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.

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