.

I do disagree that all games have to be fun as a rule though. It's tricky, and I know "games" as a medium historically has had it's primary purpose in entertainment. But some of the games that have been thought provoking in recent times can't really be described as "fun". I certainly wouldn't call Spec Ops: The Line fun, for example. They're really only games by virtue of being interactive, and that we don't have a better term than "video game" to describe them. But their purpose isn't so much to entertain us as to provoke us, and this is great. Imagine if movies all had to be dumb action or romantic comedies because those are more "fun". We'd never had thought provoking pieces like Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Schindler's List, and so on. Video games need to do these things to evolve as a medium.

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
Jonman wrote:

[W]hen we get down to it, whimsy is kind of a one-trick pony.

Good sir, I am forced to disagree. Whimsy is an attitude, an approach. It's not a single element that you can point to and say, "There is whimsy." It's like sincerity; hard to fake, but obvious when it's legitimate. It's what you get when you let the inner child out and stop trying to be so damn serious about things.

You know, you're absolutely right.

I guess I mangled the thought I was trying to get into words. Ooh, I know, metaphor!

So, you know how in Dead Space, it was freaking terrifying for the first 3 hours, but by the 8th hour, it wasn't scary at all? That's what I'm trying to get at. Whimsy is adorable to begin with, but that effect fades pretty quickly.

Good article and totally agree that there's been a bit too much serious lately. I think that's why most modern FPS games, aside from the less serious ones like Borderlands, don't really appeal that much to me.

Can't believe no one has pointed this out yet...

IMAGE(http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-CdfW4oigtds/UCBgYKGQxmI/AAAAAAAAAKQ/U1ZeM7seras/s1600/why-so-serious.jpg)

So.... I have a preschooler who likes the planets. What is the line of books called?

Check out the "Solar Walk" iPad app.

I guess I'm just No Fun, but I tend to find "humorous" games boring, because they wear out their welcome very, very quickly. I'd rather a game that digs into something deep and complicated -- Dwarf Fortress or Dark Souls, for example -- than something light-hearted. The lighter a game is in tone, the less inclined I am to keep playing it once that initial appeal wears off; dark, gritty, super-hard games keep me entranced.

How did this thread not turn into a bunch of space-themed innuendos? I am disappointed.

TheHipGamer wrote:

I guess I'm just No Fun, but I tend to find "humorous" games boring, because they wear out their welcome very, very quickly. ... The lighter a game is in tone, the less inclined I am to keep playing it once that initial appeal wears off; dark, gritty, super-hard games keep me entranced.

Dark and gritty doesn't wear off?

On Pointless, a day time BBC quiz programme, they had a round on identifying planets. One guy named Uranus and the quiz master said with a slight smile, "Uranus scored ten points." As they moved onto the next score everyone, hosts and contestants, were trying not to laugh.

wordsmythe wrote:
TheHipGamer wrote:

I guess I'm just No Fun, but I tend to find "humorous" games boring, because they wear out their welcome very, very quickly. ... The lighter a game is in tone, the less inclined I am to keep playing it once that initial appeal wears off; dark, gritty, super-hard games keep me entranced.

Dark and gritty doesn't wear off?

Not as readily.

That may be part of my psyche, rather than an inherent quality of those types of experiences, but I tend to think that dark/gritty entertainment is more engaging and interesting than light-hearted/funny. I see horror and darkness as reflections of a more interesting cultural phenomena; I can still re-watch something like A Nightmare on Elm Street and see the fears of adults in the 1980s ("Our kids are so unlike us!"). I don't see the same depth and interest in something that's trying to elicit a laugh; while not better or worse, the well from which those experiences draw simply doesn't seem as deep.

By and large, I don't agree with that HipGamer. Good comedy is harder than drama for a good reason - you have to pay attention to a lot more happening. Comedy is defined as much by what it says as by what it omits and how it omits it. This is true of all art forms. For instance, censorship laws in Japan mean that anime featuring pubic hair can never be legally approved for public consumption (AFAIK). That's an interesting cultural touchstone, IMO. I enjoy "light and funny" because it often says a lot about an audience or a creator.

That said, there's really a lot of humor that derives its power from the unexpected. That banks its entire appeal in novelty and surprise, so it necessarily loses a lot of its power in retelling.

LarryC wrote:

This is true of all art forms. For instance, censorship laws in Japan mean that anime featuring pubic hair can never be legally approved for public consumption (AFAIK).

Solution: draw your anime characters as shaved.

Comedy might be harder to do in a way that translates across languages and cultures. I'm not sure I agree with what I just typed, but maybe.