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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

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.

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it  THE PAIN?

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

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.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

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.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

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!

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

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?

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

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?

 

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The Primer- Games 'n' Goofs

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The Primer- Games 'n' Goofs

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:

None of what you're about to read is a joke.

None of what you're about to read is a joke.

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.

Everything you just read is real.

Everything you just read is real.

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.

But this is as real as it gets.

But this is as real as it gets.

Maniac Mansion:

Razor really doesn't seem impressed with this shadow puppet bullshit. She's seen real terror. She's seen a dead hamster.

Razor really doesn't seem impressed with this shadow puppet bullshit. She's seen real terror. She's seen a dead hamster.

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.

NSFW: REAL GORE

NSFW: REAL GORE

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.

They key was actually  in  the hamster, and now we're screwed. Thanks, Syd.

They key was actually in the hamster, and now we're screwed. Thanks, Syd.

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:

Matt_Hazard-TimeLine.jpg

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.

Unfortunately, since it's a "satire" of gritty cover-based third person shooters, it just sort of looks like a gritty, cover-based third person shooter.

Unfortunately, since it's a "satire" of gritty cover-based third person shooters, it just sort of looks like a gritty, cover-based third person shooter.

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.

The cowboy physics were very advanced for their time.

The cowboy physics were very advanced for their time.

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:

yayyyyyy

yayyyyyy

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.

Dial 4 for McDonalds. 5 is the White House, but it's just a White Castle. 6 is the Mayor of Townsville.

Dial 4 for McDonalds. 5 is the White House, but it's just a White Castle. 6 is the Mayor of Townsville.

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.

With pleasure, good sir!

With pleasure, good sir!

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.

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