We've chortled at many video game's one-liners and sight gags. But did you ever press a button and laugh? Writer Michael Abbott poses a quandary: How do you make gameplay funny?
Abbott brings this up in a smart essay about the comedy in DeathSpank (a game I liked a lot):
Game designers who want to create a unified comedic world face a task that can't be answered with humorous dialogue or cutscenes: how do you make the gameplay funny? DeathSpank doesn't fully answer this question, but it takes a few promising stabs at it. For one thing, the frenetic pacing of a hack-and-slash game is more conducive to comedy than a point-and-click adventure. DeathSpank slows when it's time for conversation, encouraging the player to gradually prune each dialogue tree to get all the jokes. But in general the fast pace of play in DeathSpank enables the game to gather and sustain its comic momentum.
A fine line separates 'fun' from 'funny,' and DeathSpank attempts to deliver both in its active play elements. Killing unicorns (in itself an absurdity) is a stiff challenge in DeathSpank, and from a purely ludic perspective, the game makes it fun. DeathSpank delivers enough useful loot, incentivizes leveling up, and offers combat sufficiently addictive that it strikes the Diablo-fun chord its creators clearly wanted.
But...you're killing rabid unicorns in a whack-job wonderland of pastels and storybook visuals (and those pathetic gingerbread men I mentioned). Clearly, these add a demented comedic dimension to the challenging combat. So is DeathSpank's gameplay comedic? I say yes, most of the time; though I realize nothing is more subjective than humor.
I see Abbott stretching here to convey the humor in the game's interactivity. Pruning dialogue trees to find jokes is funny, but perhaps it's not the humor itself, any more than turning the pages in a book of jokes is? In Abbott's example, you are at least focusing the search for jokes, stringing your character through a verbal chain of gags. But is the play itself funny? I feel like what I did in DeathSpank — what I triggered with presses of buttons and was therefore gameplay — was less funny than what I saw, what I heard and what I read.
Gameplay as humor is hard. I wonder if slapstick is what we need, if, to have humorous interactivity you need more Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in your character movement. I'm not sure. This is a tough one.
COLUMN: Abbott's Habit: Blood, and Steel, and Bacon [GameSetWatch]