Video Game Comedy Is Hard, But it’s Getting Easier

Recently, I revisited one of my favorite games from last year, The Stanley Parable. Developed by Davey Wreden and released for Steam, it’s a bit difficult to describe the game in brief (particularly since half the fun is just diving into it), but basically, it’s structured like a choose-your-own-adventure story. You assume the role of Stanley, a faceless drone who leaves his office one day to discover all his co-workers have gone missing.

As you move through the office to investigate, the Narrator, brilliantly played by Kevan Brighting, comments on your actions and surroundings and, crucially, speculates on your next move. For instance, when you come to two open doors, he says you’ll move through the door on the left. You can choose to follow the narrator’s instructions, or you can choose to ignore him and go your own way – each of the several choices the game presents offers its own branching path, each with a different ending.

The Stanley Parable succeeds in accomplishing a lot of things, and one of those is to be frequently, uniquely hilarious. All dry, scathing wit, the Narrator becomes befuddled and combative when you disobey him, scrambling to lure you back into his story and play the game he’s so lovingly laid out for you. In other words, the game finds its humor by reacting to your choices and movements.

If that doesn’t sound so remarkable to you, it’s because it sounds so obvious. Of course a game would get laughs by reacting to what you do. After all, doing things and making choices is how games work. But that’s just it. Something like this is enormously difficult to pull off, since the thing that makes games such a difficult medium for comedy is also the thing that distinguishes it from other media: interactivity.

Think of the ways comedy is usually deployed – TV, film, stage, writing, in a conversation even. The thing all these have in common is that they rely on a captive audience. In most cases, the odd heckler notwithstanding, the only say an audience member has is whether or not to pay attention.

Video games, on the other hand, require audience input to work at all. You can do whatever the game allows you to do, whenever the game allows you to, for as long as the game allows you to, even if it’s pointless or at cross-purposes to the point of the game. If you boot up Super Mario Bros., and you want to make Mario walk into the side of a pipe for two minutes, you sure can. If you buy the new Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare and decide to stare at the menu screen for a few hours, knock yourself out. The point is that players figure into the telling of a joke by necessity. Ordinarily, comedy doesn’t work like that. Ideally, the joke-teller is in control of the content, timing and context of the joke, but that’s much tougher to achieve in a game.

I’m not at all saying funny games didn’t exist until recently. Of course not. I could mention stuff reaching back to the text-adventure adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in 1984, on through Tim Schafer’s surreal, quirky Grim Fandango and Psychonauts over a decade later, and go on and on about examples of games that made the effort over the years. I won’t though, especially because our own Noah Davis did a bunch of that for us last year, but largely these games were always exceptions to the rule, bold experiments that thumbed their nose at convention. (Or in the case of many adaptations of licensed material, like The Simpsons: Bart’s Nightmare, they were cash-ins that failed spectacularly.)

So, sure, great (intentional) comedy in gaming has been rare. Now I’m not a developer or a gaming insider. I’m just a fan. But in my opinion, comedy in games has been more prevalent lately, and I think that trend is only going to accelerate. There are a few reasons for that:

Technology’s improving

Roughly around the turn of the century, when fully voice-acted games started to become the norm, cutscenes with dialogue tended to be the most common place to see games toss in a joke or two, because it’s essentially just an animated short. Sometimes, if the performer or the line is funny enough, it works. Here’s the problem: for most of gaming history, for various animation and rendering reasons, the typical character model either has all the visible emotion of a latex mask, or worse, looks inhuman enough to send the “uncanny valley” meter through the roof. Basically, it’s hard to buy conversational humor when anything resembling natural movement rarely enters the equation.

But with each successive generation of consoles, the graphics improve and the animations become more technically precise. Rockstar’s 2011 offering L.A. Noire featured loads of professional actors (including Undeclared’s Carla Gallo) and big advances in facial animation technology that could, even if momentarily, make you forget you were watching digital characters at all. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting there. And considering studios like Pixar have landed jokes on facial expressions alone, it’s certainly a more than achievable goal. These advances don’t just go for animation, but for all facets of a game’s architecture, from audio to memory capacity—all those jokes where the game comments on a player’s movements can only go so far because, for instance, maybe a game disc can only hold so much space for sound bites.

As respect for gaming grows, the industry will attract bigger talent

Until relatively recently, video games were largely seen as an artless, disposable distraction. That’s all changing, in large part because many of the children who grew up with games as part of their culture are now becoming critics and developers themselves. But as gaming moves beyond its adolescence, it’s naturally ready to swim in the deep end of the talent pool. A mainstream game like Valve’s Portal 2 can now attract the likes of Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons to play prominent roles, both of whom deliver hours’ worth of line readings. Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter show up briefly in Halo 4 to do a bit, while Terry Crews and Neil Patrick Harris appear in Saints Row IV, already a game with its fair share of weird humor.

With more and more stars putting in the time, it’s only a matter of time before gaming’s own Apatow production comes a-knockin’. (Plus, doesn’t it just seem like something James Franco and Seth Rogen are on the verge of announcing next week?) Just please, don’t give us another instance of John Goodman sitting in a hot tub in a no-budget, awful parody of Myst (I promise you this is absolutely real, and it will make/ruin your day).

As gaming becomes an artistic institution, the industry won’t be so insecure

Let me explain. In any medium, dramas are usually, if unfairly, considered more artistically credible than comedies by most anyone—critics, audiences, voting members of the Academy Awards. And because video gaming wasn’t considered a “real art form” for such a long time (and by some accounts, still isn’t), game developers often made bids for that credibility by making self-serious, violent games about self-serious, violent men in the military or in the criminal underworld. Some of these games are very good, and they’re indeed milestones in gaming. Plenty of others mistake gore for realism and cynicism for art. Part of this is a built-in issue. Games are frequently based in fulfilling a player’s power fantasies, whereas comedies are usually built around the struggles of the powerless. Sure, it’s funny to laugh at Ed Helms in The Hangover, but would you want to be him? (All apologies to Ed Helms.)

But it’s my theory that as gaming becomes more widely accepted and deeply ingrained in our culture, developers will stop feeling like they have to prove gaming’s worth and ease off the dour, war-torn environments that oversaturate the market. I mean, those will still exist, but maybe there eventually will be more room for some comedies promoted as heavily as Grand Theft Auto. Comedic narratives are still steeped in conflict, so you can’t tell me that a blockbuster game can’t be made from one, even if it will end up looking different from what’s out there.

There are more games (and more types of games) being made than ever before

Just as YouTube coincided with a boom in absurdist and alternative comedy, the Internet has allowed small-scale and indie developers to code, self-release and self-promote their games with ease. Not only does this allow for more singular comedic voices to be heard, but it also allows for more games to experiment with form and style, creating types of games that are more conducive to comedy, since they operate outside of the established industry. Even Adult Swim’s been publishing games over the last handful of years, mostly all based in bizarre, ironic humor as is their wont.

Also, we’re now at a point where gaming history is large and well-established enough for reference and meta humor to frequently worm its way into games—all the postmodern stuff the kids go nuts for. In a sense, the internet helped to facilitate this too, since developers have less to worry about that a player won’t get a joke, when any reference is essentially just a Google search away. Early this year, indie developer Necrophone Games released Jazzpunk (incidentally also published by Adult Swim), an espionage-themed game designed as a comedy that’s dense with pop-culture allusions and genre subversion. It was released to general acclaim, and even its detractors were mostly put off by particular gags rather than the game’s implementation of them.

But I keep coming back to The Stanley Parable for a reason. The whole game is premised on the player not being the captive audience that comedy generally needs. That it finds its humor in the player choosing whether or not to go along with what’s supposed to be the established story is key. Because games offer interactivity, they have the opportunity to be funny in ways that other forms of comedy cannot, in ways that directly implicate the player because they had their hand in what’s happening onscreen.

Games are a burgeoning art form, but they are still mostly uncharted waters when it comes to comedy. Soon, we’ll have a whole generation of explorers.

Video Game Comedy Is Hard, But it’s Getting Easier