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.
"To make a game so funny with so many comic alternatives, that would be like writing three hit movies. The scripts are impossibly long. That would be a considerable investment. And I was thinking if you wrote that much comedy, chances are you would put it in a feature film."
So is it more difficult for humor to thrive in today's games? Monkey Island co-creator Dave Grossman doesn't think so. He believes that the type of game you create doesn't dictate if you can successfully integrate comedy...only how.
"I don't know if it's easier to do in the adventure game format than it is in a lot of others. Really, the kind of humor that you do is dictated by what kind of game you're making."
Grossman explains that comedy doesn't always come from the mouths of video game characters. A game doesn't have to have an amusing script in order to be considered funny. In fact, changing trends in the video game industry have led to rise of new types of gaming comedy.
He brings up the example of the recent tower defense variant, Plants Vs. Zombies.
"The gameplay is real simple...there's nothing super elaborate about it, but as soon as I hear the first zombie going "urrrrr" I start to chuckle. There's a moment when you've built up all of these plants making "poot poot" noises and suddenly a giant wave of zombies comes in going. "arrghharghhargghh". It's the sheer pandemonium that's just hilarious."
It's the absurdity of games like Plants Vs. Zombies that sets them apart. Games that take traditional game play mechanics and place them in a completely ridiculous setting. The growing popularity of independent games and accessible distribution channels like Steam are fostering a rise in absurd, surreal titles, and the attention such games get could get more traditional console publishers to take chances on titles they might have once laughed aside.
Grossman inadvertently touches on another emerging aspect of comedic gaming, physical comedy. Where previous attempts at motion control had failed, the Nintendo Wii seemed to hit at exactly the right time, capturing the hearts of gamers tired of standard game controls and the attention of the non-gaming public, intrigued by the idea of a playing games in a more active fashion.
Any activity that requires people to physically perform is rife with comedic possibilities. Grossman recently found himself performing physical comedy while playing Ubisoft's Rayman's Raving Rabbids for the Wii.
"Just the fact that I am throwing a cow in the game is funny. The little action-y things I am doing...you'd think, "But how can they be funny?" but it's just the way that they're presented that make it hilarious."
Sony and Microsoft have their own alternative control systems on the way. Both Sony's motion controller wands and Microsoft's Project Natal are bringing with the potential to make otherwise stoic and reserved players look completely ridiculous. Now, that's funny.
As for the fate of tradition forms of video game comedy, the advance of technology doesn't have to be a hindrance. Any comedian can tell you how important observation is to good humor. Many games use primitive player observation to interject quips and snide remarks reacting to the player's actions. Simple things, like running out of ammunition, or turning the wrong way in a racing title; the games see what the player is doing and could react accordingly.
Building on the same sort of technology, developers would not only be able to deliver more accurate and situation-appropriate humor to the player, but also tailor the humor to the player's demeanor. That idea Grossman saw as something of a threat? It's in development — at least in a horror game:
Konami's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii watches everything the player does, from specific actions to how long the player has particular objects in their view, using that information to build a profile that affects how the game plays out for each person.
That level of observation could easily be taken from the horror genre and applied to something a bit lighter. A funny game, crafted just for you.