by Daniel Bullard-Bates
A couple weeks ago, I spoke about some less-than-stellar trends in horror games - tendencies that make the genre less scary when it could evolve in more interesting directions. This week, I want to focus on something I think is improving: humor in video games.
Just in the last four years, we’ve seen more and more games try to be funny and succeed. Psychonauts was hilarious. The first Overlord game displayed a quirky sense of humor. And the dry wit and humor of GLaDOS helped make Portal one of the best games in recent memory. And with Brütal Legend, Overlord 2, and rumors of Portal 2 on the horizon, it looks as if games with a sense of humor are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Hopefully, the trend will expand beyond these developers and franchises.
I grew up on funny games. King’s Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island (getting remade!), and similar early adventure games all had a sense of humor clearly present. I appreciated that in my games. I didn’t stop appreciating it, but it seems that game developers lost interest in funny ideas for a time. There were hints of hilarity. I could tell that Alyx Vance had a sense of humor, but she and I were rarely able to relax for long enough for me to be sure.
Now, writing humor is notoriously difficult, so it’s no surprise that most games either don’t try to be funny, or fall short on their attempts. When games like Gears of War can be wildly popular with almost nothing to show in the writing department, it’s follows that most companies won’t shell out the cash to hire talented writers. I think the Gears of War series even has a few weak attempts at humor, though I can never be totally sure:
“There’s a shitload of Locust down there!”
“More like 10 shitloads.”
Funny? (Is there any series that we’ve ragged on more than Gears? For the record, I played and enjoyed both of those games, which just goes to show how much good gameplay can get us to ignore.)
Humor’s return to popularity in games is likely related to the fact that talented writers are actually being seen, more and more, as an important part of game development. All of the games I mentioned at the beginning of this post are associated with a strong writer or group of writers: Tim Schafer is the creative mind behind and lead writer of Psychonauts and Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of the also funny Terry Pratchett) wrote the script for Overlord. Valve has one of the best writing teams in video games in Marc Laidlaw, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw. Besides the stellar humor on display in Portal, there are moments of genuine hilarity in their more action-oriented games, like when Bill mumbles in the middle of Left 4 Dead, “You call this a 'zombie apocalypse'? This is nothing compared to the Great Zombie Attack of '57!”
Displays of humor in games serve a greater purpose than mere amusement. They show that games aren’t just all about aggression and violence: an intelligent game, like any work of art, evokes a wide variety of emotions. Humor is just another world that games should feel comfortable exploring, and it will take more good writing to make that happen.
So let this serve as a note of commendation. I’m thrilled to see these companies treat writing as an important part of game design, and I’m very excited to see that games are funny again.
Monday, June 15, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates