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No Funny Business

By Mark Brown

humour1“How do you ‘play’ a comedy game? It just doesn’t work like that.”

Dan Marshall, creator of Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentleman, Please!, certainly knows how to fuse comedy and games. But even he admits that they’re uncommon bedfellows. “Presumably it’s because comedy doesn’t lend itself to gameplay in the same way action does,” postulates Marshall. Unlike movies and TV, which define their genre by theme and tone, the gaming nomenclature mainly uses actions to describe content. Brutal Legend will be classified as an action game, an RTS and an open-world adventure way before being called a comedy, and even Marshall’s description of Ben There puts ‘point-and-click’ before ‘comedy’.

Humour and comedy are rarities in this medium, with only a handful of truly funny games being released every year. Games like Uncharted often use wit and sharp writing to make players smile and games like Mini Ninjas use visual gags and slapstick to lighten the mood, but outright comedic games are rarely released.

It wasn’t always this way; throughout the 80s and early 90s, comedy was king. In 1984, seminal British comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was adapted into a text adventure, expertly lampooning the conventions of typical interactive fiction and using witty reactions and colourful dialogue to describe scenes. Even as adventures moved into the realms of graphics and scrapped text parsers, humour was an integral part of the genre, as seen in everything from Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry (which followed a balding loser’s unsuccessful quest to seduce women) to LucasArts’ Monkey Island (where wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood fumbles and jokes his way through swashbuckling adventures).

There are plenty of reasons that humour fit the world of point-and-click adventures. “They’re very wordy by nature, which makes it a lot easier to tell gags,” explains Dan Marshall, who’s built an indie empire from funny point-and-clicks at Zombiecow Studios. “The preposterous rules of adventure games mean they inherently lend themselves to comedy. That’s something that Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert understood in even their more ’serious’ work, like Full Throttle or Grim Fandango. There’s always an underlying element of these characters living their lives by a set number of rigidly-defined verbs.”

humour2As soon as you ask Manny Calavera to talk to an inanimate object or ask Larry Laffer to pick up a stupendously heavy object, the jokes write themselves. Marshall also equates some of the success to the constant barrage of witty lines and funny descriptions that point-and-clicks allow. “Humour’s very subjective,” he explains, “but if the player doesn’t like a joke, they can click something else and uncover another pretty quickly.”

//A space marine and a cyber demon walk into a bar
Today’s leading genres are far less open to humour than adventures – characters are more often busty archaeologists and macho space marines than the butt of a joke. Ron Gilbert wrote on his blog, Grumpy Gamer, in 2004: “It’s funny to laugh at the main character in a movie dealing with one travesty after another or being made a fool of, but in a game, the main character is us. If those bad things are preventing us from making progress in the game, that’s not funny, that’s frustrating.”

Modern genres also offer far more freedom and dynamism, which makes telling a traditional story tricky, let alone one with recurring jokes and carefully paced moments of comedy. Games like Grand Theft Auto have to make do with less conventional types of humour: witty radio stations, superfluous comedy clubs and Rockstar’s endless stream of parody and caricature.

Rhianna Pratchett, writer of the hilarious Overlord games, explains that “you don’t get as much control writing a funny game as you would writing a sitcom, because you don’t have control of all the elements. Things like timing and context can be difficult to keep control of in a game world.”

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4 Comments

    [...] 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 [...]

  • Oh come on: No mention of Portal? Portal is important for a few reasons:

    1) Like the original Secret of Monkey Island, it began as a relatively straight-faced game about puzzle solving. The humor first emerged when someone on the team was messing around and decided to give the character(s) some funny lines.

    2) Not including the humor would not have affected the basic gameplay of puzzle-solving, flinging, and dealing with turrets. In fact, the humor needed the foundation of the rest of the game-in-progress to exist in the first place. If the team had started with “make this funny” it would have been very different. Compare the first two Secret of Monkey Island games to every Monkey Island that came after.

    3) Rather than just adding distracting “funny” lines, the humor is used to enhance the game in many ways: justifying the ridiculous situation the main character is in by having the computer be an (entertaining) sadistic loony, hinting at the back-story, driving the current story forward, expanding GLaDOS’s character, and rewarding the player for progress made (the *player* doesn’t care about the cake, but might chuckle at a cake-based joke). The funny makes the player care, and if a line doesn’t work they got rid of it in playtesting.

    4) In addition to the scripted funny, there’s plenty of opportunities for (a phrase I just came up with) Dynamic Slapstick. There are plenty of opportunities to drop cubes, accidentally misdirect a lethal energy ball into yourself, fall into a toxic pit, be shot by a turret, not quite dodge a rocket in time, and so forth. The scripted humor puts the player in a mood to chuckle at their own pratfalls and try again instead of just being frustrated and giving up.

    There’s also the satisfaction of sabotaging cameras, violently dispatching turrets via high speed objects and other means, finding creative ways to dispose of the radios and other “little victories” that can happen any time the right props are available. In the case of the cameras and the turrets there are several randomly-determined lines that reinforce the behavior by rewarding the player with a spoken punchline; so there is some reliance on the script but the timing is player driven.

  • Great article. Comedy is an interesting subject in games, for exactly the reasons outlined here. Thoroughly engaging read.

    To the poster above: I think you’ve misunderstood the intention of the article slightly. It is not trying to list funny games, but is exploring why comedy does and does not work within games, supporting this with views from industry professionals. I don’t think that there is any implication that Portal, specifically, is an unworthy comedy game. Also, all the reasons you have outlined suggest portal is a well-balanced and “comic” game, but in no way groundbreaking or defining. You have simply reiterated some of the points in the main article, citing Portal as an example.

  • Interesting post, i really enjoyed it =D reason face

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