The best comedy is undercut with tragedy. The apocalyptic satire of Dr Strangelove, the claustrophobic awkwardness of The Office, Basil Fawlty wailing impotently on his car with a tree branch in Fawlty Towers. It helps to laugh at our own shortcomings.
Life is hard, and if we can put a funny spin on all the bad luck it throws our way, we feel much better. But tragedy isn't something video games typically deal with. There's some mawkish melodrama, like the deaths in Halo: Reach or Raiden and Rose in Metal Gear Solid 2, but mostly, games are about victory, achievement, agency, not everyday struggles. On top of that, the comedy in a lot of games often comes from the top down. The developer is the person doing the jokes. The one-liners in Portal or Monkey Island all happen to the player. The people making comedy video games need to find a way to get the player involved with the gags.
So how can that be done? How, as a developer, do you make your game flexible enough for players to get involved with the comedy, and even communicate pathos along the way?
The Art of Bad Controls
Surgeon Simulator is a game where players must perform heart, kidney and brain surgeries by carefully moving a virtual hand; the twist being that each finger is mapped to a different button on the keyboard, making even basic movements incredibly tricky.
Surgeon Simulator puts someone else's life in your incredibly hard-to-control hands
Then there's Octodad, a Kafkaesque domestic drama starring an octopus stuffed inside a suit who has somehow fooled everybody on land that he's human, including a wife and two children. Lumbered with Octodad's ungainly tentacles, players must perform a slew of everyday activities while simultaneously trying to avoid suspicion from passers-by. If they see through Octodad's disguise, the game is over.
And then there's QWOP, a browser game in which players must run a 100m Olympic race using individual keys to control their thighs and calves. The runner has a supernaturally high centre of gravity and halfway along the course there's a hurdle, which is almost impossible to climb over.
These games seem to inhabit a sweet spot between tragedy and comedy, player and developer. The comedy comes not from lots of writing and re-writing, but from tweaking of physics and systems — from implementing peculiar control schemes. They are both hysterically funny and kind of sad.
"For a game like QWOP to feel good and interesting and possible to play, you have dozens of physics variables that need to be tuned just right," says QWOP creator Bennett Foddy. "The strength of gravity, the power and speed of the muscles, the friction of the shoes and the track and so on all have to be spot on. It's really tough to get the balance of these numbers exactly right."
QWOP's four-button controls may seem simple, but they are a real frustration to master
"We had to write a lot of weird physics scripts", says Luke Williams, one of the makers of Surgeon Simulator. "Like if players wanted to fling an object, there was this thing in the engine we were using, Unity, that would automatically block the object, so instead of flying off it would get stuck in the fingers. We had to hack it so the engine would forget an object when you flung it, and it would fly out of your hand."
This kind of micro-management is the groundwork for comedy in games. After finalising the idea for Octodad, designer John Murphy and the rest of the development team had to rigorously plan and test how the character would move.
"We were looking at this video of an old game called Jurassic Park: Trespasser. It was absurd, the way it let you individually control the hand that's holding the gun, but it was accidentally absurd. So, we took that idea and built a pitch around this Being John Malkovich thing, an idea about being inside another person, driving them. We went through a few versions of that idea and got to this premise of an octopus inside someone's head, pulling all these levers. Then we thought 'let's just simplify this'.
"You only control the end of the limb. It's like a marionette - the rest of the leg or arm just goes where it wants to. There's a lot of hidden stuff with the feet as well. For example, there's a little helper force to help him get over stairs and difficult surfaces. The programmers had to do a lot of tweaking. But we never wanted it to be too mechanically loaded. We never wanted the player to feel like the comedy was happening to them — they're an equal participant in creating it."
Setting the scene for comedy
Bizarre control schemes and strange physical properties like these are the equivalent of props. The developers lay out this show floor — this kind of circus ring — and let the player perform within it. By implementing these invisible behaviours and mechanics, the makers of comedy games set the stage then disappear back behind the curtain.
"We give you the tools then we just leave you alone", says Williams. "It's not us randomly generating something halfway through or scripting something to happen — it's just the systems and you. Anything that goes wrong is generally your fault."
That's an important distinction. Surgeon Simulator, QWOP and Octodad, tricky though they are, aren't designed just to make players fail. The game isn't rigged so players will inevitably screw up. It's possible, in fact, to do everything flawlessly, to complete the surgery, to finish the race, to blend in as a human. With enough practise, players can get there. (Although, word to the wise, QWOP is almost impossible.)
And when it comes to comedy, this is vitally important. The fact people can play these games without error is what introduces the tragic element, the undertones of frustration and amusing incompetence. To deliberately set players up to fail would take that away. It'd make them victims of circumstance, rather than victims of their own incompetence.
The comedy in games has to come from the player. Again, these rigorously designed "bad" control schemes become fundamental.
"The kind of humour you had in games before was funny situations and wit, like Monkey Island", says Williams. "Now, after this kind of physics revolution, we can make the player into the comedian.
"It was always important that our players would feel they could actually get good at the game. In other games where you have the hand controls, the ability isn't there — you can't grab items, they just fall out. So, although you might botch your first ten or twenty surgeries, you know you can grab stuff - you know you can get better at it. That's important. It's no good to have it like 'hey, you're always going to fail!' because that would get old after ten minutes."
Centrally, these games are the same as any other: there are mechanics to learn and the more you play, the better you get. In that sense, Surgeon Simulator, Octodad and QWOP aren't hitting players in the face with the idea that they're supposed to be funny, trying to force laughs by bending expectations. As Williams puts it: "the controls aren't wonky. Everything does exactly what it's supposed to do, every time."
It's that perfect mix of tragic and comic, player and developer. Not only is Octodad struggling, hilariously, with the everyday task of grocery shopping, the player is also messing up while playing. And it's all happening without any overt interference from the game-makers. They aren't on stage.
This new type of funny game - Goat Simulator is entirely predicated on the idea of tragicomic controls - isn't purposefully making players look stupid, or powerless; it's gently helping them to laugh at themselves and their situation. It's kind of therapeutic. As Charlie Chaplin put it: "we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature — or go insane".
"A lot of comedy has something serious or sad inside of it somewhere," concludes Murphy. "Our initial pitch was more serious - it was only when the octopus with a human family got layered on top that it became a comedy game. Still, that sad, pathetic character is still there, because if a player is powerful all the time, although that might feel nice, it limits the range of things that you can do."
Ed Smith is a critic and occasional game-maker who writes for various publications. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.