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Power Member - Level 9
It's difficult to write comedy. I found this out when I tried incorporate humor into a creative writing class once. I could never make it work consistently. Sure, I'd slip in a pun here or there, or I'd get a laugh through the use of a particularly biting metaphor. But overall, my fiction wound up more dramatic than humorous, with humor popping up only to interrupt the narrative in a forced, out of place manner. While I never really succeeded in that aspect, the exercise taught me two very important lessons about the fundamental mechanics of creating humor. The first is that the writer has to get the timing right. Douglas Adams, P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, John Kennedy Toole, all of them find a rhythm in their writing that they can punctuate with clever jokes. There's a cadence to Slaughterhouse Fivethat carries Vonnegut's comedy, and Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide books have inspired a wave of humorists in almost all forms of media. Timing is arguably the single most important aspect of comedy because we've all seen how well an ill-timed joke goes over: freakin' crickets. This is largely the reason that there are so few legitimately funny games out there. When discussing humor's place in video games, timing is a bit of a b*tch.
Since a game relies on player interaction, the timing that writers rely on so heavily breaks down due to player interaction. A comedian works on his/her own time, not at the behest of the audience. Humorous games must find ways of clearing this hurdle. The simplest (and most common) strategy is to work humor into cutscenes. It's easier because during the cutscene, the developer team takes the player out of the equation, and the comedic timing works the same way as it does in film. Take this cutscene from Ninja Theory's (sadly undervalued) Enslaved: Odyssey to the West:
While I wouldn't call Enslaved a "funny game," moments like this crop up every now and then, mostly in the cutscenes with Pigsy, the stout character who functions as comedic relief. It's a funny scene in a world that does not strive to be humorous, which allows the scene to be funny because it is so out of place. We see this all the time in games when humor pops up in the cutscenes in games that aren't largely thought to be funny (Infamous, Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption). But when a game fully commits to humor, comedy operates as part of the gameplay, the atmosphere, the larger concepts. In other words. the best games that claim to be comedic don't half-ass it.
Take Portal, for example. Humor weaves in and out of the game's architecture through its setting, characters, and mechanics. Portal constantly calls attention to its bizarre concept through the brilliantly designed levels and the soothing yet threatening voice of GLaDOS. All these aspects work in congress to put a funny spin on what would normally be a horror scenario. Chell awakens in an eerily sterile science facility wherein she's forced to undergo a series of trials at the behest of GLaDOS, the murderous AI who offers false promises of cake *shudder*. The horror is magnified in Portal 2 when Chell awakens to a facility in ruin and accidentally activates a very functional and a very pissed-off resurrected GLaDOS. Other elements, like the background story of a man who lives in the walls and the ambiguity of why the deadly neurotoxin was released also heighten the horror atmosphere, and there is recorded dialogue of GLaDOS' creation (which J.K. Simmons opted out of because it sounded too much like rape) that, thankfully, did not make it into the game because it played the horror a bit too convincingly. GLaDOS' shape even resembles that of a person bound and gagged--not a far fetched comparison, given her origin story. The world, however, exists alongside hilarious robots that provide ample comedy and a portal-creating mechanic that can lead to some very funny unscripted moments. Valve uses horror elements, therefore, with the specific purpose of undercutting them for the sake of humor. One of my favorite moments in the game occurs early when Chell and the always charming Wheatley tour the bowels of the Aperture facility, prompting the robot to tell a "ghost" story:
Everything about this moment is perfect. The player navigates the corridors of what looks like a survival horror game, with ambient noises echoing from parts unknown, but the story the robot tells completely unravels the tension that the atmosphere builds. The comedy, then, comes not necessarily from the story itself but from its juxtaposition with the horror elements the game uses. The gameplay doesn't pause or force the player to watch a cutscene. Instead, the joke lies in making fun of the horror games that Portal 2 apes in ways only a game can: by allowing the player to explore his/her environment. The player should be unnerved, but isn't because the makes fun of its horror element. It's really nothing short of brilliant.
Valve even found a way to make comedic timing work in game space. Since Portal is a puzzle game, reliance on when the player reaches certain points automatically creates specific points in which to inject humor. GLaDOS insults Chell by making fun of the player's progress (or lack thereof). For instance, the game provides a red-herring in the form of GLaDOS' promising Chell that she will be reunited with her parents, but after the player endures trials and insults, he/she is rewarded with...this:
Again, only games can provide this type of humor because it subverts the whole dangling carrot reward system to which we've grown so accustomed. We found out over a decade and half ago that our princess was in another castle, and, still, we fall for crap like this. It's insulting, and it's awesome. Even in multiplayer, the two people playing can make their avatars mess with each other as GLaDOS tries to sow discord between the players by lauding one's prowess in front of the other. If you accidentally kill your teammate, GLaDOS will try to convince him/her that you did it on purpose, possibly prompting a funny (albeit macabre) revenge scenario. The game plays the player. In fact, the central concept of escaping the environment is a joke simply because the game is, quite literally, inescapable. Though the game is built on the dichotomy of confinement and escape, it cannot offer liberty because, ultimately, Chell is literally confined to a disc spinning in a box sitting in someone's living room as she's directed by a person with a controller. The player is given the means to get past trials in rooms, yet he/she can only go where the game allows. So it makes fun of the player for trying to get beyond the walls of the game. Pretty damn funny.
The Portal franchise is just one example of the few games that use humor to full potential of the medium. Nearly any game that Tim Schafer heads brings the funny and the charm, and a lot of early point-and-click adventure games (Day of the Tentacle, Quest for Glory, and the Monkey Island series come to mind). Still, it's a rare thing when a game works the way a game should to deliver humor by fulling committing all aspects of the medium to deliver a solid punch to the funny bone.
So what do you all think? What are some of the funny moments you've encountered in games? Let me know in the comments, and let's have a laugh.
Oh, and that second lesson I took away from trying my hand at humor? There are few things less amusing than laboriously explaining why something is comedic...unless you do it to annoy someone. Then, it's funny as hell.