Over the past year or two I've read a couple of books and watched a couple of films that personally I think would make epic video games.
Octodad and Portal: The Two Types of Comedy Games
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed a game called Stonerid. It’s a not-so-good 2D platformer where death comes quickly and suddenly, and for all the wrong reasons. The game’s main mechanic is the ability to switch between two dimensions at will, but more often that not it results in an untimely doom. Want to get past a dead end? Maybe there’s a route in the other dimension. Need to find a lever that opens the door? Check the other dimension. That’s the idea anyway. In execution, it’s more like: get stuck, switch dimensions, drop yourself into a pit of spikes. Or switch dimensions and find yourself right on top of an enemy. Or switch and get shot at by an enemy who doesn’t have a wind-up animation. It gets frustrating.
But sometimes it’s honestly funny. Death happens so quickly and without warning that sometimes you just can’t help but laugh. Stonerid isn’t designed to be a comedy though, so the laughter soon melts into a disgruntled sigh.
True comedy in gaming is sort of a rare thing. Most games throw in funny quips or a sarcastic protagonist, but few games devote themselves fully to the art of comedy. But perhaps that’s because, as I see it, no game has truly found how best to use comedy in our interactive medium. Comedy in gaming comes from two elements: the mechanics and the story. Each has its own strengths, but each also lacks something that the other has.
Comedy from Mechanics
The recent release Octodad: Dadliest Catch is a perfect example of a game that derives comedy from its mechanics. In it, you play an octopus disguised as a human father as he tries to go about a normal life without revealing his actual identity and getting turned into seafood. The player controls each of Octodad’s four limbs as does his household chores, takes a trip to the grocery store, tries to avoid a rather perceptive chef, and more. Octodad’s awkward and imprecise control scheme makes even the most mundane tasks difficult as he leads a path of accidental destruction through his life. But that difficulty is what makes Octodad so funny. Flipping over a table and flinging a pan across the room at your wife as you struggle to make coffee is ridiculous, absurd, and hilarious. In Octodad, it’s the gameplay that makes us laugh. The comedy comes from what happens when the player engages with the game’s mechanics. Surgeon Simulator 2013 and QWOP are two well-known examples of mechanically comedic games; it’s the player’s interaction with them that makes them funny.
Mechanically comedic games tend to rely on physical and slapstick comedy. It makes sense considering spatial movement is gaming’s forte, but slapstick isn’t exactly the most complex form of comedy. Relying on slapstick also presents design problems. These games are purposefully designed to be difficult; that’s what’s funny about them. But, as our Octodad review pointed out, this can become a delicate line for a game to walk. The later stages of Octodad increase the difficulty for the player requiring them to complete more difficult tasks. The same cumbersome controls that provided laughs when you were trying to grill hamburgers become frustrating when you’re forced to sneak your way past a murderous chef. With a difficult control scheme purposely in place, the developer has to be careful that they don’t tip the game from funny to frustrating.
Repetition is an important factor to consider for both comedy and gameplay. Games are based on repetition, having the player perform similar tasks over and over so that they can interact with and refine their understanding of a game’s mechanics. But repetition is the death of comedy. A good joke is funny the first time, but hearing the punchline for the twentieth time lessens its impact. [Ed. Note: Tell that to Family Guy. No really, please tell them. -Eric W.] The structures of gaming and comedy are at odds. So how long can a game take to beat under these constraints? At what point does the joke wear out and just leave the player with frustrating gameplay? Octodad clocks in at around two hours, and, at least in my personal opinion, Surgeon Simulator get far less funny the longer the surgeries go on.
Comedy from Story
The rise in mechanically comedic slapstick games seems to be a rather new occurrence. The easier (in terms of designing play) and more common path to take is to make the written, scripted parts of the game funny, instead of the player’s actions. Take Portal, for example. Shooting portals, pressing switches, destroying turrets, and solving puzzles isn’t funny. The humor in Portal comes from the characters who populate the game: the plotting, maniacal AI GLaDOS who insults your body weight because of that time you tried to kill her; Wheatley, an AI who becomes drunk with power despite being generally terrible at everything; and Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Sciences whose bravado attitude toward science, the world, and lemons led to the creation of the portal gun. They’re what’s funny about Portal. Another good example, and one of my personal favorites, is Psychonauts. The game is filled with hilarious characters in an outlandish world, but the gameplay is standard, though fun, 3D platforming.
Games that use their stories to create humor have much more variety in terms of genre and gameplay than mechanically comedic games. Portal‘s acerbic wit is very different from Psychonauts‘s goofy absurdism. They can also be much longer than slapstick comedy games because they play well on their own. Their humor doesn’t contextualize the gameplay into something enjoyable; their humor is independent of the gameplay. Their mechanics can be polished to a mirror shine, so that the gameplay doesn’t tire even if the jokes too.
Yet games that only derive their humor from their writing fail to take advantage of the unique element of video games: interactivity. If the game’s focus is on comedy and the gameplay fails to involve itself in anyway with it then on some level its missing out on what makes gaming so great.
Ultimately, both styles are lacking in some fundamental way. Mechanical comedies have tended to limit themselves to the realm of slapstick, and scripted comedies don’t let the player interact in the comedy. Perhaps a melding of the two, where players are in control of what a character says as they go through a comedic story, would solve both sets of problems. But, of course, that brings up other problems like, for example, will the player character have to be the straight man in the story since any punch line they could deliver would be spoiled by the very act of the player choosing it? The timing of jokes becomes another issue as it’ll fall to the player to make progress with their dialogue selections, likely disrupting flow of the scenes and jokes.
Comedy is a hard thing to pull off in any medium and the unique nature of gaming creates its own problems. These two different approaches both work well, but neither is as strong as it could be. Just like every genre in gaming, comedies have to learn how to combine their play with their stories in order to full take advantage of gaming’s strengths. But until then, an octopus with a human family and a petty, evil AI will do.