Jazzpunk isn’t an adventure game, it’s an interactive sketch show. Its puzzles are slight and there’s little incentive to advance the scrap of a plot until each area has been scoured and sucked dry. Leave no stone unturned. Despite the setting – a techno-retro, trenchcoat-clad Cold War – the levels aren’t packed with clues, they’re packed with gags. Occasionally, a sidequest emerges from an alleyway but the solution is a punchline rather than an insight. Here’s wot I think.
Jazzpunk is hilarious.
There are, in fact, no insights at all. Or perhaps the whole thing is a digital age deconstruction of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I completely missed the point. I don’t think that’s the case though – Jazzpunk asks the player to sit on a startlingly obvious Whoopee Cushion within its first five minutes. The thing is glowering on a seat like a hot pink jellyfish packed full of gas. This isn’t a subtle game and if it were a stand-up comedian, it’d have more manic energy than Lee Evans in his prime. One shuddering, sweating pratfall away from a rimshot, a sting and a heart attack. In Jazzpunk’s world, the only crime is to be unamusing, and everything from trashcans to turtles tries to entertain.
It’s a game of punchlines. Like many rapid-fire sketch shows, Jazzpunk hoses the wall with humour and leaves the viewer to see what sticks, while the rest becomes a sort of mulch underfoot. The mulch here isn’t as unpleasant as missed comedic marks so often are. It’s more like a broth than sewage, and the overall tone is too silly to cross into cruelty, even when cannibalism, torture and lobotomies intrude on proceedings. I particularly enjoyed the cannibalism actually, combined as it was with a cocktail smoothie.
More so than with Octodad, I laughed out loud and replayed portions for the benefit of spectators. And while the laughs didn’t dry up or turn into choking disappointment, by the time I reached the game’s second and final hour, I’d ceased to treat the environments as comedic stages. I didn’t wander through them, stumbling across weird but thematically appropriate humour. Instead, I ran from corner to corner systematically, clicking on everyone and everything, hungry for every scrap of nourishment. I started to see the game as a slightly wonky vending machine.
In the early stages, every time I clicked on an interactive element, I was inserting a coin and pushing a button in the hope that something delicious would fall into the slot below. I was investing a little time and effort, watching the machinery operate and waiting for the CLUNK of chilled chocolate. After the third Fruit and Nut rattled into view (raisins are grapes that have gone rogue, STOP EATING THEM), I was less inclined to invest any effort whatsoever and eventually I just hammered on the glass, watched the candy (crush saga) cascade, and barely noticing the taste as I tore into the bounty (and Twix) indiscriminately, not bothering to chew and flinging the wrappers over my shoulder.
As anyone who has ever seen a Halloween episode of a sitcom or cartoon will tell you, a feast that consists entirely of chocolate is a recipe for nausea. Jazzpunk is thick with sight gags, pop culture references, absurd interludes, tech humour, puns, gaming satire, spoofs, innuendoes and one-liners – but there’s precious little in the way of narrative or even thematic structure between all the confection.
There’s promise of a strong linking device in the early stages. The opening forms an exquisite take on a cinematic credit sequence that Saul Bass would have been proud of, mixing the abstractions of his earlier work with the scenic cartoons of Around The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World In 180 Days. Then, in a ramshackle former train station, we’re introduced to the agency from which protagonist Polyblank receives his instructions. And then the deliriously and hilariously unnerving proposition of hallucinated espionage missions comes into play, and the screen is colour and comedy for two delightful hours.
‘Delightful’ is the right word. I’ve been very dour at times while sharing these thoughts, adopting the often humourless stance of the person who attempts to analyse humour. I could have just written ‘LOL’, which is the sort of thing that the characters in Jazzpunk might do, but I don’t think it would have been particularly helpful. This is an extraordinarily inventive game and the simple layouts perfectly suit comic delivery, but it’s also not quite what it seems. The pop culture references and techie puns occasionally overwhelm the brilliant oddity of Jazzpunk’s own world, and the alternate history espionage backdrop becomes a coathanger for a honking, garish clown suit, which is far less interesting than a trenchcoat with a squirty flower on the lapel.
When every interaction leads to an attempted punchline, there’s no time for slow-build or characterisation. Villain, secretary and bureau chief aside, characters recur as types rather than as individuals, and the shade of disappointment relates to the excellence of the rare sequences that apply a strange logic rather than jabbing directly at the funnybone. I don’t want to spoil any jokes but the confusion of sports, a pillow fight and the perfect reaction to the restaurant with the ‘no shoes’ policy all had me pausing the game to laugh like a drunken hyena for a moment or two. The strongest jokes arise from the situation – often making it strange or uncomfortable – and Jazzpunk is interspersed with free-floating throwaway gags that are swiftly forgotten.
The brief running time means that the idea-faucet doesn’t have a chance to run dry though, and there are certainly more hits than misses. The sex- and butler-bots didn’t raise as much as a smile but I’ll confess to giggling at the terrible comedy accents. Many people will be happy to prod and poke at the many corners of the game’s crowded worlds to find every last non sequitur and prank. I certainly was. But I recall the majority of the experience as a series of playmats and gyms. I was this little fellow, swinging a fist at the Chung-like boxy cartoons and gurgling with delight when they responded with a line of dialogue or a canned animation.
When all’s said and done, that’s a fantastic way to take a break from reality for a couple of hours. For all my gripes, I’ll be surprised if any other game this year makes me laugh as much as Jazzpunk did. Even when it deviates from its theme, Necrophone steer their game closer to Naked Gun and Airplane! than to the plague of modern [BLANK] Movies that are more interested in mocking celebrities on the verge of a nervous breakdown than spoofing any particular genre of film. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ll be happy if I laugh as much or as hard at any film released this year*.
Jazzpunk is out now.
* haven’t seen the Lego Movie yet. Unsure if it’s receiving so much praise because it’s very funny or because it has a completely unexpected tragic twist that will make me question the nature of childhood, toys and mortality. Do not spoil.