Exploring The Evolution Of Humor In Games
Humor doesn’t come easily. In fact, humor is so subjective that often a joke may fall flat or just offend. And yet, some people are able to express humorous concepts that a wide range of people find funny. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone seem to be two of these people. Tomorrow, the humorous duo will release South Park: The Stick of Truth, a game they wrote in hopes of capturing the humor of the popular Comedy Central show. In honor of this release, we decided to examine how video games have woven humor into interactive experiences throughout the last several decades.
This feature was originally published on March 4, 2014, at 6:23 p.m. Central.
What We Know About Humor
Interestingly, the phonetic sounds that humans produce when they laugh (haha, hehe) sounds roughly the same across the globe. This could mean that the desire to laugh is more primal than language itself. Humor is a powerful instinct, and it’s something that we desire to do. Some scientists believe that humor might even be a basic means for animals to teach their young how to play and get along with others. Sigmund Freud believed that laughter was a way for humans to release the emotional tension from what would otherwise be slightly stressful situations.
Unfortunately, in spite of all that we know about humor, there is a lot we don’t know. There is no formula for humor. And since we don’t have a formula for humor (at least not yet), that means we can’t program machines to be funny. Video game A.I. can be programmed to engage us in combat, but it can’t be designed to dialogue with us in intentionally humorous ways – we can't even program a game to hold a believable conversation with us...yet. Games like Octodad and Sumotori can be programed to simulate ridiculous situations, but for the most part, video game humor has to be pre-written. This might seem obvious, but it’s more impressive when you think about how video games have been able to incorporate humor into games in a variety of different ways.
Video Game Humor Stories
Early adventure games were often funny. This is because the gameplay itself was fairly basic and boiled down to matching items with objects in an environment. So humor was used as a tool compel gamers to explore the environment.
LucasArts' 1990 release The Secret of Monkey Island was written by the hilarious trio of Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer. The game is full of slapstick characters and amusing animated cut scenes. The game revolves around a youth named Guybrush Threepwood who arrives on a fictional island called Mêlée Island with dreams of sailing the sea and becoming a daring pirate. During his journey he encounters an animated boat salesman who embodied the spirit of the pushy car salesman, and a crazed castaway named Hermon Toothrot. The solutions to many of the game’s puzzles are often bizarre and comical, such when Guybrush has to use clever insults to win a swordfight.
Other adventure games, such as Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Day of the Tentacle, and Leisure Suit Larry use humor in this way. One of the funniest games of this era of the adventure genre was Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist. The game opens with a bouncing ball sing-along that explains how Freddy gave up his life as a notorious outlaw to become a pharmacist. However, Freddy learns that life as a pharmacist is far from mundane as he is swept up into a series of tasks that have him inventing an antidote to cure horse flatulence (called a gas leak), surviving a snail stampede, and curing a diarrhea epidemic.
While a lot of humor in games is traditionally based on the game’s scripting, as games evolved they began to explore surreal settings and the humor of bizarre situations. For example, Earthworm Jim is a game about an anthropomorphic worm that finds a mechanical suit with arms and legs that allows him to fight crazy villains such as Bob the Killer Goldfish (literally a tiny goldfish in a tank), and Evil the Cat.
Sega’s ToeJam & Earl, on the other hand, revolves around a duo of aliens who crash-land on Earth and have to collect the pieces of their spacecraft in order to get back home. The humor of the game includes exaggerated appropriations of 1990s urban and hip-hop culture. ToeJam and Earl constantly spout California slang and dance to jazz-funk.
Japan has become known for releasing games with premises so bizarre they become immediately endearing to a western audience. Nintendo’s WarioWare series features collections of unusual minigames that required players to fan the air to clear away a fart, pick a cartoon nose, and shake insects off a banana.
Similarly, the handheld rhythm-matching game Elite Beat Agents is ripe with strange situations and characters. The title characters belong to a fictional government agency that helps people in need by encouraging them through song and dance. The people they assist include a washed-up professional baseball player who rescues a young fan from a fire-breathing golem, and a weatherwoman who needs to improve the weather so she can take her son on a picnic.
Sometimes poor translation, amateurish voice acting, and bad dialogue result in unintended humor in games. An iconic example of this is Resident Evil, in which one of the characters refers to his partner Jill as the master of unlocking, and later intones nervously about how he hopes a pool of blood on the floor doesn’t belong to a friend. Another popular example of unintentional humor comes from the game Zero Wing, which spawned the popular Internet meme “All your base are belong to us.”
Video Game Humor Taken Seriously
As video game storytelling has become more sophisticated, so has video game humor. Series like Grand Theft Auto started to push the boundaries of social commentary – creating satires that cleverly point out society's failings. While there are plenty of games that triy to be funny and fail, many modern games such as Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Brütal Legend, Lego City Undercover, and Borderlands 2 have been able to balance humor with moderately entertaining gameplay.
Portal is one of the most oft-cited titles when it comes to humor in video games. Valve’s clever first-person puzzle game would have remained fun if it had been stripped of all its humor, but it's the game’s witty dialogue and surreal setting that make the game a pop-culture icon. Series antagonist GLaDOS is a malevolent A.I. who repeatedly tries to murder the game’s protagonist, but her snarky banter makes her extremely likeable. Throughout the game, GLaDOS makes fun of the main character’s intelligence and weight, and even admits to lying to the player.
Another recent game that uses humor well is The Stanley Parable. This inventive indie game started out as a Half-Life 2 mod that was more of an experiment in the medium's inherent interactivity. The game centers on Stanley, an office drone locked inside a consistent work routine. However, once players take control of Stanley, they are free to break from that routine and send Stanley on adventures that have him exploring the philosophy of reality and dream, learning about the basics of game design, and confronting his own mortality. The game’s proper British narration is not only hilarious; it manages to make some poignant statements about how gamers interact with games.
As video games continue to evolve, so will video game humor. But until we are able to program a machine to generate jokes on the fly, humor will have to be written into the story like the rest of the narrative. That doesn’t mean that we’ve seen all there is to see when it comes to video game humor; as designers continue to experiment with game design, we’ll continue to see games that use humor in creative as well as meaningful ways. Prepare yourself; the future of video games will make your sides hurt.