Humor Finds Hope in Indie Game Development

Humor in video games can be a brutally serious thing.

The very nature of creating something funny makes finding a publisher for a big-budget funny game nearly impossible.

"The process of getting a $30 million game signed with a publisher is the process of removing risk," said Tim Schafer, one of Double Fine Productions' resident funny men, and founder of the video game studio. "You start out with your idea and then they're like, 'Hey, what about this thing that might alienate people?' So you take that out, and you take this out and this out.

"But humor is always going to be risky, because the joke is always risky, people might laugh and they might not. So often in games it's the obvious thing to go."

But that hasn't stopped Schafer and his team at Double Fine from making funny games, and finding success doing so. They've been so successful, that last week Schafer was able to convince another great video game humorist, Ron Gilbert, to join his team.

Gilbert and Schafer have a long history together, one that goes back to the 90s when they created the epic funny adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island. News of the two once more working together brought a tidal wave of positive reaction from gamers.

"I'm a huge fan of both of these guys," wrote one reader on Kotaku following news of the hire. "I have very fond childhood memories of the first Monkey Island. Now maybe my daughter will be able to experience a game the same way I did, in the early 90s."

Gilbert has never been far from creating funny video games. While he worked on a more serious adventure game and a real-time strategy title, humor is what typically informs his games. His latest title, DeathSpank, has players taking on the role of the dense lead DeathSpank as he strives to save the world by collecting magic thongs.

With elements drawn from popular action game Diablo and plenty of references to Monkey Island, it is a pitch-perfect blend of humor and action, something Gilbert was aiming for.

"I'm incredibly happy with it," Gilbert said. "My biggest concern with it was the humor. Humorous games haven't done really well. They've gotten knocked a lot. I'm incredibly happy with how DeathSpank has done and how it has been perceived.

"Humor is very hit or miss. Even with the funniest thing ever, there is someone who will hate it. Humor is just like that."

Both believe that the increasing popularity of smaller, cheaper downloadable games could lead to a renaissance for funny video games.

"Humor might have a better place with the new game industry where you have Xbox Live Arcade titles and download titles and things that can hit mixed audiences," Gilbert said. "Then the people who enjoy the humor can kind of gravitate toward it and the people who don't, they don't."

While some developers have argued that comedy is hard in video games because of the level of interaction, both Gilbert and Schafer believe the opposite is the case.

"I always thought the interaction was what made it funny," Schafer said. "You just have to write something funny when you're in a game standing in front of character holding a gun and they don't say anything."

Funny moments in games happen all of the time, Schafer said, developers just don't always take advantage of them.

"I was playing through Grand Theft Auto IV and I accidentally knocked over a woman in the street and my character was standing on her head," he said. "It was so ridiculous and I wish my character would have said something funny right then."

The industry doesn't have a lot of go-to funny men because it's relatively young, Gilbert said.

"There are a lot of people who write movies and televison who are incredibly funny, who spend years honing that," he said. "It's something we need to grow into. I think as the video game industry grows and attracts more people we will see more of that."

So for now studios like Double Fine Productions are putting aside the larger games for smaller, more targeted titles.

"It's never been easy," Schafer said. "As the budget gets higher it gets more difficult to pitch a specific game and get it made. So we don't need to make those sorts of games, we'll make smaller games.

"But I think we will make bigger titles again down the line. If we come up with an idea for a big game then I'm sure we'll work on it."

"We are plotting our own course through the creative landscape of games."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.