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Funny Games: Can Videogames Actually Do Comedy?

The comedy is a well-established film genre, yet few games get labelled as such. Indeed, rare is the game that can tell a good joke, let alone one that is based entirely on making the player laugh. Comedy in games, it seems, is tough.

Gamasutra recently spoke with three developers heavily involved in writing games to make people giggle. Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of Discworld author Terry Pratchett, wrote for the Overlord series. She believes those games worked as comedy because they didn’t just tack on some silly gags and funny dialogue; they ensured the actual gameplay was funny.

“I think the reason it worked is that we gave the humor a multi-layered approach,” says Pratchett. “So the gameplay itself, in which you control a horde of sycophantic, gremlin-like minions that loot and pillage at your command, was inherently fun.”

Telltale’s Chuck Jordan, lead writer on the recent Sam & Max season, points to the problem of pacing. Jokes tend to rely on careful setup and delivery, but in an interactive environment it’s often difficult to orchestrate when you’re not sure what the player is going to be doing at any one moment.

“The player can hear your punch line before the set-up,” says Jordan. “He can skip the set-up of a joke altogether. He can hear 10 jokes over the course of a minute, or he can go off and wander around between each one. And the entire time, he’s not just passively waiting to hear the next joke; he’s actively looking for the solution to some problem.”

He agrees with Pratchett that successful humour often arrives through the amalgam of gameplay and writing. Jordan cites Team Fortress 2, through the sheer strength of its characters’ personalities, as a good example, thanks in large part to the integrated marketing Valve did with its short films and update reveals. Indeed, in my experience, a game of Team Fortress 2 can often feel like an episode of the Wacky Races or some similar slapstick comedy.

Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe reckons this sort of holistic approach can only be achieved when a development team has a unified vision, something that is increasingly difficult in today’s multi-million dollar industry. Back in Lowe’s day, he was able to apply his sense of humour to every aspect of his game because he was essentially the only person working on it.

I can appreciate Lowe’s point of view and what he says carries merit when talking about a linear, narrative-driven adventure game. And recent titles such as Telltale’s Monkey Island revival and Zombie Cow’s Ben and Dan series (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please) show the formula still works when attempted by a relatively small team.

But I think Pratchett and Jordan are closer to the mark when looking at contemporary titles. Much of the humour in a game today is derived from the way the game design results in funny situations rather than the scripted dialogue or pun-based puzzle. Nathan Drake may have plenty of wisecracks, but isn’t it funnier when that grenade you lobbed causes an enemy soldier to fall off a building and catch his crotch on a fence below?

For me, comedy in games come through the interplay of a game’s systems. Yes, writing is a part of that, but in a game you don’t tell a joke, the humour arises through circumstance and the result of your actions. In that sense it has far more in common with improvisational comedy.

What makes a game funny for you?

No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games [Gamasutra]

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