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]


Comments

    Visual style and animation is important in story telling and jokes. I'd say L4D(2) and Brutal Legend are the most visually advanced games I can think of that made jokes I actually found funny. You always feel in the latest FPS games that the jokes are forced and a last minute thought when it came around to voice acting.

    Maybe war time cannot also be joke time.

    I think games can be inherently funny. I remember the Discworld computer game. The plot actually required you to go out and acquire these bizarre items to DECREASE your odds of defeating the dragon to 1 in a million (because as we know, 1 in a million shots come off 9 times out of 10).

    For me plot and dialogue make the funny, and games still control that aspect through non-interactive cutscenes (or in Discworld/Monkey-Island type games, through linear dialogue trees).

    That said, humour in games these days can be a bit different. Apart from the fact that they seem largely a lot more serious these days, humour does seem to come through in unscripted moments such as the example in the article.

    /2c

    Of course a Pratchett would realise that character based comedy and comedy that plays on absurd situations can work in any context.

    Oddly enough though, this just made me realise how awesome a Princess Bride video game would be.

      Press X to As You Wish.

        My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed the last Inigo Montoya, prepare to die!

    Monkey Island's insult sword fighting (improved in the third volume) was one of the most humourous and entertaining forms of comedy-based gameplay for me. It relied heavily on writing skill, but could often be as funny with an incorrect answer as it was with a correct answer.

    Im not sure, i got a lot of laughs out of Assassins Creed 2's speaking parts, especially some of the subtitles! But in another way you are right, i laughed harder when i pushed an entire line of heavily armoured soldiers into the cnanl and they drowned :)

    Does anyone remember TimeSplitters 3?
    Now that game had some funny cut-scenes. My favourite was when he had to stop the train before it ran over the damsel in distress. One of the funniest moments in gaming for me!

    "What makes a game funny for you?"

    Hmm well that's a good question..
    Depends on the game, some games like serious single player ones I don't like to much humour but character development and jokes between them is always good.
    Silly single or multiplayer games are normally indie type games that are targetted to be short fun relaxing games and i think that works for the most part, if they are short fun and silly.
    Full out multiplayer games i normally find funny if im playing with friends or just friendly people, or if the Ragdoll\enviroment effects allow it.

    I Dunno it all depends really on your mood, the mood of those around you and whether you are playing for fun or competition..

    Games can do comedy. Dragon Age is hilarious. Portal was hilarious.

    And, umm... I'm sure I've played a funny game somewhere in between those two and the old point-and-click Discworld games....

    I strongly disagree that most humour in games (good humour, anyway) doesn't come from scripted moments. I think that's largely exactly where it comes from. I agree with Chuck Jordan that it doesn't work if you rely on the player to set it up for you in an interactive environment; that's where you need scripted moments so that the humour flows properly. You can do it as much in an open world like DA as in a more railroaded environment like Portal.

    I wouldn't mind more examples of what you think is comedy based on the interplay of game systems, since I'm struggling to think of any examples. Your example of an enemy soldier being knocked off a building and crotching themselves is not exactly setting a high bar for funnies.

    For me to laugh at a game, there's not just one thing. I still laugh when I see someone get teabagged in Halo 3, when a corpse flies across the screen out of nowhere, just the random moments presented in any game really. But on the other end, a game like Brutal Legend for example, where I can laugh at when I call my troops over and hearing Jack Black say "I'm the weiner, you're the bun, come on round and let's have fun" or even the start menu for that game make me laugh. Sometimes a game has the humor spot on and delivered well in a story sense or gameplay wise, but sometimes just the sheer randomness of the game and what happens makes me laugh just as much.

    Humour in a game has to be a mixture of the game's writing and the actions you caused. Preferably, it's more of the gameplay then the intentional jokes put in. As a kid, I absolutely loved the Oddworld: Abe series, especially Abe's Exodus. The cut scenes make you laugh. The gameplay on the other hand makes the humour rise up to another level. It was fun to kill the bad guys whether it was traps, shooting them in possessed Slugs or going haywire and use your special power to unleash lighting and blow up everything. The best thing was possessing your fart and turning it into a bomb. Hilarious!

    Rabbids. Not much else makes me 'LOL'.

    If I actually drycleaned my undies I'd send the bill to Ubi.

    I very much agree, it's best done when it's a combination of good writing and gameplay. Granted, it has to be noted that games that move along primarily via narrative - say Uncharted or Ratchet and Clank, can actually rely solely on written comedy. Having said that though, Ratchet and Clank is also prime example of how gameplay elements add to the humour (Uncharted also to a lesser extent).

    Day of the Tentacle. Hands down one of the funniest games I've ever played.

    A truly funny game has to involve humour in its gameplay. It's not enough to just throw a few puns in the dialogue. The interactivity has to be comic as well.

    A classic example in Day of the Tentacle, is trying to get a tentacle costume to Laverne in the future. Hoagie, stuck in the past, ends up submitting a tentacle design to Betsy Ross, the increasingly frustrated seamstress who is creating the prototype American flag. It's comedy gold, not just through dialogue, but through action.

    In the article, Chuck Jordan claims that players are unpredictable, and won't hang around for a joke when they're searching for a solution. Sure, that's true if you're trying to tell a joke. But if you make the solution the joke, then the player can't help triggering the humour. It's also funnier to initiate comedy, instead of passively listening to it.

    Surely the old Sam & Max deserves a mention, since the new version was just borrowing all of it's charm.

    And even though it's a bit obscure, Discworld deserves a mention.

    It's a shame Overlord was neither fun or funny.
    Have to wonder how the daughter of Terry got it so wrong.

    I reckon one of the funniest non-puzzle based games I played was Lucasarts' "Armed & Dangerous". Lots of fun in the gameplay, and some of the cut scenes even sent up some of Lucas' films.

      If you liked Armed and Dangerous, I highly recommend playing Giants: Citizen Kabuto, it has a similar fantastic sense of humour (and gameplay, as it was developed by the same studio).
      Both are the first things that come to my mind when talking about funny games.

    Agree wholeheartedly with TF2. Can occasionally be multiplied by player generated comedy.

    +1 for Giants: Citizen Kabuto
    very funny, but most of that was scripted.

    interesting that the funniest games i can think of are all point-click adventures (Day of the Tentacle, Simon the sorcerer, Monkey Island, Sam and Max, i'm sure i missed some)

      Rex Nebula and the Cosmic Gender Bender

      Agreed that most of it was scripted, but I think that reflects my sense of humour, I've always preferred more subtle humour to sight gags. Or to put a better way, Futurama to Family Guy.

      I'm all for player generated humour, but I think that a game with good scripted humour, tends to be funny a lot more often than a game that has completely-by-chance player generated humour (such as the bodies flying example in the article).

      I think humour was a large part of the Adventure game genre in it's heyday, and probably a large part of the reason why it's remembered so fondly by many people (myself included). The serious adventure games tended to be the odd ones out.

    Sivering isles for oblivion is one of the most hilarious fantasy worlds ever, Bethesda realy know how to create humor with off the wall characterization.

    I agree- those old point and click adventures (mostly by Lucasoft Ltd.) were some of the funniest games.

    Dragon Age Origins. As odd as it may be, one of a few games that actually made me laugh properly. Alistair cracks me up.

    The games that haven't been mentioned so far for this are NIS games like the Disgaea series, which has some of the best slapstick since Lucasarts forgot how to put a point-and-click together.

    Again, it's the strength of the characters that make the comedy work (which is why the first is still the best). But even the third one (the weakest IMO) is still packed with moments that will make you smile, and some that will make you laugh out loud.

    Southpark deathmatches on the N64 had us in stitches, usually following a serious bout of GoldenEye and as the beers took effect. It was an average multiplayer FPS (boooring single player), but was the parody weapons and humorous sounds during a heated 4 player deathmatch that had us going. Yellow snowballs, dodgeballs, toilet plungers.. throwing terrance and phillip fart dolls, the sniper chicken gun and the cow launcher. And those damned mutant turkey's! Following Mr Hankey shit trails meant someone had a shield, Beefcake and Zippy Cola power-ups.. provided us with endless, stupid shooting goodness. I cannot remember a single game that had me laughing so much during matches, and I'd welcome any future game to provide a little humour in what is a pretty stagnant FPS genre.

    Findind dem glitches hur hur

    Giants: Citizen Kabuto

    All this game needs is a fresh coat of paint and some minor control niggles to fit right in with this current generations action games.

    Three drunken British space marines, one shiny hot fish lady, one big pissed off giant and a caste of hapless squishable locals led by Timmy (whose shared the voice actor from Pinky, in Pinky & the Brain). Put them all together mixed with some entertaining writing made for a very funny campaign and some extremely silly deathmatch play.

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