This VR theme month has really got us here at Built to Play thinking about the future. We were promised hovercars and cool robots by now, and the future has yet to deliver. But, in a mystifying coincidence, while we were sitting around complaining about our lame present, we got a missive from the future through one of the many pneumatic tubes set up in the recording booth. It told of a terrifying but wondrous future, mostly similar to our own, but where virtual reality technology had taken over video games, ushering in the anaglyphic age of gaming. As part of the time capsule, we also got a set of reviews set to go up the week of September 22nd, 2034. We’re pretty sure we can’t break embargo on games that don’t exist yet, and stable time loops are for wussies, so we’re gonna post them today. Unfortunately, as we have no photos of these future games, you'll have to make due to terrifying Google search results and atrocious artist's representations.
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Look, there are only so many times we can say this, but games can, and should be funny. Sometimes. Maybe not all the time, but there’s definitely room for cracking jokes through gameplay. Sometimes, you just need the right material. Now, I’m no game designer, but I feel like I have some idea the industry could put to good use. Specifically on adaptations of famous classic comedies, beloved the world over. Here’s some material folks- great ideas to better homes. Do with them what you will.
There’s a new Mrs. Doubtfire movie coming out. Now, I know movie tie-in games aren’t quite as popular as they used to be, but licensed game doesn't carry the same baggage as it used to. It’s a trade off. I’m fairly sure the only movie licensed game coming out for the major consoles this year is Amazing Spider-Man 2, so the market for a tie-in movie game is underserved at best. Now, it’s also nonexistent at worst, but you can’t make money without taking a few ungodly risks. And the biggest, stupidest, most ungodly risk available to you as an investor is getting behind this Mrs. Doubtfire game.
Robin Williams has effectively pissed away his popularity with projects like RV and those Zelda commercials where he had a crazy beard. Actually, can we get Robin Williams to play Ganon in a Zelda game? Check on that after we’re done here. Robin Williams is only slightly more popular than crossdressing comedies. Other than the shambling franchise zombie that is Medea, zany drag comedies don’t really pull in the audiences anymore. This probably has something to with the fact that playing crossdressing as hilarious in and of itself is crazy offensive, but then again, White Chicks in on Netflix and we as a society haven’t started rioting yet, so what do I know?
What I know is I have a killer pitch for a Mrs. Doubtfire game.
The game has two distinct gameplay stages. The first is a makeup portion, think Cooking Mama meets a dress-up doll game. You have to do Daniel Hillard’s make up perfectly for whatever the occasion calls for. Going out on the town, staying in to take care of the kids, top-secret missions in North Korea, whatever Mrs. Doubtfire needs to do.
Yes, that’s right, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire is now a top-secret agent for the US Government, the world’s best disguise artist, able to infiltrate any compound without detection, all while maintaining an impeccable falsetto British accent. Depending on how well you do your makeup in the pre-mission portion of the game, the level may be easier or harder in certain places Your makeup affects your ability to blend in and attract interest from NPCs. Different makeup styles will lend themselves better to certain strategies, and don’t forget to try and track down the secret looks, which can unlock special skills like invisibility and constant-being-on-fire.
During the mission portion, you’ll be tasked with infiltrating an area with the least amount of casualties. Like Snake in Metal Gear Solid, Doubtfire only procures weapons on sight, and attacking guards and innocents is likely to arouse suspicion. Be careful not to blow the mission, your president is counting on you to stop terrorist attacks from a country that hopefully won’t be an ally in six months when this game is on store shelves. Games are missing this blend of tactical espionage action and makeup simulation, and Mrs. Doubtfire 2: When in Doubt, Fire, is just the game to give gamers what they crave.
You know it, I know it, the nation knows it. We, as a society miss Borat impressions. People aren’t saying “My Wife” enough anymore, or parroting anti-semitic and/or misogynistic comments sans satirical context. We’ve lost the Borat spark. Sacha Baron Cohen has disappeared to parts I do not know where, and there is no one to fill the void left behind by the lack of Borat in our collective life. But now, there is. Look, the Ghostbusters game was supposed to be Ghostbusters 3 until it wasn’t. Then Ghostbusters 3 went back to being a thing that will never happen but we’ll keep hearing news stories about until we’re all dead, so why can’t Borat 2 do the same?
See, Borat 2: The Game won’t be a good game. That’s literally impossible. What kind of game would it even be? We’ll get to my pitch in a moment, but seriously, it’s terrible. Don’t bother. The point is, it’ll light a fire under Mr. Borat’s ass to work on the real Borat 2, or better yet, Borat 3: The Canonical Sequel to the Trainwreck Known as Borat 2: The Game. It’s sure to be a film loaded with laughs, hoots, hollers, and guffaws galore. Maybe there will be a celebrity cameo or two? Maybe I’ll appear, and Mr. Borat can say something mostly offensive to me. It’ll be very exciting. The point is, we need to make this game happen, and then we can all go back to the halcyon days of late 2006 to early 2007, where your dad thought the Borat voice was the key to comedy.
I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This cannot be a good game. I mean, first of all, Cohen refuses to play the Borat character anymore, since he’s too famous to trick people with. Second of all, what do even gamify here? I was thinking to go the easy route, and have Mr. Borat platform his way through America, but we’re not lazy here at Built to Play. We’re innovators, and we have a trainwreck of a design pitch for you. Imagine a 3D exploration game, where you, as Borat, walk around a town, asking for interviews with various townspeople. Using a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel, you find the best way to keep the conversation going, which builds up your catchphrase bar. Once full, you can decide to end the conversation by making them uncomfortable, and physically yelling on of Borat’s many catchphrases into a microphone. By the way, you’re also wearing an Oculus Rift, two Playstation Moves, and Wii Vitality Sensor, so your body language, heartbeat, and head positioning have to be perfect for the NPCs to trust you during the interview.
Alternatively, you can use the catchphrase bar for point multipliers, which will increase your score the longer you keep the conversation going. It’s a classic risk reward system, like quoting Borat in 2014. You have one life, and villagers react as you move, so it’s pretty much a roguelike too, because the kids are into those these days. And everything has Minecraft-style graphics, because we aren’t made of money here. We’re already packing three high-end VR peripherals into the box, and one of them doesn’t even exist. The game also features a day-night cycle,which affects which NPCs you find roaming town, as well as your tiredness meter. It’s also the key to the endgame. After ten in-game years, your character will be retried, all your relevance is shot, and you’ll still hear people saying “my wife” is a dumb voice.
What’d I say? Trainwreck.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Shakespeare is classic. And I don’t mean that in the patronizing, pretentious, you have to read him because he’s so important. You don’t, and he isn’t. I mean it in the literal sense, he’s old, and kids don’t care. But, he’s public domain as all hell, which means a cheap game idea is ripe for the picking. I flicked through a list of his comedies, and the dude didn’t really “get” being funny, but hey, this one has donkeys and fairies in it, and that’s probably good enough. We polish this thing up, give it some grit, market it to the Mountain Dew generation, and we’re golden.
In case you don’t know, and who am I kidding, you probably don’t because who pays attention in high school english other than nerds like me, A Midsummer Night's Dream is about four dumb teens who get messed around with by some fairies in the woods. Puck, the fairy court jester, makes some of the teens fall in love with each other, and the whole thing becomes a confusing love quadrangle. After that, a guy called Bottom shows up and he gets turned into a donkey before everything gets sorted out, and Puck tells you it was all probably just a dream.
There’s a couple directions we could go with this. Obviously, kids love “it’s all a dream” endings. They’re all over video games. Hell, Mario 2 was all a dream, and that’s the greatest story in the history of video games. It has frogs, it has vegetables, what more could drama need? Second, kids love fairies. It’s all over their media. Name me one show that doesn’t have a fairy in it. They all do. They’re tiny and magical and only visible to the pure-hearted, so of course you don’t see them. Maybe stop being such a jerk and work with me here.
I have two ideas for this project. Both are first person titles, but only one is a shooter. That one has you in the woods, playing as one of the four dumb teens. Each has a different special ability, and is fighting to make their way back to their friends for sweet group makeouts. Hermia is a sniper, Helena uses rockets and explosives, Lysander is an all-around character with an assault rifle, and Demetrius is a close-up shotgun character. There’s no real reason for any of that, but no one’s read the play, they won’t know. They fight all kinds of twisted monsters in the forest, and at the end of each level, they fight one of the fairies as bosses. Threatening monsters like Mustardseed, and Peaceblossom. The final boss is Bottom, with his donkey head as a horrifying, gruesome visage that will scare the daylights of of children for decades to come, guaranteeing our place in gaming history.
Alternatively, my other idea is a first person VR experience, where you sit and watch a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from any seat in the audience. But, no matter which you pick, you’ll always be bored. It’s art!
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?
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.