The struggles of the comedy genre in gaming are well documented. Truly funny video games are such a rare occurrence, that the appearance of one can cause grown men to go on a James Stewart-like celebration run through the streets. Even worse than the quality of the usual dreck gaming tries to pass off as funny, is the fact that many developers are apprehensive to even attempt comedy games, as they are not only notoriously difficult to pull off, but typically don’t sell very well to boot.
Yet over just the last several months, we’ve been gifted with three truly great comedy video games.
Considering one is about an office drone confronted with the burden of choice (The Stanley Parable), one is about an Octopus trying to pass as a human (Octodad), and the other is about…hell to to tell you the truth I beat the game and I’m still not sure how to describe it (Jazzpunk), you may not initially group these games together. Yet they are all spiritually linked by both their ability to make the player laugh uncontrollably, and by their status as some of the only truly classic comedy games ever made.
It may be easy to write off their triumphant appearances over such a short time frame in an otherwise barren genre as an anomaly, but that would be doing a tremendous discredit to the game’s developers. Not to mention that when you put aside their subject matter and look solely at the structure of these games, you see they share some common aspects that could very well help form a blueprint for the creation of further great gaming comedies.
Comedy Starts With the Gameplay
One of the roadblocks that has kept gaming from easily producing more comedies, is the fact that good comedy requires perfect timing. As video games are a user driven affair that don’t necessarily adhere to a timing friendly structure, it makes a fundamental component of the genre a bit of a problem.
It’s why when designing a comedy video game, the humor has to start with the gameplay. The Stanley Parable achieves this by allowing the player choice, but by making sure each of those choices follows a tightly structured comedic path. Jazzpunk pulls off a similar feat by using the fixed nature of the typical point and click adventure game to create a world where gags, and not clues, are your primary marks of progression. Octodad, meanwhile, fully commits to the idea of creating a game that actually tries to show just how difficult being an Octopus disguised as a human is, courtesy of some fiendishly challenging controls.
My point is this. If a player isn’t inspired to laugh by the basic gameplay of your title, then no series of references or site gags is going to really get the job done. Which leads me to my next point…
Comedy in Gaming Must be a Commitment, and Not Just an Element
If you’re designing a video game to be funny, you really have to do so from the ground up. That means that there are certain genres and game elements that just aren’t going to work for a comedy.
That isn’t to say that you can’t have a fast paced, large level shooter with funny parts (like Blood Dragon or Bulletstorm), but if the goal is to make a true comedy that will end up being memorable years down the road for its humor, then the game has to showcase a complete dedication to comedy, and not just a casual relationship with it.
More than anything else, I feel this is where most video game comedies fail. Comedies in gaming may be such a rarity that the genre isn’t even traditionally recognized on Steam and other marketplaces, but to create a great one, being funny has to be the focus above all else.
Find the Intelligence in Absurdity
Do you know why shows like Adventure Time, SpongeBob SquarePants, Animaniacs, and South Park appeal to age groups beyond what their basic content may initially suggest?
It’s because as absurd and childish as the shows may be, there is an underlying intelligence behind them. Sometimes that does mean a more adult reference or two, but more often than not it applies to a fundamental dedication to filling even the most ridiculous of premises with a cleverness that is often so subtle, it often goes unappreciated as effortless.
Just about every good comedy has some elements of absurdity to it, and the ones that are able to be even more ridiculous while maintaining intelligent design tend to be the ones with appeal that span generations.
Your Writing Has to be Sharp
So how does someone populate a world of insanity with intelligence, without coming up with something that feels like a clash of styles? More often than not the answer is through clever writing.
Look at the three examples I’ve started with for good references of that idea. The Stanley Parable is filled with the kind of dry wit that wouldn’t be out of place in a Douglas Adams book, Jazzpunk can constantly catch you off guard with its ridiculous references even when you’ve become accustomed to its over the top style (think South Park), and as for Octodad, you only have to give a listen to the game’s theme song to see how it makes the most out of its concept through good writing.
Without good writing, your joke’s punchline will not hit. You can set up all your game’s gag’s perfectly, but if you can’t finish it with a payoff that takes the user by surprise, then it was all for nothing.
Keep it Simple
This one may be controversial considering that every other entertainment medium has comedic works that span the entire world, or even the entire universe, and still manage to be funny.
But gaming isn’t quite there yet. Maybe one day it will provide a traditional epic that makes us all laugh till we hurt, but for right now the most recent examples of true comedic gaming successes all show the benefit of keeping your set-up fairly basic.
Whether that means sticking to the tight paths of The Stanley Parable, dividing your game into small sections like in Jazzpunk, or just getting the most out of a single joke like in Octodad, for the moment it appears that games are better off employing a minimalist mentality while the foundations of comedy in gaming are still being established.