The Trouble With Parody Games

From Weird Al Yankovic to the Scary Movie series, parody is frequently found in entertainment. Pop culture nods, jokes about iconic events, and even commentaries on society run strong through all forms of media, from the written to the heard.

And of course, gaming has seen its fair share of parody.

But despite how much fun parody can be, I feel that it struggles when it enters into the gaming sphere, sometimes even losing its luster and fizzling out very, very quickly. And why is that? Does parody even have any place in games?

While we’re considering this, let’s take a step back and talk about exactly what a parody is. According to good ol’ Mr. Webster and his dictionary, a parody is defined as a “work  in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule” (NOTE: they attribute this to literature and music, I’m adding in film and games for this discussion).

I imagine I would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard at least three songs by Weird Al Yankovic or someone who hasn’t seen a movie by Mel Brooks. These are parodies; essentially, they’re works based on the works of others with changed elements that aim to comment on or poke fun at the original. Parody can range from sticking to one main story, like Space Balls being a parody of Star Wars, or can deviate to be more of a compilation of several references and jokes, like the Scary Movie series mentioned before and their riffs on classic horror films. It all comes down to the artistic vision and what the makers are trying to achieve.

So, why do I think parody struggles in games?

First off, parody and commentaries have existed in games for a long time. Whether it’s the throwaway line of an NPC, an easter egg, or even blatant scenes or actions within a game, we’ve seen it represented in one way or another since the beginning of gaming itself.

And I don’t mean to make it sound like parody in games doesn’t work. Actually, parody in games can often work to add a new charm to a title. In this case, I can’t help but think of Double Fine Studios as a good example of how parody can be interesting and even endearing within a game. No, they don’t make parody-only games, but their games often contain elements of parody that give them a distinct humor and charm from other games in the same genre.

Rather, games struggle with parody when the entire game itself is based around that and that alone. When a game is nothing more than  making fun of classic pop culture references or video game fads gone by, it simply starts to fall apart at the seams. And why is that? Movies, books, and music have all survived on this same convention for years. So why do games seem to be hurt by it?

Games are different than books, music, or film. I know…deep stuff, right? But in all seriousness, it is a completely engaging activity on a different level than the others. In a game, we not only see what happens to a character, we act it out and take an active role in it, essentially living out the scenario in a way no other entertainment media allows us. Because of this, we have certain expectations that must be met in order to qualify a game as “good”. A game needs to have some sort of story or connection to the player, must have its own rule set for gameplay, and has to form itself into a cohesive experience that makes it seamless and engaging overall.

Like a bleary-eyed thirtysomething working a dull 9 to 5, parody games essentially struggle from an identity crisis. Sure, they’re meant to make jokes about games or social references, but strip that all away, and what’s the reason to play it? What is its overall hook, and why do I care to re-live these experiences within a gaming format?

A great example of a game with an identity crisis is the recent Retro City Rampage. While it is a completely competent and interesting game, it still suffers greatly from the fact that it has no solid identity; it is a game for all things and all people, messily combining elements of 90’s pop culture and nostalgia from the early years of gaming. When cut down to its core, the game loses its appeal because of the lack of purpose it has. Why do I want to play a game that sees the random appearance of the Ninja Turtles and the Saved By the Bell crew? After a while, it becomes a cute, gimmicky game that is probably enjoyed best in a piecemeal fashion rather than the long-winded experience games are expected to be today.

Another game like this is the downloadable title Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit. While it’s not a complete parody, the game itself is rife with it, and one of its faults is that it isn’t implemented well. After spending hours playing that game for a review, I found that the novelty of the minigames and various nods became tired and uninteresting very quickly, becoming a dull experience that felt more annoying than amusing.

Now, I’m not calling for an end to parody in gaming. I’m not even calling for an end to parody games. There’s obviously an audience for it, or else the style wouldn’t exist. Rather, I’m suggesting that all-parody games struggle because our medium simply isn’t tailor made to suit that style of humor. For a film, it’s amusing to see various references and jokes made about beloved conventions and happenings from our past, because within a film, I’m taking a passive role and can enjoy watching and relating the jokes to my own frame of reference. It’s different with a game, because a game is an different experience altogether that doesn’t complement complete parody well. It becomes a tiresome and uninteresting feature that lacks its own identity and loses its luster very, very quickly when the core of the experience is based around making jokes about past experiences I’ve already lived.

Now, could a parody game ever come along and change my mind? Absolutely…if it’s done right. But I haven’t played that game yet.