Monday, June 15, 2009

The Humor!

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 BrĂ¼tal 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.


  1. Unbelievable. You, [subject name here], must be the pride of [subject hometown here].

  2. How could you mention Valve and not link to their increasingly hilarious "Meet the..." videos for Team Fortress 2? Here's a link for those sad enough to have missed them:

    Meet the Sniper and Meet the Spy (the newest videos) are especially rob-tickling.

  3. The Penny Arcade games are pretty hilarious, too!

  4. Might I advocate Satan for a moment. While I would certainly agree that in a direct, pen to paper to character's mouth sort of way, many games are lacking in the writing department, I would put forward the idea that, perhaps, writing in video games is not bad (devil's advocate! devil's advocate I said *holds back crowd of bloggers with a lit torch*).

    Let's take our much maligned Gears of War for instance. If we look at the story for Gears of War as if it were a novel or a movie, it is easy to pick apart. Dialogue is little more than the eye of the storm-esque mumblings between two severe bouts of 'roid rage. The plot is, at times, simple and typical, and, at other times, is purposefully replaced by not-plot, not to create a mysterious atmosphere to later be explained a la Portal, but rather just so the writers can relax and throw back a couple more cold ones into their backwards-hat adorned heads. So yes, in a traditional, read/viewed point A to point B sense, Gears of War's story is lacking. But, Gears of War is neither a book nor a movie and, as has been said on this blog before, the storytelling method of video games is drastically different from either of those mediums.

    So, let's assume for a second that everything done in GoW was completely planned out and purposeful. Every simplicity, ignorance, and plot silence is a planned piece of the art. With that in mind, let's talk about the gameplay experience. Playing GoW really mirrors the feel of its hulking protagonists (had to fight the urge to write "protagoni"). It is intense, macho, violent, and to the point. It is summed up by the concept of grenade tagging somebody in the heart. Literally: IN the heart.

    As you play GoW, you lose your sense of a gentle friendly reality, you accept primal urges, and you begin to take great pleasure in the grislier, bayonet-chainsaw, side of existence. That is to say, you enter into the mind of your protagonist.

    At this point, you no longer care about the fact that you have miraculously fallen in with the biggest gang of biggest bad asses in the universe despite the fact that your father is some type of super-wealthy genius scientist because you are busy curb-stomping the face of some nasty subterranean morlock mole-man whose ass is as equally big and equally bad as your own.

    to be continued in the next reply...

  5. the overzealous continuation...

    I imagine you guys can see where I am going with this now. Having entered this mindset, you simply just do not care about the "why" or the "how." You want the "what." And the "what" you want involves orbital lasers and shotguns. In your adrenal bersekegang, you simply rage forward into combat. If you aren't so pumped that you skip the cutscenes, the game does it for you. Dialogue? Unless you are talking about the poetry of shooting someone in the chest with an explosive arrow, who gives a crap? You are a space marine rage-zerker whose muscles could account for six other people and you could not care less about "wind in your hair" or a "falcon on your arm." It is all about lamentation for you (and occasionally women, but not during this storyline).

    So yeah, if you choose to think about it like this (which in the end, most of us, myself included, will not), GoW is a perfect storytelling device. It uses its gameplay to place the player in a certain mindset and its story mirrors the feelings of that mindset. GoW really takes advantage of its medium because it uses the unwritten player experience to complete itself.

    Okay, all that said, I don't think that this is truly how GoW was meant to be, but I do think that approaching it as such provides an interesting thought. We, the game community, composed of players, critics, and creators, to truly unleash the artistic potential of the video game as a medium, must wipe our pallettes clean and rework our whole sense of what stories and storytellers are. In a video game, that one guy shouting at the screen is not an annoyance, he is a necessity. As a player, you are the man shouting at the screen and as a developer, you must entrust your emotional-mental synthesis into the hands of that ranting moron. If we do not accept that fact, then we all may as well just go watch a movie or read a book.

    end note: sorry for the long response, but I just really like video games. Way to go with this blog by the way. I really appreciate what you guys are going for.

    end end note: sorry I missed your first post Marcello. I really wanted to leave some crass unnecessary note.

    3X end note: this is Cyrus by the by

  6. A modest rebuttal

    Dear Sir Doom (Cyrus),

    I’d like to start by thanking you for your extensive and well written reply. I cannot, however, accept your apology for posting a dissenting opinion about the Gears series. Please do not take this as an affront, but rather as a whole hearted welcoming of a different point of view. This journal is meant to be a place where ideas are discussed, drawn out, hashed, and rehashed until through the burning crucible of our discourse we are rewarded with a few tiny diamonds of truth. I cannot accept you apologies sir because you owe us none.

    Now then, to the matter at hand. In your post you said the following:

    “If you aren't so pumped that you skip the cutscenes, the game does it for you. Dialogue? Unless you are talking about the poetry of shooting someone in the chest with an explosive arrow, who gives a crap?”

    Well dear reader, I do. I give a crap, several craps in fact. My issue with Gears and so many steroid injected titles like it has nothing to do with its value as entertainment. Like millions of others I’ve enjoyed these games as a diversion, an activity to share with friends, and a form of stress relief. My problem with Gears and its fellow titles is not that it lakes value as entertainment but that it lacks truth.

    Art resonates through human history because it shows us something that is undeniably true about ourselves. Whether it is a story with a particular moral like Dickens’s Christmas Carol, or a painting which evokes sadness and despair like Picasso’s Guernica, or a statue which captures a timeless beauty like the Venus De Milo, real art says something true.

    Gears of War is fun, but it undeniably and unrepentantly portrays war as a game, emotion as a weakness, and manhood as the ability to kill without remorse. It is endemic of the worst lies of our culture, right up there with the WWF, fast food, and the vomitous “music” pumped out by pop bands.

    Surely the video game medium can deliver more to us than this. I know it can, that’s why I am so critical of games like Gears. Not because they aren’t fun, but because they are selling a lie. Lies are often good fun, but they just aren’t art. You say that you really like video games, well I do to and I want to see more from them then just entertainment. I want to see art; I want to see something true.

  7. I see your point, but what if Gears does not actually disagree with you. As I said before, GoW forces the player into the role of Marcus Fenix or one of the other meaty giants who make up the primary human characters. In this role meaning, history, morality, and purpose are utterly meaningless. As such, the player is allowed to enjoy action simply as action with no strings attached.

    Now, continuing the concept that everything in GoW was completely purposeful and self-aware, then the game is inextricably tying this sort of mindless action experience to the characters being inhabited to reach it. To explain the value of this connection I am going to go on a semi-tangent.

    I am sure that at least a couple of you guys have read Native Son by Richard Wright. In Native Son there is a character, Bessie, who has garnered much discussion. Bessie is an extremely negative and archetypical representation of "the Black female." Bessie is emasculating, short-sighted, greedy, and highly sexualized. She also catches the worst end of the murder stick in the book (her head is beaten with a brick until it ceases to be). Many people, feminists and the racially conscious alike, have questioned both this depiction of the Black female and how it is put to an end. The general consensus is that Wright harbored some deep seated issues with both his racial identity and the women of his own race. However, a professor of mine suggested a different outlook. Perharps Bessie is a little too archetypical for it to be an accident. Perhaps her depiction was purposeful. If that were true, then maybe Bessie's violent end is not being applied to the Black woman, but rather, it is being applied to society's gross depiction of her.

    Tangent over. Flip back to Gears. So we, the players, get to have our perfect, mindless action game. And it is really good too. It is wildly fun for us, whether alone or with friends, and we can play along and never give a damn about the story. But to do that we are forced to become one of the COGs. There is no finesse character. There is no particularly intelligent character. There is no alternative. To have the type of experience you get to have in Gears, you must give up all semblence to sense and reality and you must become the most ridiculous looking, roid burnt, monstrosity imaginable.

    Essentially the game is saying, sure our addiction to empty entertainment is fun, but a complete dedication to it in our art is ridiculous if not outright grotesque.

    Use a flaw to change a flaw. Have to love it. It would be really sweet if the developers actually felt this way.

  8. I think that the game that you're describing, Cyrus, may actually be a better game than Gears. Gears actually lacks the purity of purpose that you describe: it is clearly attempting to be more than a mindless action game filled with brutes, but its ambition outstrips its ability.

    Skip as many cut scenes as you like, you'll still be confronted with attempts at emotion, feeble tuggings at heartstrings, a search for a lost love, a government conspiracy, and contemplations of a father's legacy. It's just that every time the story attempts to become a story, it falls short.

    In the end, that's what makes for the really bad writing in Gears of War. It's not that the game is mindless, brutal action; it's that the game wants to be something that it isn't. It fails.

    It would be harder to find fault with the game you describe. At least if it were all just violence and madness, one might admire the purity of purpose on display.

  9. Again, you are hitting the nail on the head.

    “GoW forces the player into the role of Marcus Fenix or one of the other meaty giants who make up the primary human characters. In this role meaning, history, morality, and purpose are utterly meaningless.”

    I agree with you here, completely. The problem arises when we consider that history, morality, and purpose are good things and I miss them when they are not there. What’s more they are necessary things. Without them a game not only lacks the framework to hold up its story arch it lacks any real value to the player beyond the tactile pleasure of hitting buttons and watching things explode. What we are left with is, at best, a fireworks show, a momentary pleasure with no real depth behind it.

    Also, with regard to Native Son, I think you are right it’s entirely possible that the developers of the Gears series could be building us up for one big social commentary punch line. Gears Three might very well drop a brick on the face of the gaming community for its hedonistic lust for manly violence and shallow story lines. Sadly, I don’t think that’s what we are going to see. Gears Three will likely be a slightly more visually pleasing version of its predecessors. It will come complete with a half baked story and no more humanity or introspection then what we’ve seen so far.

    Maybe I am wrong and the writers of this maligned little story will go out in a blaze of Dadist glory but I don’t think they will. I think we will just see a continuation of the lie we’ve been enjoying so far.

    It’s not a matter of my agreeing with the game or not. As I said, I played both games end to end and had a grand old time doing it. It’s a matter of the game selling us a baloney sandwich in a medium that has so much more to offer. People aren’t meaty giants, governments aren’t all shadowy conspiracies, and war is not a superbowl like event with two clear sides and no real suffering. The truth of these things is far more subtle and actually much more interesting. Show me a game that explores some actual humanity and I will be the first to sing its praises, otherwise I’m going to keep calling the industry on its shortcomings, not because I don’t like their games, but because they could and should do better.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.