Player Agency – Video Games Should be Funnier

There was once a time where if someone said that a game had good writing, they meant it had good writing for a game. Nowadays stories in games aren’t seen as rare, they’re almost commonplace. The quality of storytelling has improved greatly, and standards are a lot higher. In the present day games are seen less as toys for children and more as a serious art medium like film or music. That doesn’t mean they don’t still have catching up to do however. While writing overall is much better than what it was a decade or so ago, games are still incredibly lacking when it comes to humor. For that reason, today I’m going to be taking a look at comedy in video games.

The Secret of Monkey Island, released in 1990 by Lucasfilm Games, is the godfather of comedy games.

Art is subjective and what makes a piece good is never set in stone. But there’s still ground rules, and though some of the best pieces break these traditions, there’s always classic do’s and don’ts. Games though, are still relatively new in the grand scheme of things and we haven’t yet created ground rules for a lot of things. Think about the “WASD” control scheme on a PC game, it’s the standard layout for a majority of titles on the platform. Today it’s a staple, but there was a time not too long ago when it didn’t exist. And comedy is a place where no such standards exist to this day. No one has figured out a foolproof way to tell jokes in the medium as of now. Games are so notoriously unfunny that when someone brings up the topics of games that make you laugh you’ll hear the same two or three titles brought up: Monkey Island, Portal, maybe Undertale… So why are most video games humorless, and how can we make them funnier?

The problem lies partially in how we categorize games. We define them first and foremost by how we interact with them. Any signifier of tone or style is secondary. The first thing you hear about a game is whether or not it’s a platformer or a shooter, not whether it has a noir aesthetic, or if it’s a romance. So where entire movies might be defined as being a comedy, in games these descriptors are less important. Another big reason is the disconnect between game writers and the rest of the development staff. Writers often create scenarios for the game they think are funny but will have no other input in the development process, leading the designers to guess how the joke is supposed to be played out. These things are very important, but today I’m just going to be taking a look at the issue from a design perspective.

Being an interactive medium, games struggle with what is arguably the crux of comedy: timing. It’s hard to predict if a joke will land when every player in your game is going to behave differently. A player can easily interrupt the timing of a joke by triggering an event before or after the developers intended. Naturally then if developers want to attempt to be funny they’re going to opt for a very static kind of comedy. A line of dialog in a cutscene, a visual gag, etc. If these things are done right they can be great. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this way of going about comedy, but it’s not taking advantage of the biggest thing that sets games apart from other mediums: interactivity. Not every game needs to be super experimental about the way it tells jokes, but the medium is young and growing so there’s no reason not to at least try to innovate. There are a few titles that have attempted to make genuinely funny interactive content, and I’m going to take a look at how and why they work (or in some cases, why they don’t).

The Portal games succeed by reacting to the players inputs. If you screw up the obvious timing for a joke, a different punchline will take place. Often the other characters will ramble on about how you “didn’t do what you were supposed to” and quickly get sidetracked, and the aimlessness of their monologues ends up becoming the joke. This is a pretty gimmicky solution, but the well written dialog keeps it from getting too repetitive. Beyond that though, the writing in the game is pretty straightforward. Most of the comedy takes place in scripted cutscenes where the player has no agency.

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A level from the 2011 Valve hit, Portal 2. Along with it’s precursor, it’s widely considered one of the funniest games of all time.

The Stanley Parable takes it a step further, giving the player much more freedom. The entire game is a satirical take on player choice and the game has a quip for pretty much everything you do. The Stanley Parable is not a wholly comedic game, there’s times of existential dread and serious dramatic moments, but in its comedic moments it’s a shining example of how to do comedy. Every step of the way it’s obvious the game’s satirical tone was present from the beginning of development. Most importantly though, it feels like a comedy game, as opposed to a movie stuck in a games body which is surprisingly common. There’s a lot of developers that seem more like confused filmmakers in the wrong field of work.

Jazzpunk takes a very different, surrealist approach to comedy. It doesn’t always stick the landing, but you can’t say it’s not unique. The game presents itself as an interactive pastiche of 60’s spy films. Its world is made up of a few large, open levels where the player can wander around, and though you always have an main objective you’re bound to get distracted by the things around you. This is where the true fun of the game will come from. It’s design is similar to a sandbox game, but instead of a physics engine to mess around with, you’re interacting with various characters and objects to see what kind of a gag they’ll pull off. The reason Jazzpunk fails though is because all of it’s jokes are non-sequiturs that mean nothing to the player. They’re completely absurd and require no real input besides pressing a single button. The way it approaches jokes might work in a different game if the punchlines were more grounded in reality, but it comes off sloppy here. Luckily, there are games that take a sandbox approach to humor that do work.

A screenshot of the absurdist comedy-adventure title Jazzpunk, developed by Necrophone Games.

The previous few games we’ve been talking about have been made to consider player interaction, but they’re still grounded in authored experiences. Every joke was still completely intended by the developer. The player had a little input in how some of them would play out, but for the most part it was all predetermined. In recent years though, there’s been a trend of games where the humor comes entirely from the player. Games can often be funny due to glitches or bad design choices, and certain developers have started taking advantage of this fact and built an entire sub-genre of game centered around this kind of humor. Games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Surgeon Simulator intentionally give their games awkward controls, unpolished mechanics, and unfinished levels for the sake of laughs. The purposefully bad design is an odd choice that has led to mixed reviews, but it does lend itself to unique gameplay. The games become a sort of interactive slapstick, with the clumsy characters constantly hurting themselves and others in amusing ways.

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In Octodad you have to be a good husband and father, while keeping everyone from finding out that you’re an octopus. It’s as crazy as it sounds.

Now that we’ve taken a look at a couple of the most famous examples of comedy games, what can we learn from all of them? This first thing may seem obvious, but the comedy has to be considered a part of the game from the get go. Jazzpunk was originally designed as a serious game and it wasn’t until later in development that it took a comic turn. If you play it with this in mind it’ll make a lot more sense why it doesn’t usually work. You can’t force comedy into a game where it doesn’t belong. We need to have a better mindset about the tone of our games before development even starts. For example we need to think of our adventure games as “comedy adventure games”, as opposed to “adventure games that just happen to be funny sometimes”.

We also need to let go of control as developers and give some of that freedom to the players. Authored experiences are great, but if we wanted to watch a funny movie we’d go watch a funny movie. If we want to play a funny game then that game should be funny in a way that only games can be. It doesn’t have to be something as strange as Octodad or Jazzpunk. The game can be funny in subtler ways too. You could fill the flavor text and dialog trees with witty jokes. You could offer a minor choice that gives players a sense of freedom and adds personality to the experience. The sky is the limit and as I said earlier, there are no objective wrong choices. All of this is uncharted territory and no one knows what works in every scenario, so we’ve got nothing to lose by being creative and trying something new.

Games don’t have to be completely serious and unfunny, and to be fair a lot of them aren’t. While there’s nothing inherently comedic about party games, their style of play leads to a lot of funny moments. Their environment allows for banter with your friends, as you often get the opportunity to surprise or screw them over. So the medium is clearly a place where wholesome fun and laughter can be had, after all that’s the experience a lot of games are attempting to provide in the first place. When we go out of our way to intentionally design a game with the purpose of being funny, we just need to keep this stuff in mind and let our imaginations do the rest. Just about every year there’s a game with some inspiring new mechanic that becomes a must have for everything that follows it. I truly believe that someday soon, someone will make a comedy masterpiece that really shows the potential of video games as a comedic medium. Until then, we need to keep experimenting and playing with expectations until we can find a formula that truly works, and one day we’ll get there. And I can’t wait for that day.

Thank you for reading.

Player Agency – How “Breath of The Wild” Evokes Being a Kid Again

Our protagonist on horseback as he’s pursued by a Bokoblin.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the experience of being a kid better than anything I’ve ever seen. No video game, or any piece of art for that matter, captures that very specific feeling of childlike wonder so well. The game is wildly popular and most aspects of it have already been talked about ad nauseam, so there’s lots of brilliant items of design I will be skipping over so as not to be redundant. That being said, if you would like a more general overview of all the game’s innovations then I highly recommend Mark Brown’s video on it, which you can find here. His game design series “Gamemaker’s Toolkit” is one of my favorites. Not to get off track though, let’s dive in to why exactly this game is so special.

Let me explain what I mean when I say “childlike wonder”. I’m talking about that feeling as a kid when you had a more active imagination and it seemed like anything was possible. As you get older it becomes harder to surprise, as you’re more aware of how the world works. As a kid it’s a lot easier to impress, your imagination would fill in the gaps where things had flaws or missing pieces. The older, more linear Zelda games felt like true adventures when you were young. The secrets you found felt like they were tailored for you, like no one else had discovered them. You were the adventurer and only you. Growing up you start to see the limitations of these games. They’re made up of rigid systems that have very strict rules, and are all incredibly authored experiences. Their limits are very obvious, which is understandable considering the series is over 30 years old. Breath of the Wild manages to recapture those feelings of adventure however. Naturally it still has rules and logic, but the systems it uses are so open and free it can feel like magic, even to an adult.

A screenshot from the first 3D Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. It remains a fan favorite today.

If you’re familiar with the history of Zelda you’ll know that the desire to deliver that childlike experience is baked into its DNA. In 1986, Japanese game developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka released a game called The Legend of Zelda on the Famicom, and the next year overseas on the NES. Miyamoto has since stated that he was inspired to make the game by the feelings he got when exploring the forests and caves around his house as a kid. Like a lot of the games in the franchise, the original doesn’t hold up incredibly well if you’re playing it for the first time today. The game was still widely influential in its time though and is not to be discredited, and lot of the great things Breath of the Wild does are modern twists on the aspirations of the original game. The desire to explore and navigate an uncharted world has been a focus of this series since the beginning, it’s just BotW that does it best. And a lot of what makes this adventure so magical can be summed up by a single mechanic: Climbing.

Climbing is one of the most fun ways to explore as you struggle to find footholds and retain your stamina.

“You can climb anything in the game”. It’s hard to sell the novelty of this idea without actually playing it, but if you go back and play almost any adventure game you’re going to notice places the developers didn’t want you to go. And you’ll always find some excuse that an area was out of your reach: “You can’t jump high enough”, or “that area is too dangerous to travel to”, etc. Something along those lines. There’s no such thing in BotW. Everything you see in the game is reachable, at any point in the game. If you can figure out how to go there, you can go there. This extends even to events that in other games would be ordered chronologically. There is no such thing as “doing the game out of order”. You can finish the quests for the game in whatever order you want, or not at all. The final boss is even open to fight from the very opening moments, you just probably won’t be prepared for it at the start. But if you want to fight it, you can. This stuff extends throughout the whole game. If you see any cliff, it can be climbed. There’s no arbitrary “you must be at least level 10 to enter” at any point in the game. There are areas that are filled with dangerous creatures that will most likely destroy you if you enter, but nothing is stopping you from getting your ass kicked right out of the gate. If you want to take them on you can, the only thing stopping you is your own cleverness.

One of the many fearsome creatures you’ll stumble upon during your time in the game.

These ideas are probably only novel to someone who is aware of how this genre typically works. Before Breath of the Wild, so many of these roadblocks were considered standards, and were thought necessary for the game to function. It seemed an impossible task to make a game without all those arbitrary requirements that would still work and be fun to play. If you’re not familiar with these kinds of games or maybe even games in general then these things might sound obvious. If you do play games then you’ve probably had the moment where someone who didn’t would look over your shoulder while you were playing and ask you why you couldn’t do something. “You just can’t”, you would tell them; that’s just how the game works. That’s the harsh reality creeping in, when the immersion is lost and you realize that this is indeed a video game that like all other things has to follow a strict set of rules. The fact then that you can describe Breath of the Wild to a layman and have it make perfect sense is an incredible feat, and perhaps the kind of goal all games of it’s kind should try to reach.

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The player attempts to roll a boulder onto a camp of unsuspecting enemies.

The physics system is another area where the game delivers on the “you can do anything” philosophy. Its the kind of thing that makes Zelda comparable to the “Immersive Sim” genre, a title touted by games such as Deus Ex and System Shock. When you break it down the goal of these games is also player choice and emergent gameplay, but Zelda outshines all of them by nature of being much more modern in both technology and design choices. In the original Deus Ex you could strap sticky bombs to walls and jump on them, an unintended part of the design that ended up lending it’s hand to the game’s feel. It made players feel creative by realizing there were multiple solutions to every problem. A similar example in Breath of the Wild is when you’re solving a puzzle that involves directing electricity. Some players will realize that their metal weapons conduct electricity and instead of using the tools the puzzle provided, they use their own. They “cheat” with this and end up solving the puzzle their way. Unlike Deus Ex though, this was an intended consequence of the games engine. The fact that weapons made of metal conduct electricity like they would in real life isn’t just a fun little factoid, it’s a part of the game. Everything in the game can interact. Another commonly cited example is that while a carrying a metal sword in a thunderstorm you could get struck by lightning. Fires create updrafts that you can ride on, rain makes cliffs slippery, boulders will roll down hills, and so on. The developers made sure that there were no inconsistencies in the games logic, that every part of the world felt alive. Under the hood there are still rules, but the game feels like a playground for you to explore and discover how things work.

Breath of the Wild bucks an insane number of video game conventions, all in order to  give the player a sense of freedom. It knows that standards for video games are higher than they were in 1986, and it knows that older people just have higher standards anyway so you need to work harder to get them immersed. It eschews linearity to create a truly open world. You feel free to let your imagination take hold, the sky’s the limit. There are no boundaries, you can do whatever you want.  Everywhere you go, there’s a discovery to be made. One of the most exciting parts of the game was simply seeing something in the distance and making my way there on foot, knowing I could do it and that nothing would stop me. It makes you forget you’re even playing a game, it makes you feel like a little kid experiencing childlike wonder and fun, it makes you believe anything is possible again. You feel like a little kid before the harshness of the real world became obvious to you. And for the hundred hours I played the game, I discovered what it was like to be a kid again, and all I wanted to do was explore it’s magical world. And that is a wonderful feeling for a video game to offer.

Link approaches a Hinox, not yet being spotted by it.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is perhaps my favorite game of all time, and that’s a pretty common opinion to have. Its legacy will be felt for years to come, and it’s one of the few games that feels so monumental that anything made before it is now null. When the original game came out, people had similar feelings. It felt like an evolution of the medium of games as a whole, and a testament to what you could do with them. Since then the industry has continued to be creative and to innovate until we reached where we are today. This probably means that though many hold the opinion that BotW is an untouchable masterpiece, one day it too might be considered dated and clunky. And that’s a good thing, nothing lasts forever and if people stopped being creative because they thought the original Zelda was just untouchable then we never would have gotten here. That being said, Breath of the Wild is still an incredible game and it’s going to be pretty hard to top. It’s a game that can only be surpassed by something that takes everything the game did, and doing it ten times better. So basically, it can only be surpassed by the next Legend of Zelda game.

Thank you for reading my first post. And thanks to the BotW community for providing the screenshots I used. I’ll be back two weeks from now with another post.

An Introduction to Player Agency

Hi, and welcome to my first blog post! My name is Wyatt, I’m 18, and I’m a writer as well as an avid fan of games. I decided to join those two passions of mine together to form this blog. I plan on using this site as a place to host reviews, think pieces, and other things related to the world of video games.

My goal is to provide a unique perspective in the world of game design. I’ll take a look at aspects of video gaming that I think are overlooked by others, and try and give my take on them. I also want to make content that can be understood and appreciated by people that aren’t ludophiles, and maybe even turn them onto the medium. Watch out for my first actual post this coming Friday. Feedback is much appreciated, as well is sharing this blog. I hope you enjoy : ) -Wyatt

On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer. — Satoru Iwata