A Serious Discussion About Comedy in Video Games

I was lucky enough to grow up a gamer during the NES era. I say lucky not just because, as a child, the NES was this mythical monolith of unlimited entertainment potential, but because I’ve been lucky to see video games evolve from the big bang moment that was Nintendo’s first console. In that time, what’s impressed me most evolution-wise isn’t the technological advancements the industry has enjoyed, but the artistic ones.

Writing quality would probably be the biggest improvement. Recently, I started playing “The Witcher 2,” and I’m finding it to be a watershed moment in video game storytelling. Sure, some of the dialog is groan-worthy, but the overall tale, and the brilliant way in which the game weaves it, is simply astounding. While it may be a beacon of writing quality in games, it’s far from the only port in the harbor. Games like “Braid,” “Bioshock,” and “Heavy Rain,” to name a few, have all gone far and beyond to prove that at their best, the stories of video games can bring out all of the same emotions as the stories in books, films and theater.

Except for humor.

Of course, I’ve laughed while playing games before, but it’s rarely been because of a specific joke made. Instead, by their general nature, video games are just light-hearted entertainment sources. Hell, the mascot of the entire industry might just be an underdeveloped Italian plumber with a hatred of reptiles, incredible jumping abilities, and a hard-on for elitist blondes. So for an artform that isn’t supposed to take itself too serious by its very nature, why is good, pure comedy so hard to come by?

Let me backtrack a little bit from that statement. I know that funny video games exist. I also know that comedy is perhaps the most subjective form of entertainment there is. What makes one person’s sides split causes another’s lips to droop. But still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t works of comedy in other mediums that are generally considered to be undisputed comedy classics. Like “Caddyshack” or “Ghostbusters” or “This is Spinal Tap.” What is gaming’s equivalent? Well, type “funniest video games of all time into Google” and the consensus answer would seem to be “Conker’s Bad Fur Day.” I’ve covered Conker before, but just as a refresher, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” is simply the raunchiest, most parody-filled, brute force comedy video game ever made.

And it’s not that funny. Well, I mean it is, but at best it’s a decent episode of “South Park,” without any of the clever context. “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” was a machine gun of jokes that figured if it fired enough rounds, one of them would hit just about everyone that played it. Even worse, it aimed that gun square at the stereotype that gamers are only 14 year old virgins, and made its name from it. And yet, to this day when people reference it, they use the words “Adult Humor.”

The King of Video Game Comedy?

I actually do think that humor like that has its place in comedy everywhere. The problem in gaming is that style seems to be the rule, and not an exception. Even if you want to be generous and say Conker was a product of its time, times have changed and video game humor has not. Games have proven time and again that they can do lowbrow humor very well with titles like “Conker,” “Duke Nukem,” “Leisure Suit Larry,” “Earthworm Jim,” “Bulletstorm,” and on, and on, and on. Still, the most games continue to strive for humor-wise is to throw out a cheap joke and hope it hits. If not, hey, it was cheap, so you didn’t lose much for trying. It’s a lack of effort pure and simple. But why the lack of effort? Why don’t developers commit more attention to comedy in games?

Well, this is where we get to the heart of the problem. You see, the sad truth is that there may just not be any great incentive for developers to focus on making comedy video games. I’ve been loving games for a while now without having to burden myself with the illusion that video games are not an industry first. And in this industry, comedy doesn’t sell. You can look at the last decade or so and find some genuine examples of comedy video games done with effort, but you will not find many of them that sold well. What’s worse is that when the money isn’t flowing, talent can’t grow. The message the sales figures are showing is that you can be funny, and you can be a game developer. But if you want to make it in the industry, it does not pay to be a funny video game developer.

That’s a shame, because it’s talent that comedy games need. Looking back to “Caddyshack,” it was a comedy film that not only had a collection of some of the best comedy talent available at the time in front of the camera, but behind it as well. Most of that talent was influenced by the talent of the Monty Python crew and what they did for comedy to revolutionize it. The Monty Python guys were influenced by the stage satire style of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and so on. Talent begets talent.

Pictured: Talent

Which is why it’s a shame that what should have been the great talent renaissance in comedy games seems to have passed without many peers gaining influence. I’m referring to the prior works of “Lucas Arts” and specifically the works of Tim Schafer. In the early ’90s, both of these great talents used adventure titles as a platform for some of the greatest video game comedy work ever written. Not only were the jokes in titles like “Curse of Monkey Island,” “Grim Fandango,” “Full Throttle,” and “Maniac Mansion” genuinely gut busting funny, but they were clever and timeless as well. It was also humor that felt appropriate for video games, and video games only, also known as the rare beast called video game humor. Sadly, as the adventure genre itself fell out of favor, so did these titans of comedy. “Lucas Arts” now makes cheap “Star Wars” titles, and Tim Schafer has been trying desperately to put out classic comedy video games, only to be met with critical acclaim and poor sales figures at every turn.

So what are we supposed to draw from this? That gamers don’t want to buy funny games, and funny games won’t be made because there is no one who can make them? Is that why the comedy game genre is so obscure it’s basically non-existenent? Personally, I refuse to believe such statements. Instead, I feel the problem maybe far worse than that. The problem may be that video games themselves are just not a good medium for comedy, unless a significant effort is applied. Believe it or not, there are actually rules and elements to a joke. The good ones require timing, rhythm, and must convey as much humor as possible, in as little effort as possible for full effect.

This is why adventure games were the perfect platform for comedy. They were highly choreographed and staged productions where the game designer knew exactly how a player was going to have to handle a situation. Developers were able to use dialog and set pieces to perfectly get jokes across, because they could afford the proper set up, and execute them with precision rhythm. As great as ideas like sandbox worlds and increased freedom in gaming are, it does hamper the comedic options for a developer tremendously. While some companies like Rockstar have learned to infuse their open worlds with tons of humor, and take scripted moments like cinemas and radio stations as an excuse to perfectly use jokes, many developers just don’t seem to be able to do the same, or simply aren’t interested. Even worse is that games seem to be on a mission to take themselves more serious than ever. The entire industry is loaded with shaved head militant anti-heroes on violent rampages, because that is what sells.

One of These Things Is Exactly Like the Other

I’d be a fool at this point to claim I have any answer for what it will take to push comedy into its own genre in video games, in earnest after spending the last thousand words or so telling you all the reasons it hasn’t worked, and may not work. Luckily. though, real people in the gaming industry have provided me something that’s less than an answer but is much more than nothing. That is ideas, theories, and even examples of how comedy can work in video games moving forward.

Hell, last year provided two fantastic new mainstream contributors to the comedy genre. The first was “Saints Row: The Third.” I know, I know, it features the same level of lowbrow humor that I panned Conker for promoting. But it shows that if you truly commit to making a comedy game, you don’t need to rely on such traditions as timing and rhythm, and can use an open world environment to your advantage to create a mini world of your own unique brand of over the top humor. Also, it lets you do this:

The bigger contributor to comedy that year, and perhaps the funniest game ever made, would in fact be “Portal 2.” “Portal” was funny, but “Portal 2” is absurdly hilarious. The successful way in which the game mixes moments of brain teasing with perfectly written and delivered jokes in an active game style is unrivaled in all of gaming. I struggled to know if the first “Portal” was a first person shooter or a puzzle game. By “Portal 2,” I knew the series was a comedy.

While those games represent significant entries into the comedy genre, I’m afraid that neither of them indicate that a true comedy revolution is at hand. Instead I fear that if comedy is ever going to become a true video game genre, it’s going to take a perfect storm. You need a group of developers who are as much comedians as they are programmers, all working together on a marketable idea they feel passionately about, that is able to get mainstream publicity (or serious word of mouth), and of course is actually fun to play. Perhaps even several projects like that in rapid succession. I wish I could say that I believed this scenario is imminent, or even possible, but the truth is that I can’t help but feel that truly funny games are going to always be a beautiful oddity that appears from time to time, like a full harvest moon.

Even as I sit here typing this article, I don’t know if I could tell you what I intended by writing it. I think I just feel frustrated that as video games continue to grow and mature, they think it means abandoning their sense of humor. If anything, one of the true marks of maturity is to be able to take your years of hard earned wisdom, and still be able to laugh at yourself and the world around you once in a while. Yet so many video games these days feel more like a pubescent teen. Dark and full of angst for no conceivable reason, expecting the world to take them seriously yet still laughing at farts and follies while insisting they don’t.

Quite frankly, at this point it’s embarrassing that comedy video games are not prevalent enough to be their own genre, and it’s also embarrassing what passes as comedy in games in many cases. The sad part is, that if the industry really has dug itself into a comedy rut so deep that it’s now going to take some serious commitments and unprecedented levels of talent just to be funny, then we truly are faced with a problem that is no laughing matter.


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