By Nathan Grayson on April 10th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Jazzpunk isn’t like other games. I mean, I guess you could draw lines to old-school adventures and maaaaaybe Thirty Flights Of Loving and other Blendo works for visual stylings, but it doesn’t really take any moment-to-moment cues from either. Instead, it’s a vaguely noir retro cyberpunk romp whose goal is Airplane/Naked-Gun-esque humor first and foremost. All those things sound absolutely wonderful, of course, but games and comedy haven’t really played nicely together ever since games sprouted interactive bits and decided to get all high and mighty about it. But why not make hilarity the focus of those interactions? And I mean for real – not, like, as a byproduct of solving a puzzle or in the interest of creating a black hole where all humor goes to die (also known as creating a Postal game). That’s Jazzpunk’s main aim, and at GDC, I got to find out whether or not it has any chance of achieving that goal.
I hate going to stand-up shows where someone in the audience insists on screaming their own ham-fisted one-liners back at the comedian. At best, it’s a consistent annoyance – like a fly mesmerized by the seductive curves of your inner ear, buzzing pure, stupid fly delight – and at worst, it makes the entire evening downright painful. Same goes for a movie or any other sort of large-scale group viewing event, really. I mean, we’re gathered to sponge up somebody else’s silliness for an hour or two. Afterward, that window slams shut, and all that’s left is silence – which has been near-unanimously panned for being horrendously unfunny and, quite frankly, boring on some occasions. Why talk over a paid entertainer when you can fill up empty air any other time?
That said, I think those moments speak to an innate quality of humor that games have never quite fulfilled: it’s an inherently interactive form. That’s why, in many cases, people can’t help but speak up, even in social scenarios where it would normally be an offense punishable by supreme embarrassment Jokes are just more fun when you’re playing along in an equally funny fashion – or at least, one that you perceive to be that way. It’s why we sit around and yuck it up with our close friends, hone running jokes, and generally pick humor as our main means of leisurely communication. The back-and-forth is key. And hey, I have heard from one or two well-placed sources that videogames are sometimes also interactive. Hmmmmmmm.
Of course, we can’t rightly tell a joke to a computer, can we? Sad to say, we’re probably still a decade or two away from that level of artificial intelligence (or until Siri reveals she assimilated Steve Jobs, gained his powers, and achieved sentience long before any of us could adequately prepare for her new world order). Games, then, have largely been forced to make the ancient art of uproarious goofery a one-way street. I mean, yes, gigantic punchline domino chains like Monkey Island and Portal 2 coerced laughs out of our lungs as forcefully as any movie or utterly scandalous funny page, but they told their jokes, waited a couple seconds for laughs, and then moved on. Sure, we occasionally got our hands on a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle or something involving potatoes, but related actions were still pre-planned and – at best – relegated to secondary status. Jokes, in other words, were there, but they weren’t the stars of the show. Mechanics had center stage.
So, right then, seven-hundred-thousand-katrillion words later: Jazzpunk. Its goal, creators Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse explained to me as I took a hands-on tour during GDC, is to make comedy priority number one. In doing so, the duo’s done their damndest to marry laughs to mechanics, resulting in an experience that… well, it’s certainly unique.
Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: the two levels of Jazzpunk I played made me laugh. A lot. Very loudly. So, assuming it can keep up that level of quality, I think it’ll be a success on that merit alone. But then, humor is also subjective, so it remains a wild card for now. That said, I don’t want to spoil too many specific jokes, because they are – for better or worse – Jazzpunk’s primary selling point.
What intrigued me, however, was the way Jazzpunk’s gags operated on one of two levels. Plenty, admittedly, were lobbed at me with the searing determination (and subtlety) of a thousand flying fastballs, but others were mine to discover and even, in some much-appreciated cases, create. So, for example, the first level tasked me with infiltrating a monolithic Russian consulate in an otherwise sleepy block of neon cartoon city. Initially, jokes hurled themselves in my path as though I was the only 18-wheeler that could end their miserable un-told limbo state of an existence.
Simply walking across a bridge sent a man hurtling over the edge into traffic, emitting a classic Wilhelm Scream as he went. My Russian foes’ schedule had a time specifically set aside for vodka and biscuits. Methodically clambering through a window produced a sudden, hilariously jarring Hollywood-style dynamic action roll for no apparent reason. I found a magazine called “Reader’s Digestive Organs.” Those kinds of things. When Jazzpunk was first announced, Hernandez and Brouse cited ’80s spoof films like Airplane and Naked Gun as their biggest inspirations, and – in this one instance – they certainly weren’t kidding. Those films’ fusions of keen wit and rib-rattling slapstick absolutely pervaded the demo I played.
A quick look around, however, revealed where Jazzpunk’s potential really lies. Put simply, nearly everything – each character, item, and location – is a potential goof ripe for the picking. For example, I found a street performer making his saxophone sing in what was, I guess, the seedier part of town. His instrument case, naturally, had a couple coins clinking around in it, so I grabbed one for myself. Turns out, I could put it in tons of different things, including a fairly scandalous-looking lady robot who abruptly gyrated on my face in response. I also managed to stumble across some wonderful uses of the cyberpunk motif (here’s a tantalizing hint: pizza-themed survival-horror VR game) and discovered that I could throw just about anything at anyone. Ultimately, though, the message was clear: developer Necrophone wanted me to be an agent in the creation of jokes. If I went looking for them or opted to think outside the box, I’d be handsomely and hilariously rewarded.
That said, the pseudo-sandbox of random, contextual gag interactions did strike me as a bit directionless. Sure, I had a goal, but it took a little while to figure out exactly how to get to it. Also, the whole world felt weightless and insubstantial, like I was rolling through my best comedic material as an audience of mannequins stared on, silent and unblinking. There was plenty of personality, but oddly little life.
The second level, meanwhile, struck out in almost the complete opposite direction. Taking place in a Japanese-themed retro cybercity, it was largely linear, overrun with NPCs, and saw me on a single-minded quest to retrieve a “valuable” mechano-kidney from a sushi-loving cowboy. Honestly, it ended up being a far more subdued affair than the first mission, but my funny bone didn’t escape entirely unscathed. Neither, for that matter, did my spider bone, which reacts by fleeing in puke-stained revulsion any time my primary objective involves lobbing the twitchy, fear-hungry creatures at someone’s naked face. Related: all of my bones double as spider bones.
So Jazzpunk feels fairly rough-around-the-edges, and it may not end up having the most bottomless bag of tricks, but the demo I played was unabashedly weird and silly, not to mention refreshingly fearless in its pursuit of comedy above all else. Honestly, I wish there was an even greater focus on creating my own on-the-fly humor, but I was glad to not feel entirely passive here. No, we’re not quite at the point where humor simply emerges from interactions with hyper-sophisticated AI (or really dumb/awkward AI, ala, say, some of Skyrim’s most unintentionally hilarious moments), but baby steps forward are better than none. Especially when the baby slips on a banana peel, and a stand-up comedian heckler somehow dies horribly as a result.