Video games have been generating laughter since the days of text-based adventures. Can today's more complicated titles keep up with the comedy of their beloved point-and-click ancestors?
Comedy isn't easy, especially in the medium of the video game. Injecting humor is more than simply having a character say something funny. It takes precise timing, a certain amount of skill, and a strong knowledge of your audience.
What separates games from movies or books is the gameplay, and developers have to take that gameplay into consideration. They aren't simply riffing to a bunch of people sitting in a darkened bar. They're trying to entertain someone who just finished slaughtering enemy forces or solving a difficult puzzle. That requires someone possessing not only a strong grasp of humor, but an understanding of how games and gamers tick.
It's a task that is proving more difficult as video games evolve.
During the 80's and early 90's, humor flourished in the game industry, due in large part to the adventure game genre. Simple point-and-click mechanics and largely dialogue-drive gameplay gave adventure game legends like Roberta Williams (King's Quest), Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry), and the LucasArts' Monkey Island triple-threat of Tim Schafer, Ron Gilbert, and Dave Grossman ample opportunity to plunge players into hilarious circumstances.
Grossman's still at it, working on the resurgence of the classic adventure game in the form of Telltale Games' episodic Tales of Monkey Island for the Nintendo Wii and PC. He tells Kotaku that there's chances for humor in games to develop in some fascinating ways.
"As the games get smarter and start paying attention to more things about what the player is actually doing, using that ability not just to create challenges but to create humorous moments will be pretty cool. Eventually I expect to be out of a job over that."
But to get there, games will have to continue to surmount some challenges that the advance of technology has introduced, challenges that have sometimes made it tough to make new games funny games.
As technology improved, things began to get more serious. With the rise of 3D technology a strong focus was put on making games look good, delivering a more realistic — and often darker — experience to the player. Cartoonish comedic games became more of a novelty than the norm. Few titles, such as Rare's Conker's Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64, fully embraced humor.
The CD-ROM format, which allowed developers to add more voices to their creations, gave birth to games like Gex and Blasto for the PlayStation, both of which relied on repetitive celebrity wisecracks to keep players entertained. The humorous, cartoonish adventure games, once a haven for comedy, gave way to more mature adventure titles like Myst and The 7th Guest, both showcases for the emerging tech.
The cutscene also matured during the 90's, evolving from brief animated segments meant to give players a rest between rounds of Pac-Man to fully-voiced, CGI rendered movies. Even today, many games use the cutscene to present humorous occurrences, keeping the story and the gameplay separated.
What are the issues keeping today's games from embracing comedy?
Freedom plays a huge role. When a game takes a player from point A to point B, as in Valve's Portal, the game's writer basically knows where the player will be at any given time, and can react accordingly. The more freedom a player has to determine how they play, the more difficult it is to fire off a punchline at the right moment. A sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto, in which the developer has no way of predicting how the player progresses, turns to unconvential methods to deliver humor outside of gameplay, such as radio chatter and mock television programs.
Another big issue with today's game is the length. Writer/director Harold Ramis recently touched on the issue during an interview with GamesRadar around the release of Atari's Ghostbusters: The Video Game.