Dark humor runs through Portal 2, the massively successful 2011 offering from Valve Software. The game’s antagonist, GLaDOS (short for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), goads the player, pushing and prodding him or her along with an ever-present narcissistic, sarcastic, sinister wit voiced by Ellen McLain reading a script written by the legendary Erik Wolpaw. Wheatley, the enthusiastic sidekick in single-player mode, offers a light-hearted alternative to GlaDOS’s dour musings. The pair combine to create a game that is exceptionally funny at times.
Portal 2, however, is not a comedy. The plot is dark and melodramatic, occasionally interspersed with moments of levity. But the video game, along with its predecessor Portal, is one of the funniest mainstream titles of all time. In the vast majority of games, any comedy comes as an afterthought or accidentally. Or worse as bad jokes jammed into cut-scenes or as out-of-touch dialogue that doesn’t make sense given the constraints of the virtual universe that the designers spent hundreds of hours building.
The question is: why aren’t games funnier? Put another way, why hasn’t there been a Hangover for video games? The simple answer: If dying is easy, and comedy is hard, then creating comedy in video games is exceptionally difficult. “Comedy demands full attention in some way, and a game is always going to split your attention down the middle between the environment, the gameplay, the mechanics, and the story,” Tom Bissell, a video game journalist and writer, says. “Your attention is chopped up into smaller pieces when you’re playing a game.”
Jamin Warren agrees. “I think that games struggle with some things that other mediums have, namely control and agency. A comedian on stage knows what the punchline is going to be. You create this tension between the expectation of what the punchline is going to be and what it actually is,” the founder and editor-in-chief of Kill Screen, says. “The game designers don’t have that ability. They can insert all kinds of jokes, but if a player isn’t in a particular mindset, it’s not going to work.”
Rob Dubbin spends his work days writing for The Colbert Report and some of his spare time designing and building video games like Earl Grey. He understands how the loss of control for a video game auteur dramatically affects his or her ability to create comedy. “If you were writing a joke, you need a set up and a punchline. The trap is to put both of those things into the text. I feel like the whole experience of the game is a mechanical setup,” he says. “The things that the players are doing from moment to moment are the world that the player understands. In the context of a game, knowing your audience means knowing what the player is doing, what they are experiencing, and messing with their expectations about that.” Start to consider the number of possibilities in that statement and you realize the difficulty of building in comedy.
This isn’t to say there aren’t funny games, especially on the indie side. Tim Schafer’s Double Fine has some amusing offerings like Middle Manager of Justice and The Cave. Surgeon Simulator and Don’t Shit Your Pants are simple games with amusing mechanics. Going further back, The Secret of Monkey Island is a point-and-click adventure game from Lucasfilm Games that had plenty of humor.
There is the Adult Swim network that focuses on humor-filled games — some that succeed and some that don’t — and Shadows of the Damned, which is the “Evil Dead 2 of video games,” according to Bissell. (Even the trailer is completely overwhelming.)
But no triple-A efforts put humor first. Part of the issue is game design. “The most popular mode for the big-budget, triple-A game is melodrama, action-adventure where the stakes are really high. Comedy isn’t about stakes being high. It’s more about other things. These big games are laying on the melodrama to motivate you,” Frank Lantz, chair of NYU’s Game Center, says. “Single-player games need to invent reasons for you to care. You have to get the ball in the hole or whatever because you’re saving the Princess or saving the world. That gets you going. Comedy is more about puncturing those big values, about building them up and deflating them. Comedy is not as much about inflating our sense of importance.”
This tradition of over-the-top narrative and storyline limits the opportunity for the script writers and the designers. “By going for these utterly melodramatic conceits, you paint yourself into a corner narratively about what you can address within the parameters of your story. If your story is about saving the world, yeah, it’s hard to see how you make that funny,” Bissell says.
But he and others believe this is changing. “So many of the big Triple-A games are triumphantly humorless. That comes out of this misguided decision that gamemakers have made that the player ‘cares more’ when the stakes are higher. I’m convinced that as long as something matters a lot to the characters in the story, that’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving a teddy bear or Mars, the stakes are the same,” he says. “I’m more and more convinced that these dumb, melodramatic stories are going to fade more and more into the backdrop.”
Case in point: Bissell wrote the script for Gears of War: Judgment, which drops on March 19. The hit franchise pits a group of outlandishly muscular, over-armed, aggressive soldiers against the Locusts enemies. It’s a situation that begs for a little bit of self-aware comedy. “I tried to make it as funny as I could. I hope the game has a lot of humor in it, because Gears cannot be taken seriously. It’s a self-consciously over-the-top bananas game. That’s one of the things I really like about it,” he says. “It’s a serious game in that I hope the characters and the dilemmas feel real, but when part of the game involves using a chain saw on an alien and cutting it in half, you can only run with that two ways: go the horror route or the Gonzo route. We tried to split the difference a little bit, but I hope it’s a funny game.”
Another example is Incredible Crisis, a Japanese game that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a relatively normal, middle-class family. Or even The Sims, which isn’t specifically designed to create comedy but does so anyway because of the mechanics. “You just want to keep your character happy. That allows for more nuanced comedy because you have these characters who are developing personalities over a period of time,” Warren says. “You can actually create irony in a game like The Sims, which is very difficult to do in other circumstances.”
Increasingly sophisticated engines will also help make inserting comedy easier because they create higher levels of control. Dubbin cites the indie game Kentucky Route Zero. “It’s great with player situations. It knows what you’ve just done. It knows what you’re doing. It knows where you’re looking,” he says of the game described as a magical realist adventure adventure. “It’s so precise and thoughtful that these little tiny jokes get inserted at exactly the right point. It doesn’t overwhelm you with comedy. It’s not a Catskills routine. It’s so carefully wrought that the jokes they sprinkle in hit so hard, like a ton of bricks. It’s super punchy, very restrained sense of humor. It’s kind of where I would want to see comedy in games go.”
Dubbin extrapolated further in an email: “There’s a bit involving an airplane that’s way out of the way and I’m not sure everyone finds, but I found hilarious for how lovingly, furtively wrought it was anyway. Plus, the narration in the scene was keenly aware of how bizarre it was, but signified that by playing it straight… It pushed all the right buttons for me in the moment, as a reward for prolonged exploration.”
This is one version of the future, where the comedy comes from the thoughtful, subtle sense of humor game developers employ and the game mechanics themselves. It’s coming, but slowly. “That, frankly, is legitimately unexplored,” Warren says. “I think [it’s going to be awhile] until games figure out how to do something really nuanced like Charlie Kauffman or Woody Allen [where] the humor is more emotional. It’s going to take some time to figure out how that works natively in games.”
Noah Davis is a freelance writer whose video game characters tend to die in unintended, yet comic, ways.