That Joke’s Not Funny Any More?

By Kieron Gillen on November 12th, 2009 at 12:38 pm.

I still haven't played this. I suck!
Mark Brown’s article over at Resolution caught my eye, because it’s on one of those perennial topics that I think’s always worth thinking about. Because thinking about comedy never kills a joke. Er… joking apart, it’s a biggie. Where Now For Comedy In Games, basically? He interviews Zombie Cow’s Dan Marshall, Rhianna Pratchett, Twisted Pixel’s CCO Josh Bear, and the key point – at least to me – is that a couple of factors conspire to make comedy difficult. Firstly, genres which are popular at the moment don’t lend themselves to comedy. Secondly, comedy is about timing, control and situation – and with today’s generally increasingly large teams, especially one where the comedy-creator isn’t central, that becomes increasingly tricky to pull off. Oh – and as a third one, the idea of “genre” in games is different from many other forms. “Comedy” isn’t a game genre. It’s something that’s added to other genres. Anyway, I think this is a good place to start talking about this, so let’s. Comedy. Right? Wrong? What? Who? Where? Why? How? If?

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44 Comments »

  1. Lack_26 says:

    Comedy in games is a good idea, in principle anyway. But so many times I see it mucked up, evidently due to comedy by committee. A lot of my favourite bits are easter-eggs left in, probably by (or group of) the people developing the game. Although you do get some excellent pieces in games, the humour of Armed and Dangerous saved that game for me.

  2. sana says:

    Not reading that article, but I am interested in what genres specifically do not lend themselves to comedy. Shooters and RPGs are pretty much the most popular genres around (or so I think), and both have no particular problems with being hilarious, as is evidenced by TF2, Borderlands and… I can’t think of a pure RPG example, but I am sure it’s quite possible to make a light-hearted half-comedy RPG. On the other hand I have a hard time being impressed by some artsy indie games with intendedly poor graphics for the sake of comedy or alternatively SO RANDOM plot elements and social pseudo-criticism.

    • mrmud says:

      Simulations obviously, never been more poplular and very hard to make “funny”

  3. Azazel says:

    How do you create comedy consistently from situations that the player has created themselves?

    You either have the direct control over the setup and punchline required for a great joke – which means that in a way you’re taking it out of the hands of the player – or you rely entirely on slapstick (e.g TF2).

  4. Ragnar says:

    FPS: No one lives forever
    RPG: Bard’s Tale
    RTS: Evil Genius

    The problem isn’t that genres don’t lend themselves to comedy. The problem is that it is difficult to do comedy well and most developers aren’t good at that sort of thing.

    • Bhazor says:

      Its essentially engineers trying to write stories and comedy.
      They approach it like a frickin’ long equation.
      Love interest + Black sidekick(*sassy)+ conflict + banter + side kick+ infinity explosions – side kick (either through betrayl or deadening) = story

  5. futage says:

    I think games are too negotiated a space to support comedy in the same way that linear media does. If you laugh at something (written to be) funny in a game then the comedy functions the same as it would on film or whatever, it is in no way of the game.

    When games are funniest, for me, it’s emergent stuff. Throwing a turtle for the first time in Crysis or removing the ladder in the Sims or when my friend sat in my humvee in Arma II and looked at me while constantly shaking his head while I was trying to drive (might not sound funny but I nearly died laughing).

    Which is the key, I think, games are funniest (for me at least) when they’re funny like life is funny. Because they’re worlds, not a sequence of words and pictures presented in order. Games which try to be comedy games or comical all the way through tend to be dull as fuck for the same reason a world which was entirely comedy/ical would be. Because that’s what they are.

    Fuck comedy, long live funny stuff.

    • futage says:

      Having said that, a game which is in its entirety a joke (like you have to light the rope or whatever it was called) is an interesting thing.

  6. Risingson says:

    I think that games have been taking themselves too seriously since the console invasion. The secret is “lighthearted”: this is perceived as bad for most gamers.

    Most inmature gamers, I could add to start a flame.

  7. Risingson says:

    Hm. I’m thinking about it and it’s not about comedy, it’s about sense of humor, which is not the same thing. Comedy could be seen in the first Star Wars movies, for example, as well as in most 80′s action movies (I’m taking the 80′s action movies as examples a lot lately), and sense of humor can be seen in lots of horror movies (Final Destination 2, Evil Dead). So… I think that timing doesn’t have that much to do with humor, it’s just quality in writing and who is the people the game is aimed for. I remember, for example, Final Fantasy VII as a deadly serious game with very unfortunate comedic snippets made at travestism, as I recall Gears of War only being bearable if you apply the homoerotic ironic filter.

    But humor is just another thing that is very missed from games, as really adult themes like responsability, grey zones of ethic and so on. I think the last game that really made me laugh out loudly was one of the three Phoenix Wright in the DS, and that’s interesting, because it is also a game with very weak playability that holds itself because of the quality of the writing… which has humor in it.

    And humor too can be a very picky issue. I remember Adventuresoft games (simon the sorcerer, the feeble files) as being unconfortable not only for their design decisions (mostly no clues), but because the main character is very mean (and childishly mean) with the people around, and that was supposed to be funny. And I remember Stupid Invaders as being a total disaster in humor.

  8. Ginger Yellow says:

    ” I can’t think of a pure RPG example, but I am sure it’s quite possible to make a light-hearted half-comedy RPG”

    Charles Barkley’s Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden

    I don’t buy the genre excuse either. If people want to make a funny shooter, they can – look at MDK or Giants. The point is that by and large people don’t want to make funny shooters, probably because they don’t sell. The customer seems to want angry space marines. Moreover, a good comic writer is obviously going to be drawn to genres which involve a lot of writing, and shooters tend not to.

    • Risingson says:

      Actually Dragon Quest IV, which I have been playing in my DS for the last year, is also a good example. And back then, baaack then, there are more classic examples like “Escape from Hell”.

  9. phil says:

    Leaving aside user generated comedy, like creating a benny hill sequence chase sequence in Bioshock by simply running away from enough enemies, comedy is problematic because it’s difficult in any action orientated entertainment product; Uncharted 2 is about as funny as Die Hard, but both rarely cause a chuckle. So the issue of genre is probably the key thing.

    If you place funny and random above any other consideration you get this;

    http://home.wildit.net.au/hellohelloben/mystery.html

  10. kdolo says:

    Brutal Legend was pretty fucking funny. Tim Schafer has always been able to sprinkle comedy into whatever he does.

  11. mesmertron says:

    The three funniest moments in gaming, for me, are all from Black Isles games.

    Fallout 2, driving into Broken Hills for the first time. “He blinks at you. He blinks again.” Gold.

    Torment, teasing Morte about the lady zombies until he finally quips back at you. “Where’s my muh muh muh memories??” Amazing!

    And, the greatest ever moment, the one that had me laughing like a super villian, the bit later on that concludes with Morte saying “I’m going to smash that Modron cube to bits.”

    And, rather tellingly, these were games that were most recognised for their dark atmosphere. KotOR I and II both had a dark tone, both featured blackest humour in HK-47. I’ve been quite pleased to see that Dragon Age has made me laugh several times already, and again the over-all mood is one of grimness.

    And all of these are roleplaying games. Specifically, RPGs of the post-Fallout/Baldur’s Gate ilk. Games with writing. and Dialogue.

    Space Quest, Lesiure Suit Larry, Sam & Max… Penny-Arcade Adventures even! Adventure games all built around a humourous premise or a comedic style… these amused me, but they didn’t leave me gasping for air or frighten my wife into thinking I was having a heart attack.

    I think there’s a reason why it’s the RPGs that hold the vast troves of comedy gold, but particularly the new Western school of RPGs. the ones with branching dialogue trees, most of which bear the bastard seed of Tim Cain or Chris Avellone somewhere in their family trees.

  12. bookwormat says:

    “today’s generally increasingly large teams”.
    You, sir, should read that blog at rockpapershotgun.com from time to time.
    There are just as many small teams coding awesome stuff in grandma’s cellar than there are $30 million dollar action <strike>movies</strike> games. And some of the stuff these freaks do is actually quite funny.

  13. wvanh says:

    I think it comes down to comedy being inherently non-interactive. The comedy we do find in games are all about the writing. The earlier a writer is involved in the game and the more the design and art is symbiotic with the writing the more consistent, and usually the better the comedy in the game can be. Sadly the reality is that usually things don’t work out that way and art, design, and writing work independently a lot longer than they should and are glued together at the end. The bigger the studio and the higher the budget the more this workflow becomes prevalent. What that usually results in isn’t comedy but a collection of one liners.

    That said, I’m not sure comedy can ever really be fully integrated into a game. As mentioned in the original post, comedy is largely about setting, timing, and delivery. When it comes to interactive media the setting and to some extent the delivery might be firmly in the hands of the developers, but the timing is always in the hand of the player. If we look at, say, Leasure Suit Larry games (or any comedy point and click adventure), where the interactivity is already very limited, there was a great deal of humour in them, but even the best jokes lose much of their appeal if you’ve just spent an hour trying to combine every item in your inventory with every other item to solve a puzzle, or hunting pixels in a particularly difficult scene. When you do finally finish the puzzle the sense of overcoming a challenge and the emotions linked to that experience are competing with the ones triggered by the joke resulting from the player action. However that puzzling was the only interactivity in the game, if we remove that we might as well watch an American Pie movie.

    Now what would happen if we had a first person perspective? Imagine a Half Life cutscene where the NPC’s dialogue and animation are used to convey the joke, how much less funny would that joke be if the player was 20 meters away instead or right next to the character, or crouched down, staring at the NPC’s crotch, perhaps bunny hopping around or jumping on computers and pipes? Or even just standing still but rapidly moving the camera around to look at parts of the room, instead of focused on the NPC doing the scene? In fact we needn’t look further than Kleiner’s pet headcrab Lamarr, he was used as a slapstick element as well as a plot device and from my discussions with other players it seems for most the humour was lost entirely and the important plot dialog was listened to from a distance while waiting impatiently at the door for the scene to end. The hectic nature and incredibly rapid thinking and reacting involved in first person shooters doesn’t lend itself well to the slower build up good comedy requires. Which is another reason why I think comedy writing in these games tends to come down to witty one-liners after a particular player event. Like a Borderlands one liner after a critical headshot.

    In my experience games that focus on the setting, the world, and the side characters for creating the comedy are much more successful than the ones that try to inject it into the player character. But in those cases the comedy is essentially non interactive.

  14. Lilliput King says:

    “Secondly, comedy is about timing, control and situation – and with today’s generally increasingly large teams, especially one where the comedy-creator isn’t central, that becomes increasingly tricky to pull off.”

    I think you’re bang on the money, here, in terms of “gags”. A line could be well written and funny, but the actor could read it wrong, or the animation could mess it up, or the timing of the lines could be off due to engine limitations, etc. It’s possible, but I think it’s all too easy for good gags to just not work.

    That’s not to say games can’t be funny – it just tends to be a funny place (Psychonauts, sometimes. Though it did gags quite well too), or idea (NOLF was full of ‘em), or general atmosphere (TF2, Borderlands).

  15. Guernican says:

    “Twisted Pixel’s CCO Josh Bear”

    Chief Comic Officer?

    Tricky question. Comedy’s so individual, and it’s as much about the frame of mind you’re in as anything else. The first time I exploded someone into a bloody mess in Fallout 3, I yucked like a baboon, but I suspect I was hanging onto reality by a fairly thin thread at the time.

    It’s obviously possible to create it through dialogue. although I tend to find that I laugh harder when it’s not actually spoken, but delivered through text. Monkey Island and the text-based Hitchhiker’s Guide games spring to mind. I’d rather imagine the line delivered well in my head than actually hear it delivered poorly by a voice actor.

    Someone mentioned Brutal Legend, but sadly I find Jack Black slightly less funny than testicular cancer. There are the occasional moments in the Ratchet and Clank games, but never anything than gets more than a snort or, very occasionally, a snicker.

    The funniest moments are, sadly, usually inadvertent. The sex scenes in the Witcher are pretty amusing, and I’m guessing Dragon Age will have the same problem.

    • Morph says:

      The ridiculous blood splatters in Dragon Age do get me laughing an awful lot. But considering they’re supposed to make the game look all gritty and mature that’s some quite unintentional comedy.

    • Nick says:

      Actually, I’m finding a fair amount of the dialogue in Dragon Age funny and intentionally funny at that.

  16. somecallmedave says:

    Giants had some legendary humor, thinking of cockney aliens still makes me smirk now

  17. Bowl of Snakes says:

    It sounds like this is more lamenting joke telling and point and click comedy, not the actual loss of humor. I swear every game I pick up is full of developers tripping over themselves trying to be comedians, Team Fortress 2 is funny as shit, Borderlands is full of goofy redneck characters, World of Goo with its look and feel, King’s Bounty, even the Sims always has a good bit. I don’t think I even heard ‘you have to burn the rope’ mentioned yet. The only game I can think of right now that is not funny is Modern Warfare 2.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Comedy is subjective, the stupid look on the faces of the airport passengers for example.

  18. Nighthood says:

    Nobody has mentioned psychonauts yet, so I will. In order for games to be amusing they need to be likeable, something psychonauts managed much better than most other games. I preferred it to brutal legend by a LONG shot.

  19. cliffski says:

    something I don’t think is touched on is that games are developed to be multinational. What French people and Germans find funny baffles me, and a lot of American humour passes me by too. There are some exceptions, but generally comedy is not culturally universal. We can all look at blockbuster sci-fi and disaster movies and romances that are universally popular, but comedy is less easily translated.

    I find it very funny to set a game in slough, but nobody in America finds that funny. I find it funny to have purchasable lottery tickets in a game that you can never win, but Americans just feel annoyed at that. I found it hilarious that there was a character called ‘Kevin’ in Giants who swore a lot, but that game had very niche appeal.

    I think the big budgets of modern console games don’t help. If I find something funny at 4PM, it’s in the game by 4.10PM. If Someone at infinity ward has an idea for a joke in a $10,000,000 game, it needs to go through 5 different budget approval committees before it makes it into the game, by which time almost nothing is funny.

    • Bhazor says:

      I do think budget/time is a big constraint. Dan Marshal talked about being able to add jokes or lines at any time because there was no need for voice work or animation or elaborate ai scripting or choreography and so on. This meant all he had to was write it and maybe draw a squiggle but now all of this fluff is seen as essential in modern games. Bioware may be a good example of this. The BG2 infinity engine meant they could create and implement a whole tounge in cheek questline (like the mimic blood quest or the dozens of little throw away conversations) in the space of a week. The thought of doing that in, say for example, the Mass Effect engine is laughable.

  20. Urthman says:

    That thing in MDK2 where you’re making a series of jumps and the aliens behind their force field cheer every time you make a successful jump? And then you get to blow them up when you’re done?

    I don’t remember if I laughed out loud, but it sure made me happy.

  21. malvim says:

    What about Fallout (1 and 2, never played 3) for a VERY funny RPG title?

  22. Guernican says:

    Surprised this thread hasn’t got more comments.

    I’m full of admiration for Dan Marshall, by the way, for trying to produce a game where the premise itself is funny. Perhaps there’s room for a learned paper on why triple-A titles can’t be based on what is fundamentally a silly / funny / ludicrous / satirical precept.

    If Modern Warfare 3 was set up with the SAS / Marines / Rangers / fucking Mossad chasing down the man who stole Lady Pilkington’s prize Victoria sponge from the table only minutes before the Chipping Sodbury annual bake-a-thon was due to be judged, all the console foibles in the world wouldn’t stop me from buying it.

    I can see it now: a breathtaking midnight chase through the herb garden at Pilkington House. Cartridge cases clinking rhythmically off the ornamental water feature. Perhaps a Batman-esque section in which you have to analyse faint traces of angelica, or follow a trail of hundreds and thousands.

    If there’s a single cake-based piece of whimsy in any game over the next 3 years, I’m suing.

  23. lePooch says:

    I think humor in a game is at its best when it is user instigated. Instead of a set piece where we are forced to watch, game developers should incorporate opportunities for users to create humorous interactions. When something weird is triggered, the user should be able to sit back and watch the insanity unfold.

    And therein lies the main reason why I think humor is so underutilized. As useful as humor is in storytelling, if the humor forces the FLOW of the story to break, it is immediately discarded. I think that is why most humorous characters in games are sidekicks/bit parts. That is probably also why the funniest moments I remember in games I have played are so peripheral to the core experience. Sure, there were funny quests in some RPG's, but a lot of them did not affect the main storyline in any way.

    And why no talk about humor in simulation games? Tropico 3 just came out, and while it may not be a chuckle fest, the entire premise and concept rely on a kind of dark humor to work. Just reading the campaign descriptions paints you as a corrupt, self-serving dictator. Sim Tower had its weird moments of humor that made me laugh as a kid(maybe I was just a strange kid) – funny hotel room noises, the responses to office phone calls, gold chain toting gangsters with bomb threats etc. Roller Coaster Tycoon had puking park-goers and depressed janitors. Whenever a game designer moves to the unimportant parts of a game, it seems like they get the itch to add a little absurdity. Simulation games have an abundance of this absurd humor because there is so much stuff to do, I guess.

  24. Psychopomp says:

    ORKZ IS DAH BEST for this very reason.

  25. Zack says:

    Nobody’s yet acknowledged the key factor here. With a few notable exceptions, everybody’s approached humor in games like they would approach humor in movies, and it tends to fall flat because games aren’t movies. To me, the most successful translation of any dramatic concept to gaming is within the framework of the game. Humor in movies interacts with your viewing experience, I think we’ve yet to find very much humor in games that interacts with your gaming experience. Bioshock did it with drama, Eternal Darkness did it with horror. Both games that couldn’t be anything but games. Actually, come to think of it, Timesplitters did pretty funny things (you travelling in time to help yourself) that relied on the process of playing the game to set up the humor. Portal was the same. By skewering the omnipresent training narrator of FPS games they were able to generate a humor that was game-specific. To me, that’s always more successful. I think, to a large degree, developers are still learning how to create comedy that feels unique to the player (even if it’s not) rather than just gameplay wasting time until they can tell their next genius gag.

  26. Joey says:

    The only games that have really been able to be truly funny, a actual comedic game, have been adventure games. The Curse of Monkey Island is probably my favorite game of all time. The new Zombie Cow games were great too. I love comedy in games. My favorite FPS, Duke Nukem 3D, is probably the funniest FPS I’ve ever played (Never played a Serious Sam game. Not sure how comedic or just over the top they are). It’s great if you can get a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Adventure games lend themselves to that with lots of dialogue and character focus. A few jabs here in there in a game do not make it funny but do lighten the mood effectively. I love comedy in games, especially when it is a main focus.

  27. Kua says:

    If a game makes me laugh I’m willing to overlook a whole plethora of failings.

  28. Risingson says:

    Indeed there are more humorous titles than expected at first sight: strategic titles like Afterlife are quite comedic, but even classic titles like Master of Orion or Civilization, Z, Constructor and many more have lots of humor. We have mentioned some RPGs too. Simulations? There use to be no narration in simulation games, but humor could be spotted many times in LHX (do you remember the skill level faces?) or F19. And I’m thinking of my favourite games ever (Flashback, Another World) and they all had sense of humor.

    So it’s a matter of games taking themselves seriously, not genres or vague stereotypes.

  29. Stupoider says:

    Tim Schafer succeeds in making me laugh. :)

    • Noc says:

      ACK. My sticky control key strikes again, and ruins another joke by pasting in the wrong thing.

      Fun game: Guess what was supposed to be the first half of that post! Fabulous Cash Prizes* for the winner.

      * Not actually fabulous, cash, or prizes.

  30. Sagan says:

    I think it would be appropriate in this thread to link to this video:

  31. Anthony Damiani says:

    Genuine comedy, as opposed to just whimsical styling, relies on novelty and the unpredictable– gameplay generally relies on iterated repetition. It’s one reason Adventure games did them well– because the whole experience was hand crafted. Today, much of our content is essentially procedural– you can deathmatch in TF2 or play a game of Madden any time you like, but the experience is mostly the same.

    Portal was one of the funniest games in recent memory, but its humor was largely only possible because it was a short, highly-scripted affair, not something intended to be an unending buffet.

  32. Tye The Czar says:

    I remember what Yatzhee said during a review of Twisted Pixel’s ‘Splosion Man, and how the “cake” reference became stale, also likening it to people’s overuse of Monty Python and The Holy Grail.