Games make me laugh all the time. Not usually on purpose, but they do it anyway. I laugh when I die yet another stupid death in Dark Souls. I laugh when an Animal Crossing character asks me to deliver something to the guy standing next to them. I laugh when my character in Persona gets away with two-timing every girl in the city, because that's insane. My being a part of these tiny worlds lets me laugh at them in some way. When something insane and ridiculous happens in a movie, it's either a brilliant on-purpose joke, or campy nonsense that drags down the film for most viewers. But when it happens in a game, I did it, I caused the insanity, I'm the one who broke the fifth wall of seriousness and turned this whole world into some elaborate joke.
I'm the comedian, and this whole game can be mined for jokes.
Everybody's seen the clips from the Wicker Man where Nic Cage yells about being covered in bees, or the Judge Dredd clip where Dredd is the LAWWWW, and outside of the context of a full movie, those clips are hilarious. But inside the theatre, for the people who paid to sit and watch these movies, those are the things that break the flow of a film, ridiculous, awkward scenes and stilted dialog that break our brief immersion into whatever world we're trying to be a part of. Games however, no matter how hard they try, can never really be immersive as a medium. It's sort of impossible to be mechanically driven and also immersive. There are games that choose to put aside mechanic complexity in favour of serving a deeper interactive narrative, which is a totally rad prospect, but those aren't, and probably won't ever be, the majority of games. As countless smarter people like Merritt Kopas and Darius Kazemi have said, games do what they do best by letting a player explore their systems. Systems and mechanics stacked high to the ceiling, bursting from a game to be able to convey a message or a story. It's what makes games a unique medium, our ability to interact with them in a deeper way than say, books or movies.
But systems aren't terribly immersive. When you see the way the sausage is made, it doesn't quite seem like a sausage anymore, and the less abstract your systems are, the more of the sausage factory a game is showing. Heads-up displays, like health bars and ammo counts immediately come to mind as something that tips me straight out of the immersion. Some games do a better job of presenting that info diegetically; Halo puts ammo counts on the backs of it guns as tiny LED displays, and Metroid Prime portrays your HUD as part of Samus's visor, occasionally fogging it up in intense heat, or showing a reflection of Samus's eyes if there's a flash of light. But even diegetic info doesn't feel quite right at times. The fact that I have health in the first place is sort of weird, and at the end of the day, I'm separated from the game by a screen and a controller. During a movie, I'm part of a captive audience, sitting in a silent room with mostly motionless people, all staring at one screen. There's something to be said for the immersion you can achieve when the outside world is locked away. Movies can do that, mostly because they run in controlled environments and last 3 hours maximum. Games are usually played at home or on the bus, where there's noise, movement and getting up to go to the washroom. In fact, a pause button is totally unimmersive. Movies don't stop when you need to pee, the characters' lives go on. In a game the world stops for your every whim. You're god, and being god isn't a terribly immersive experience.
The point is, you can't be ridiculous and immersive all at once. But that's an advantage that games have, and can use to tell better jokes than pretty much any other medium. The first time you die in Dark Souls II is guaranteed to be a stupid, ridiculous death. You can die in the tutorial zone, you can mess up a jump, you could fall off a cliff in the starting town. Anyway you slice it, your first death is going to be careless and stupid. Which is why the game rewards you with an achievement called "This is Dark Souls". It's a great joke. It plays off your expectation that you're going to die in this game famous for being hard, teases you for dying so stupidly, and then makes a nice little point about the game that you shouldn't really worry about death, because you're going to die a lot. Interactive jokes are sort of like a knock-knock joke in that way. One side opens the joke, the other side fills out the middle, and then the first side delivers the punchline.
A joke can be made funnier if you let the audience in on it. There's a really great joke in Moshe Kasher's stand up special where he has a member of the audience give him people and things to mime. Of course, the audience member is comedian Brent Weinbach, and they've rehearsed the bit, but for the audience, seeing the comedian react to what they think is one of them and play off of it seems even funnier. It looks like brilliant improv, or at the very least shows that Kasher has some great reactions. There's an element of surprise there. Jokes are all about surprising the audience with something they never thought of before, and letting them fill in a bit of the joke makes their expectations more solidified. They don't expect something, they know something, and playing off of that is even funnier.
Similarly, games with interactive jokes work off of flipping around what you thought you knew. At one point in Jazzpunk, for a split second, your damage indicators and noises turn into those from GoldenEye. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing, but it works. It plays with a mechanic you already know and understand. I mentioned the frog joke in this month's primer, but it's really my favorite joke I can tell without spoiling the whole game. A frog asks you to help him get to other side of the road, which turns the game into Frogger. Then, when you inevitably fail, the frog is bandaged up and wounded. Every time you try again, he gets more and more injured, begging for you to stop hurting him with your awful Frogger skills.
I don't know what happens when you win, but I don't care. The initial joke was having to play Frogger all of a sudden, then I filled in the middle by playing it, and the punchline was that the frog was reacting properly to my failure. For that moment, I knew the game was frogger, which brought a whole new, different host of expectations from knowing the game Jazzpunk. And then it blew the whole thing out of the water by whiplashing me back into Jazzpunk. It's a great joke! I thought it was hilarious! I ruined a poor frog's life!
We tend to like things more when we can participate. In a slightly weirder way, shooting someone in Call of Duty is more visceral and powerful than watching the same scene on youtube, or even in a movie. Action gives us something. It’s one of the reason spreading jokes through memes is so popular. Having a joke template allows someone else to dictate the terms of the joke, ie. the format, concept and context, and allow the other person to fill in the punchline. It’s funnier to us because we had a hand in its creation. There’s a lot to be said for the power of interactivity, in learning, in entertainment, and even in comedy. If someone learns better when they do instead of read? Why not laugh more when they tell part of the joke, instead of just hear all of it?
Of course, that style of humour isn’t for everyone, and the kind of singular focus and clever writing required for a game with comedy as its primary gameplay element (read: an adventure game) pretty much automatically means any comedy-genre game you’ll ever play will be an indie game. But between Jazzpunk, Goat Simulator, and even simpler concepts like Don’t Shit Your Pants, we’re living in a comedy game golden age right now.
So let’s get cracking on that knock-knock joke simulator, huh?