Games are fun, right? (Uh, right). But how often are they funny? Look at the proportion of comedies in movies and television – and look at how many games in the history of games are really funny. So how does humor work in games?
We can break down the types of jokes that appear in games into several categories:
- In-fiction. These are the jokes that the characters themselves could laugh at, jokes that exist within the universe of the game. These are jokes in dialogue – when GLaDOS talks to the player in Portal, when Manny Calavera wisecracks to Glottis in Grim Fandango, the humor is in-fiction. This includes signs and place names in the game world.
- Out-of-fiction. Jokes that characters would not be aware of but are presented to the player. These can be on help text, in item descriptions, or anything that lets the developers speak directly to the person behind the screen.
- Meta. Jokes that work on the player due to the structure of the game. Usually done as a commentary on games or the larger culture. Under this category can be placed almost every Suda51 game and the giant middle finger of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4.
- Emergent. It’s not too hard to make a game look silly. When players laugh to themselves after a particularly stupid crash or jump, it’s emergent humor.
- Ironic. This is what happens when a hipster plays your game twenty years after it was released. Makes all your hard work look kind of pathetic, huh? (See: Bad Dudes)
In-Fiction and Out-of-Fiction
These are the traditional realm of jokes, the direct analog to the way humor is usually done in other mediums. And though a good, funny game is still rare, it’s nothing cutting-edge. Adventure games of the ‘80s had no problem being funny. The slow pace of the games may have helped focus player attention, but more importantly, the primary importance of writing in making an adventure game led to better writing. This argues that the genre is less important in a funny game than spending the necessary money and time on the script. And look at Tim Schafer – he started out writing very funny adventure games, then wrote a funny platformer (Psychonauts), and then a funny RTS-action hybrid (Brutal Legend). Grabbing enough of the player’s mind-share to have them sit through and pay attention to dialogue is important, but it follows the same rules as any other information the designer wants to convey to the player – just be aware of how much is going on in the player’s head, and when your communication can get through.
Writing is starting to get better in mainstream AAA games, but the expensive writers are not bringing full returns. What often gets forgotten with humor is pacing. We’re starting to see good individual lines from quippy heroes (Nathan Drake in Uncharted, the Prince in the 2008 Prince of Persia), but the lines are placed such that they just float away. They are treated as asides that can be placed in between action bits while the player is doing more boring things like moving between encounters. But look at how it works in film: an action hero quips as a cathartic release after a tense moment. Everything pauses while the hero gives his line, and the audience’s attention can be forced to the moment. A game doesn’t have this luxury – forcing the camera takes control away from the player. But it results in the hero’s quips feeling very throwaway. The game doesn’t even seem to care. So neither does the player.
A joke that comes out of the situations and mechanics of the game, and comments on them, is classified as meta. And these are very tough jokes to tell in games.
Let’s take the case of Goichi Suda (Suda51). He’s one of the closest things the industry has to an auteur working on commercial games. All of his games are some sort of joke about games when pulled out:
- Flower, Sun, and Rain: An adventure game that mocks the backtracking and padding of adventure games…by making the player run all over a huge world, deliberately between the farthest points, to pick up clues.
- Killer7: a shooter that mocks the linearity of modern shooters by removing the player’s movement control: you can only go forward or backward on a rail.
- No More Heroes: makes fun of empty open-world games by featuring an empty open world. Suggests that this is responsible for the juvenile state of the main character.
So these jokes are enjoyed heartily by all, right? Well, no, because of the forced literalness of games. I’ve touched on this before, but let me state it again: games are powerful because they can shape a player’s thinking along very specific lines. To act within the rules and convention of a game, a player accepts all the logic the game puts towards them. Players are very forgiving of mysterious piles of garbage that block corridors and curiously un-climbable fences. But this extreme focus makes it difficult to see the bigger picture. When a game presents a pointedly obtuse puzzle, it is extremely difficult to sell it as anything but bad design – the player accepts the task, accomplishes it, and wonders why they didn’t have much fun.
You can see this in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a response to the intense public reaction to Metal Gear Solid. Though MGS told the story of Snake’s last mission (he was retired at the start of the game, and he ended by riding into the sunset), it sold so well it effectively forced Hideo Kojima to make a sequel. Never one to pass up an opportunity to insult his fans, Kojima cast the nerdy, Snake-worshipping player as the main character. It was empowering! Forget Snake, the player was the awesome spy, taking out guards and fighting transsexual vampires! Except it was a bit too honest. Raiden was fey and indecisive. His girlfriend was imaginary. His training came from ‘virtual simulations’. He wasn’t much compared to his hero, Solid Snake. Fans didn’t laugh. They got angry.
Metal Gear Solid 3 roughly played it straight and gave people what they wanted. And like all the other Metal Gears, it was supposed to be the last one. So in making another Metal Gear, Kojima decided to give his audience more than they wanted. Metal Gear Solid 4’s guiding principle is gluttony: ridiculous pandering, pathetically overwrought. Snake spends the game decomposing but is forced to traipse through yet another mission for the enjoyment of the fanboy. He tries to kill himself, but the game (and the players) insist he continue. Plot holes nobody ever cared about are closed with reams of
dialogue just so they can’t be used for a spinoff. The game indulges in every excess Metal Gear Solid is known for: long cutscenes, pointless plot twists, complicated controls. So, did stuffing the players like thanksgiving turkeys make the point clear?
Of course not. The endless appetites of fans can never be sated – they swallowed it all and asked for more. Everybody else just figured Kojima was indulging in his weaknesses as a designer, writer, and director.
Meta jokes might be important for making an honest artistic statement, but it’ll be lost on most of the audience. The most successful way to deal with this is to make the literal story still engaging – Portal and BioShock are the best examples of this. I maintain that there will be some way to force players to see the bigger picture – games are too powerful a teaching tool for it not to be the case – but that it just hasn’t been properly done yet.
Emergent humor is the innate form of the medium. When people are engaged in pure play they can amuse themselves just by interacting with a game, setting up reactions and seeing what plays out. Grand Theft Auto 3 and its successors are the ultimate expression of this: a pure playground which the user is encouraged to break to see what happens. And people eat it up! Pure laughter comes out of the stupid or ridiculous that a very complicated game does through careful exploitation of its rules.
Support this. No matter how serious the game, a good number of players will never be invested enough to care. Cater to them by making sure that they can still safely break the game and have a good time. A rich enough set of interactions is key. Doom is a great example of this: the ridiculously simple enemy AI feels vastly richer because friendly fire exists between the demons, and this will cause them to attack each other. From these simple rules, player can start to exploit the system and build more complicated scenarios than the designer could have anticipated.
This is where a single-player game can engage multiple people on a lazy afternoon, the classic pass-the-controller scenario. The coherence of AAA games are detrimental to this – games so tight and locked down they have no possibility of being silly are just not interesting unless the player is alone in a dark room. And a game can always be made to look silly – never underestimate how easily your very complicated (and expensive) AI can be made stupid if the player doesn’t agree to the rules.
The ravages of time can make anything look silly. Given how quickly culture churns in the 21st century, a subset of players love picking up older or bad products and enjoying them for their anachronisms and questionable taste.
Making a game so bad it can be enjoyed ironically is probably not anyone’s goal. And if it is, it won’t work – ironic appreciation only works if it feels like the creators aren’t in on it. The key is to be honest, to be strongly expressive.
The more experimental and strongly directed a game is, the more it will stand out decades later. A competent genre entry is disposable and quickly forgotten. But something with that aura of weirdness can wait to be rediscovered and treasured by another generation. The key is to have a unique voice – something interesting to tell the player, or something neat to show.
Of course, you’re not going to make any money off this. But we’re striving for more than just that, right?
It’s not easy to make a funny game. But given how important comedy is in the larger culture, it’s likely an under-exploited aspect of games. Utilize all avenues available. Except in very specific cases (read: Limbo), it’s impossible to make a completely serious game. You end up with something po-faced and boring. Accept that you can’t be the most epic, serious experience ever, find the funny parts of your game, and exaggerate them. Halo didn’t have to have ridiculous Warthog physics. No one should doubt that Bungie was capable of making it more realistic. But realizing how fun and funny the moon car was, they wisely left it unrealistic. Players had too much fun to care. And it’s not like they were going to complain when they were running an eight-foot-tall franken-space marine around anyway.
Cross-posted at GameDesignAssociation.com