While it might seem like making people laugh would go hand in hand with having fun, games haven't really taken much of a shine to jokes and comedy over the years. But, small, brave handful of games have tried to get you to guffaw while you gun down zombones or whatever. Either by being ridiculous in concept, telling jokes throughout, or having comedy be your primary method of interaction, these are just a few of the games that might be at the fore of a comedy genre in games.
Barkley’s Shut up and Jam Gaiden:
The year is 2053. You are Charles Barkley, and you are on the run from Michael Jordan’s B-Ball Removal Department for allegedly unleashing the chaos dunk, a dunk so sweet it levelled Neo New York. Also Ghost Dad and Cyborg Vince Carter are there. Larry Byrd is a priest, and an evil clone called Shadow Barkley is involved at one point. Oh, and Space Jam is canon.
It’s hard to say that Barkleys’ Shut up and Jam Gaiden is a parody game, because it’s so dang earnest. It’s also a big game, with plenty of dungeons, attacks, items, the standard RPG bag of tricks. The thing is, all of it is so ridiculous, it becomes a pretty low-key parody of both ‘90s JRPGS and ‘90s basketball. Has your character been hit by one of the game’s many status effects, like diabetes or glaucoma? Try some tobacco, it cures whatever ails ya. One of you characters went down in battle? Try steroids. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and draws a lot of its comedy chops from early South Park, among other things, but it’s one of the earlier examples of an indie game poking fun at mainstream game genre tropes. Mostly by being ridiculous rather than actually saying anything of substance, but it worked at the time.
I imagine releasing a game with “aspergers” as a status ailment equivalent to confusion wouldn’t fly these days, but in 2008, before indie gaming broke out in a huge way, before games stopped taking themselves so damn seriously all the time, it was something of a revelation. Personally, I hadn’t played an RPG that wasn’t trying to be Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls up to that point, and all the grimdark self-righteousness that entailed. The upcoming sequel The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 - Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie - Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, or Barkley 2 looks to carry that goofy torch into a new generation of indie games, one that includes Cyberdwarf body pillows as kickstarter rewards.
No one said comedy couldn't be tsundere.
There’s a moment in Maniac Mansion that everyone knows about. It’s one of the few things that escaped the censorship of the NES version of the game, and it’s become so iconic, so emblematic of what Maniac Mansion did best, that it’s pretty much come to define the game itself. If you get your hands on Ed’s pet hamster, and you’re playing as either Syd or Razor, you can put that hamster in the microwave, then present it to Ed himself, the scene will cut away to the tombstone of the character who showed it to him.
In retrospect, it’s a pretty simple, straightforward bit. It’s a little obscure, considering you need one of two character to do it, and you need to assume the game will let you actually microwave a hamster, but that’s part of the joke. It’s ridiculous that the game would let you do that in the first place, and even crazier (at least for the time) that it would react. Sure, it’s a binary reaction, in that you either did microwave the hamster and got the joke, or you didn’t and you don’t. But, it’s a really early example of using the player’s interaction with the game world as a conduit for joke-telling. If the player is willing to set up the joke by doing something crazy, the game will respond in an equally surprising way. If the game had told you that you had to microwave a hamster and then killed you, it wouldn’t really be a joke. In fact, it would just be the game killing you for following orders. By giving you a little bit of freedom to set up a joke that was programmed in, the joke becomes way funnier. You’re an active participant in the joke-telling process, because you made the choice to microwave the hamster.
Comedy games aren’t quite a genre right now, but whenever they really get going, Maniac Mansion is definitely the origin point for whatever they become. Interactive joke-telling got its start with early LucasArts adventure games, in Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle, and moving forward into Grim Fandango and Sam and Max. They’re comedy touchstones, a part of funnygame history. Luckily, they’re a lot less offensive than actual comedy history, which is mostly just a lot of racist jokes.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard:
Eat Lead is not a bad idea for a video game. Will Arnett plays a Duke-Nukem-alike named Matt Hazard who starred in video games for years before running his name through the mud with a series of casual, kid-focused titles. Now, he’s trying to start a gritty reboot for himself, with an M-rated third person shooter on modern consoles. It all devolves into self-aware jokes about game design tropes and how the CEO of the fictional game’s publisher (played by Neil Patrick Harris) is running a Duck Amuck-style campaign to edit Hazard out of his own game with the help of QA, your standard video game disembodied lady voice.
The problem with Matt Hazard is the same problem with 99% of things that call themselves satire. It’s not satire if you are literally doing the thing you are making fun of. If it knows its a bog-standard third person shooter, and makes fun of itself for being so, why is it still being that thing that it is? The game makes fun of generic enemies that look like they were copy-and-pasted from other shooters, by using generic enemies they claim were copy-and-pasted from other fictional games. It doesn’t really work.
But, there’s something to be said for trying to be a post-modern, self-aware parody game. The first trailer for Eat Lead was a neat, VH1’s Behind the Music-style interview with Matt Hazard about his fall from grace and his upcoming projects. The idea that game characters have lives and exist in a weird flux when they aren’t in the game itself has been explored since (see Wreck it Ralph and Charles Yu’s Hero Absorbs Major Damage for some good examples), but the thoroughness of the parody is admirable. There are really solid joke concepts in Eat Lead, but it isn’t satire, which is what would have made them work.
Oh, and it’s also a pretty boring third person shooter, but that’s beside the point right now.
Jazzpunk is probably the first modern comedy game. It’s genre is comedy. Sure, it’s a first-person adventure spy game, but, like LucasArts’ classic adventure games, your primary gameplay mechanic is taking an item from one place and bringing it to another. The thing that made adventure games popular (and also what ended up killing them in the late ‘90s) was that they were the only place you could go for gorgeous animation and top-notch writing. Other games had to prioritize complex gameplay and physics in the limited space available to them at the time, but adventure games, with their simplistic gameplay and slow-moving action, could have far higher production values that pretty much any other game genre on the market.
Eventually, other games managed to get up to snuff in terms of the production values department, not necessarily the quality. Final Fantasy VIII had full motion, CG cutscenes. Metal Gear Solid had voice acting and an interesting, cohesive story. All LucasArts had in comparison was the ability to tell clever jokes and run on high-end computers. They did those things first, but consoles were bigger, and adventure game design could never really be as popular as say, an action game.
But Jazzpunk is a glorious return to that traditional adventure game comedy style, with a decidedly post-modern look. Really, all you’re ever trying to do is move one object from one place to another, but what’s pushing your forward through the game isn’t the gameplay, but the nonstop, torrential stream of jokes. Everyone is shaped like those signs you see on washroom doors sometimes, which is ridiculous enough, but then in the first level, people dressed like spies are poking out from the branches of trees, then disappearing once you look. Across the street there’s a frog. Talking to him starts a game of Frogger, which is amusing in its own right, but failing causes the frog to reappear, bandaged. Continuous failure ends with the frog covered in bruises and casts, begging you not to try and help him anymore. Of course, you totally, totally can.
In a way, it reminds of the Family Guy-style cutaway joke. It even sounds like something that would happen on the show. A frog starts crossing the road, and it gets run over. Ha ha, bet you never thought of that before. But, by giving the player agency in telling the joke, it goes from hackneyed concept, to brilliant execution. It’s funnier that my failure at this dumb, unfun game leads to permanent injuries to the frog. It’s funny that I can keep hurting him to get different reactions. It’s funny that I did it so many times that eventually the game forgot to go into a top-down view for the minigame, and I ended up playing a few games of behind-the-back Frogger
Jazzpunk’s primary gameplay element, that is to say, the thing that drives you along the critical path that leads to the end of the game, is wanting to hear, see, or play the next joke. In a lot of ways, it’s the heir to the LucasArts throne. Where those games died because every other game had their production values and more, this game thrives, because in the indie space, that doesn’t really matter. Jazzpunk over specializes in delivering a hilarious, interactive joke-telling experience, and no other game can promise the same.
Well, maybe Goat Simulator.