For almost as long as games have been around, there have been attempts at adding humor to the medium.  Whether through fantastical art styles, clever dialogue (voice acted or otherwise), ridiculous enemies, playful characters, ridiculous gameplay, or various other techniques, developers have attempted to inject humor into games for years.  Some, such as Portal, have found success through clever writing that oftentimes brings a grim smile to your face, but doesn’t make you laugh hysterically.  Others, such as Saints Row 3 and earlier Grand Theft Auto games, place their trust in creating worlds that are so bizarre and ridiculous that the player is laughing for the entire ride.  Lastly, many titles incorporate outlandish art styles to entertain the player.  Castle Crashers is a prime example of this type of game.

In this console generation, however, a new type of “humor” has emerged, and I think that it should be done away with.  Or, to be more positive, changed to be more thought provoking and purposeful.  Prevalent in games such as Borderlands, Duke Nukem, Retro City Rampage, Super Meat Boy, and Saints Row, this type of humor is known as “reference overload.”

Borderlands is one of the most reference heavy games ever made.

Of course, the designation needs little explanation.  These games are filled to the brim with references (or “shout outs”) to other video games, movies, books, shows, and other media.  References might be found as the name of quests, areas, levels, on signs in the world, or in various other places.  They might be hidden as the name of a weapon, or thrown at the player in the form of dialogue.  Regardless of the source, an ever increasing amount of games are focusing their humor on these callouts, and we are laughing right along.

I think we’re being fooled.

Let’s take a look at Retro City Rampage, which was released for PS3 and Vita last year (and other platforms later).  The title is drowning in references to not only video games, but TV shows and movies as well.  In the introductory mission alone, the player will find callouts to Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The A-Team, and Ducktales.  The game does nothing to spoof or poke fun at these titles, simply dropping them in front of the player.  The references are just there.  The way I see it, they are meant to pull smiles from gamers by either cheating their nostalgia or by making them players feel special for “getting the joke.”

There is probably a reference in there somewhere.

Or we could look at Duke Nukem Forever, a game that was poorly received partially in relation to its poor taste in references (among many, many other thing).  In a section of the game involving the turning of valves, Duke claims that he “hates valve puzzles.”  Of course, this is meant to reference Valve, the creators of the puzzle series Portal.  But then...what?  Another studio is called out for no reason whatsoever.  The line has doesn’t convey that Gearbox wants to share their thoughts on Valve with us, and was inserted purely to gain a smile from people who caught the shout-out.  The line could have been written by anyone with a pencil, and doesn’t add any legitimate humor.  

You hate valve puzzles?  That’s fine, we hated your entire game.

What, then, can be done to fix this?  There are two options: drop the references altogether, or turn them into satire, or spoofs.  I don’t believe that the former is at all necessary, and I actually believe that there is a lot of room and opportunity for games to call out other media in a more effective (and legitimately entertaining) way.  If developers can go from simply inserting references to having something to say about whatever they are referencing, humor-filled games would be more interesting and, well, humorous.

To better understand what I feel like games should aspire for when using this type of humor, let’s look at South Park.  Yes, it is a TV show (which I have admittedly not watched a ton of, but enough to get the gist), but games could learn a ton from it.  South Park riffs on pop culture and real life figures in every episode with a clear goal in mind.  When the jokes and references are displayed, it is obvious that the writers have something to say about the subject, and that they aren’t just trying to grab a passing smile from viewers who can say “HEY, I KNOW WHAT THAT WAS A REFERENCE TO.”  

Let’s be more like these guys.

At the end of the day, this isn’t a huge problem.  Humor-focused games are not yet a huge part of the industry, but they are rising.  Especially in the indie scene, “retro” games created with the goal of invoking nostalgia are being released all the time, and often carry numerous references with them.  Games that have had large commercial success (Borderlands, Saints Row) using this brand of humor show that the public is interested in that type of experience, and publishers will pick up on that.  I just hope that video game humor does not devolve into a bunch of “Wait, what was that a reference to?” and “Lulz, I got that one,” and instead goes down the path of clever writing that feels both inspired and purposeful.