Playing it for laughs: the long overdue return of comedy in videogames

Jazzpunk is arguably the best of a new wave of comedy games. We awarded it a 9 in our review.

Funny videogames are back. For the first time since the golden age of point and click adventures, a sudden rash of releases – Broken Age, Octodad, Jazzpunk and South Park: The Stick Of Truth – have arrived within months of each other to remind this sometimes worthy and stoic medium that videogames can still ‘do’ funny.

We’ve all slipped into the scuffed shoes of enough grizzled, grimacing male leads by now; the relative success of the aforementioned four suggests that players do want laughs as well as adrenaline-fuelled action. And there’s range in these four games’ scope – while Jazzpunk and Octodad are the smaller indie games of the quartet, Broken Age and South Park are each high profile games made with relatively large teams – and very possibly, they’re about as big as comedy games will get.

Comedy somehow doesn’t sit well in triple-A games. Even Grand Theft Auto’s dark humour isn’t really the kind to elicit a chuckle – it is sharp-tongued satire or pitch-dark, blood-splattered slapstick, not laugh-out-loud funny. And it’s a style of comedy that doesn’t sit well with comedian and actor Peter Serafinowicz, either. “It’s not to my taste at all,” he tells us. “There are people who defend it by saying it’s satire but it’s really not – I really think that it’s using that as an excuse. It’s weird that those games are so sophisticated in a technical sense but you have to sit through these unskippable scenes that are just… they’re worse than a terrible film.

“I hope [my son] wouldn’t want to play it and I hope that he would be as unimpressed by the quality of the writing and the general themes in the game. The sensibility and sense of humour is just not mine at all.”

Double Fine founder Tim Schafer doesn’t consider Rockstar’s colossus a comedy either. “There hasn’t been a Grand Theft Auto of comedy,” he says. “I mean, there’s comedy in Grand Theft Auto, but it’s only secondary. There’s a certain style of really on-the-nose satire in those games, but they’re not really comedy games.”

GTAV’s Trevor is undoubtedly a comic character, though he inspires revulsion as much as he does mirth.

Fellow blockbuster Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag upped the gag count a little compared to previous games in the series, with its supporting cast of rum-fuelled seadogs and in particular James Bachman’s turn as the bumbling Brit Stede Bonnet. It was intentionally a funnier game than its predecessors, says lead writer Darby McDevitt. “From the beginning [the setting] seemed like a fun period and it has fun characters,” he tells us. “I wanted to get equal parts tragedy and comedy in the story.”

And yet it’s not exactly laugh-a-minute – Edward Kenway is a more mischievous lead than most, but he’s still essentially the kind of battle-hardened protagonist we’ve become so wearily accustomed to. Serafinowicz says that beyond a few exceptions like the point and click adventure games of yore and the LEGO series, games are “pretty much a humourless medium.” “It’s a strange thing, but when a game is trying to be funny it rarely succeeds,” he tells us. “I love videogames and I love comedy, but I don’t know if the two really mix.”

Compare the amount of comedy in movies and on TV to its presence in games and this strange dearth of humour becomes even clearer. The reasons for this can be found in both videogames’ structure and the process behind their creation. As Jazzpunk co-creator Luis Hernandez notes, when we describe a game’s genre, we’re really describing its mechanics, and there’s an inherent problem in building a game around one central set of actions.

“Core mechanics are about allowing the player’s skill to grow, getting them to feel more and more in control of their environment and their interactions,” he tells us. “This climate of player control is not conducive to comedy.” If there’s no room for surprise or the subversion of expectations in the game’s mechanics, then how are developers expected to make players laugh? It’s no surprise to discover that games like South Park and Broken Age are character-led and dialogue-heavy – there’s no fun to be had in the repetition inherent in playing videogames.

Just like Broken Age, it’s South Park’s characters that make it funny, and it’s no coincidence that each game’s mechanics take a back seat. Gags need room to breathe.

That single set of stated gameplay rules also means that developers can only really spin one or two gags out of each player action in the game. “If the player spends the entire game holding only a rocket launcher, and the only interaction he’s got with that world is firing a rocket, then there is very little possibility space available to him,” continues Hernandez. “The entire world becomes binary – ‘yes, I can destroy it with my rocket’ or ‘no, I can’t destroy it with my rocket.’ Again, there is less space available for surprising the player in any way.”

Another way around the issue is to make the core mechanic itself funny, as in games like Octodad, Surgeon Simulator and QWOP. Though like any joke, constant repetition through play means that in each of these games, the central gag gets less funny each time.

So how did Jazzpunk’s creators overcome these fundamental problems to release what is arguably videogaming’s best comedy? Well, it sort of happened by accident. The game was originally conceived as a stylized, noirish cyberpunk adventure, but transformed into a comedy when its creators realised that the gags and easter eggs they had sneaked into the game had become their favourite parts. “First we made a game, and then we made fun of it,” explains Hernandez. “It was a very deconstructive process, taking all of these elements that were at one time kind of serious or straight-faced, and tearing them down or transforming them entirely.”

This kind of freeform, organic game development just isn’t an option at most big-game studios, where games are conceived, drawn up in design documents and created around that template, with tweaks made along that set path.

Jazzpunk is literally a spoof of game development – its creators built a ‘serious’ game, then made fun of it.

Necrophone’s Hernandez says that Jazzpunk wouldn’t have survived longer than 24 hours in the hands of a giant studio. “They’re just not set up to patiently experiment with something like comedy and surrealism,” he says.

It’s an understandable consequence of the huge cost involved in making large-scale videogames that the paymasters seek to suck out any perceived risk. But Schafer still laments the lack of daring among larger publishers. “The people who are trying to predict what audiences like are underserving them,” he tells us. “They’re not willing to use their imaginations or take the risk. I think people who make indie games are just like ‘well, I like the idea of steering an octopus around so I’m going to make a game about it.’ Also, it takes guts to do comedy. You’re really putting yourself out there and leaving yourself vulnerable to people not laughing. So basically what I’m saying is that they’re all a bunch of sissies.”

And yet most recently we have South Park: The Stick Of Truth, a game developed at great expense over several years at Obsidian, a studio of a scale far greater than any indie. It can be considered an anomaly, though; based on a world-famous TV series and preexisting media empire forged by creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it not only has a brand name attached to it, but has also been tightly controlled and directed by the duo from the start. Its main success is in staying true to South Park’s tone and style while layering videogame mechanics on top. And, so far, it has sold well. So could it spur on more developers to try and tickle players’ funnybones? Or maybe inspire more comedians to write a videogame?

As we said in our review, South Park is a comedy, first and foremost – luckily its gags were potent enough for us to excuse a few of the game’s technical shortcomings.

“I think as soon as there is [a hit comedy game], then everybody will try and make one,” says Schafer. “And then there will be a bunch of bad comedy games, and then everybody will be like ‘comedy’s stupid and nobody wants it any more’ and it’ll go back into its cave.”

South Park could yet inspire more comedians to bring their gags to game development, but for now, comedy’s greatest hope is in the indie scene, and a growing middle tier of slightly larger studios like Schafer’s own Double Fine.

Videogame storytelling and characterisation has come a long way in the last few years, and for God knows how long, developers and pundits alike have been asking: can a videogame can make you cry? It’s abundantly clear that videogames can do all of that stuff now – perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves if they can really make players laugh, too.