Playing a Joke: A Look at the Difficulties of Creating Interactive Comedy

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of CGM.  A copy of the full issue can be purchased via our webstore or a digital copy through Pocket Mags or the Apple App Store.

 

Being funny isn't easy. For every comic genius who succeeds in the worlds of film, television, or stand-up, there are countless others who try, and fail, to make audiences laugh. Comedy is a multi-faceted art and, even though someone may be absolutely hilarious in casual conversation, there's no guarantee that they possess all the other traits necessary to entertain a crowded club or cinema audience. It's not enough just to have a few good jokes. A master comic is someone who is capable of controlling their environment, whether this means commanding a room or being able to react quickly to unexpected changes to a conversation or situation. The best comedies are also created with complete authorial intent at their foundation. Scripts are penned with cues as to how and when the actors should move or deliver lines; cinematography is used to frame each moment the right way; directors and editors exercise control over how and when the jokes are presented to the audience in order to maximize their effect. These factors make all the difference between a good and bad comedy—basically, something that does or does not make people laugh.  

Considering all of this, it isn't too surprising that there are so few truly funny videogames. Successful humour hangs so much on the elements of timing and authorial control that making a comedy interactive is extremely difficult by its very nature. Just the same, game development is constantly evolving and there is no lack of talented artists experimenting with genre and style. Some—not many, but some—videogames have been funny before, after all. By taking notice of what has and hasn't worked in the past it's possible to imagine a future where the genre multiplies and comedy finds a comfortable place as an important part of the medium.

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Day of the Tentacle

It's impossible to talk about humour in videogames without mentioning the work of Tim Schafer, first as a writer/designer at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts and later with Double Fine Productions. Schafer, in a medium almost completely devoid of outstanding comedy titles, looms large. The influence of the "point and click" adventure games he was instrumental in creating—The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango—are cornerstones of videogame humour. This is because Schafer, with his immense talent for characterization and witty dialogue, has shown that videogames are capable of being just as funny as any other medium. The creativity and intelligence in Schafer's early work has made the LucasArts games he wrote and designed (often in collaboration with Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman) modern classics—they firmly established comedy as a viable genre for the medium to explore.

Part of Schafer and LucasArts' success is due to the fact that the adventure game is well suited for comedy. Puzzles and conversation paths are metered, progress through them gated by logistical processes that give the player little room for true mechanical freedom (and all of the potentially joke-ruining messiness that too much freedom entails). The adventure writer can construct "living" jokes that, though interactive, are tightly controlled. The founding of Double Fine Productions—and the subsequent release of games like the wonderfully surreal Psychonauts and fantastical metal send-up Brütal Legend—showed that Schafer was capable of transitioning to other game genres without losing his ability to write hilarious titles. The adventure genre has seen many of the most successful comedies to date, but the cornerstones of Schafer's humour writing—slapstick, quick visual gags, and sharp dialogue—work well in other game types. Despite this, from the early 2000s onward, comedy games began taking a backseat to more serious fare. Notable exceptions like  Valve's Portal games and Volition's Saints Row series stand out among a flood of releases concerned more with providing audiences with blood-soaked action than belly laughs. Even the light-hearted tone typically found in all-ages action games like Sucker Punch Productions' Sly Cooper and Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot has found itself relegated to a niche.

Why is this?

Videogames' ongoing acceptance into the pop culture mainstream may be responsible for the enormous growth in self-serious narratives and the dearth of light-hearted ones. This is, in a lot of senses, only natural. Games have long been derided as a pastime for either children or emotionally stunted adults. Developers wishing to advance games as a more nuanced form of expression have therefore had to show that it is possible for interactive entertainment to have real artistic merit. As a by-product of these advancements, though, a "serious" studio is more likely to attempt a tone of dramatic gravitas than humour with their games. And as if this wasn't enough of a problem, there's also the fact that audiences will be far quicker to bag on lousy humour, with its tendency toward either being pretty annoying or downright offensive, than they will to enthusiastically grouse at the details of a badly told drama. It is, after all, a lot less complicated to write the easy beats of a doomed squad of Spartan heroes than it is to craft the off-hand quips of Nathan Drake. Combine the difficulty of humour writing with the desire for videogames to achieve their artistic potential, and the result is clear. The race to legitimacy has had a remarkably positive impact on games, showing that they can be just as socially and emotionally important as any other form of media. It may also be responsible for a lull in comedic titles, too.

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Alpha Protocol

For the last several years it seemed like anyone looking for funny games would have to be satisfied with offbeat indies or the occasional mainstream title. Then, Obsidian Entertainment—a team best known for the narrative driven Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, and (as Black Isle Studios) Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2— released South Park: The Stick of Truth. In a partnership with South Park Digital Studios, Obsidian, a developer with a proven track record of creating quirkily written role-playing games, has continued its company tradition in collaboration with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The resulting game captures, for better or worse, the spirit of the long-running animated TV show. The same (mostly high) calibre of joke writing is in place; the same iconic voice acting is present; the same audiences who like South Park's style of humour now have a videogame that distils it through an interactive medium. The Stick of Truth, when looked at in this way, is a pretty big accomplishment. South Park is a cultural institution in North America because it is a series that has managed to make people laugh for nearly 20 years of shows, without any really sustained dip in quality during its run. In the past, videogame adaptations of successful TV shows have led to either flat-out bad games or fun experiences that failed to offer the same kind of laughs as the material they were based on. The Stick of Truth is different, though. Not only does it feature all the aesthetic trappings of the show (the recreation of South Park's lo-fi construction paper animation is, I think, a key part of what makes the humour work), but the decision to develop the game as a fairly traditional RPG enhances its tone. Parker and Stone's love of absurdity and gross-out jokes (which, admittedly, cross the line into socially irresponsible territory a few times throughout the game) are accentuated through the genre's reliance on turn-based battle commands and an item inventory packed with text descriptions. Giving Butters, the tormented sweetheart of the group, a healing move where he rubs the player character's back is a funny spin on familiar RPG tropes. Making the junk picked up from defeated enemies objects that reference the show's extensive fiction makes buying and selling equipment an opportunity for a throwaway gag. This kind of design just goes to show that RPGs are a lot like adventure games in that they offer a lot of chances to craft funny dialogue and control the timing of jokes with mechanical restrictions. The Stick of Truth makes excellent use of these stylistic conventions to metre out the jokes and direct the pacing of its humour, even in an interactive medium. The game's success may be partially attributed to the financial resources made available to the creators of a popular TV show, but Obsidian and the South Park team's smart design choices can't be discounted either.

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Playing a Joke
South Park: The Stick of Truth

It's this same type of understanding of how comedy and interactivity best intersect that has led to another of 2014's funniest titles, Necrophone Games' surrealist Jazzpunk. As if in response to the legacy of Tim Schafer's classic work, Jazzpunk uses the adventure game genre as a template for what amounts to two hours of rapid-fire gags. The player explores a series of open environments, full of bizarre characters who each act as a treasure chest of flippant one-liners. The game works because its jokes are quick and, for the most part, self-contained. Instead of presenting material that could easily be tampered with via poor timing on the player's part, Jazzpunk takes a Rodney Dangerfield approach to comedy. Every joke explains itself. From the hilarious non-sequiturs spoken by each level's non-playable characters to the slapstick exaggeration of enemy agents barrelling down a hill after being whacked with a fly swatter, the pace is tightly controlled in a way that seems to solve the problem of bringing interactive comedy to the more open environments prevalent in modern games. Considering just how hilarious the experience is, it seems quite likely that this approach to humour represents the future of interactive comedy. Without the benefit of a recognizable cast of characters, pre-existing fan base, or the deep pockets of a major publisher, Jazzpunk manages to provide just as many laughs as The Stick of Truth. That it does this with an entirely original premise demonstrates that there is more potential to be mined from the genre by savvy developers with a knack for humour and the ability to explore how it can best be employed in an interactive context.

The basic problem remains, however, that the kind of comedy that works well in videogames isn't easy to market. Even as the medium and its audience continues to evolve at a rapid pace, many developers will continue pursuing the dramatic potential of games while publishers fund action-centric "summer blockbuster" titles that appeal to the most buyers possible. Trailers showing thrilling chases, gunplay, and explosions will still be easier to show off at press conferences than ones that make us laugh. Like most topics and genres currently underserved in videogames, comedy is likely to gain a greater foothold in the years to come due to the efforts of independent developers. Those with the liberty to create outside of the pressures that come from the traditional publishing model and its stifling market demands will always seek out areas of the medium that haven't been fully explored. Comedy, with its history of underrepresentation, is definitely one of them. Barring the occasional mainstream success like South Park: The Stick of Truth, the best humour games are likely to be found outside of the bigger development studio's catalogues. Whatever the result, the rise of comedy games is inevitable. Everyone loves to laugh and there are always talented comics who understand how best to make that happen. As more of them find a voice in videogames, the genre has a shot at achieving just as much prominence as any other.
                                                                                                                            

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