Sadly it's not all fun and games these days
Here’s a joke: a man walks into a videogames retailer and asks for a recommendation of something amusing to pre-order. The chap behind the counter looks blankly at him and says “err”.
OK, it’s not a joke, but it happened. Recommendations from people playing games come in all manner of varieties, most can rattle off their favourite current FPS, or RPG, the most gripping story of recent years or the most authentic sports title. But humour? That’s harder to nail down.
It’s either not a pre-requisite for many, or it’s just not memorable enough to be registered, and that saddens me. There was a time when many titles made it a key part of the atmosphere, and thus it’s been the cornerstone of some of the most memorable characters the medium has created.
Telltale are now squarely focussing on darker stories though. Duke Nukem’s dead as a franchise, he shot himself in his own face with a persona that failed to translate to a new era. In the not too distant past Psychonauts stumbled and Brutal Legend was almost presciently titled to describe how it would do in terms of sales. Laughs through outright absurdism still exist, but not everyone cares for Japanese lunacy; the pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend, the novelty value of a goat simulator, or the sheer “what the hell?!?” of Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden (a title I've only just discovered).
It’s strange that something like Sunset Overdrive - which at one point would have been the average non-gamer’s idea of a videogame, full of bright colours and sassy dialogue - seems so unique in the holiday season line up. Amusing games used to be big business; not sold on the fact that they were great games that just happened to have humour in them, but centred around the light hearted high-jinks.
Perhaps, though, this was due to the presence of one genre in the charts, the point and click. LucasArts were the shining beacon of this period, and their influence continues thanks to their alumni; practically any list of funniest games could easily descend into a rough photocopy of Tim Schafer’s CV. It’s telling that the line “that’s the second biggest monkey head I’ve ever seen” is still remembered.
The demise of the point and click genre has had obvious consequences on humorous gaming. The staccato fashion in which you interacted with the world was perfect for clever scripting. It had the right pauses built into the gameplay, and players became accustomed to performing an action and then letting a line of dialogue be delivered.
The slow pace and style of play allowed any jokes room to breathe, rather than just be skipped over; it engendered a sense of appreciation for each line. Titles like The Cave (from Double Fine and Ron Gilbert, another ex LucasArts employee) and Stick It To The Man show that as smaller downloadable titles they can still channel that stop-start mechanic and punctuate it with enough witticisms to keep players amused.
Games have increasingly shifted towards evoking the cinematic though. Understandable, as the power of consoles and PCs increases, the past decade has been an arms race to see who can bring realism and filmic qualities to the forefront with greater success. It is, however, a far harder prospect to inject humour into games without in-built pauses, and the attempts thus far are often seen as examples by those outside the medium as indicative of its childish nature. Subtle witticisms have been increasingly marginalised in favour of simple shock tactics.
Rightly or wrongly, Duke Nukem takes a fair amount of the blame for this. The shooter laid the groundwork for a type of semi post modern shock-fest that was at once laughing at the vulgarity with a nod and a wink, and strangely also revelling in it. It’s a tough trick to pull off well; Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a revelation, and arguably set the template for how to do it right, Bulletstorm’s creative profanity helped give it an identity, whilst when Duke re-entered the fray with Forever, well his humour seemed to be not as eternally funny.
It’s not just the tastes of the audience and the shift towards the cinematic that have had an effect. There’s also the small matter of resources. In an industry where professional writers have only just started to become central, instead of developers tackling those duties in tandem with others, it’s not strange that there was a period when we were just lucky to be blessed with talented figures who could do both. The era of Lucasarts’ domination of your funny bone was almost a golden time for jocular gaming, perhaps the stars just happened to align, finding the right people, in the right place, at the right time.
You can afford to record copious hours of odd voices delivering sharp lines when they’re at the heart of what the game will be rated for. If, however, there’s a chance that players will turn away from a character speaking in the middle of your best line, or just never get around to meeting them, well then it hardly pays to spend time on the issue.
As ever, humour is far more subjective than action. A scripted cut-scene of an explosion is straightforward and universal, it requires little thought and will translate to all regions the game will release in. As uninspiring as the moment may be, it will never be as hard to deliver as a moment that genuinely elicits a laugh.
Many games aiming at humour these days go down the road of adding strange NPCs, often relying on the age old standby for humour of the quirky voice (so often an over-the-top English accent, usually from the West Country). Fable almost builds its sense of fun around this staple for instance. The lines may never be razor sharp, but their very presence lifts the atmosphere, and it introduces a third way, somewhere between the shock tactics of real interaction and the stop-start nature of scripted moments.
Commentary characters and disembodied voices have become an excellent way to keep someone tethered to the scripted lines, whilst also allowing them free rein to keep playing. Perhaps the greatest example of this has been Portal II. With a strange companion, you were never far away from a smart quip, but all the while you were empowered to keep playing. The pauses weren’t forced, but rather organic, and utilising a non-human character was perfect for keeping them at hand without having to jump through story and logistical hoops.
Show me the funny
The humour's not entirely gone from gaming though, if anything we may at last be seeing a revival. The Lego titles may not be to everyone’s tastes, yet they show that building a game around simple mechanics with an aura of light hearted comedy is possible, and they’re a permanent feature in the gaming calendar.
True, those titles focussing on more observed comedy and parodies may be found as outliers on the scene, possibly languishing for some time in Kickstarter limbo and then releasing with little fanfare, but a potential migratory path between the creativity of the low profile PC scene and home consoles has never been clearer.
The average age of gamers is increasing, and with it free time for a significant portion of players is on the wane, meaning there’s an ever growing market for the small scale, the indie and the oddity that’s built around absurdity, that would cave in on itself if asked to support a 20 hour run time; something that would be a necessity for a full scale retail release. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed Stick It To the Man, a title I knew little about, and were it not to have fallen onto a console, I might never have played it.
But in mainstream releases - where budgets continue to spiral and the culture of development is becoming more risk averse - you have to seek out the funny. If you do, you may just find that it’s more prevalent than you think, albeit scattered sporadically amongst the homogenous masquerading as the epic. It’s sadly no longer at the core of the type of title that once would have adorned a major gaming publication’s cover, but the more ambitious, multi-layered titles are increasingly incorporating levity as an aside.
The likes of South Park: The Stick of Truth or Sunset Overdrive - where humour is one of the central pillars of the game - may be few and far between, but I defy anyone not to have been amused when they ran into a talking dog in Skyrim, or chucklingly questioned their sanity after Trevor’s GTA V rampage against hipsters.
And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, well you can always just wait for Grim Fandango to make his return, to show them all how it’s done.
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