need to know
Expect to pay: £12 / $15
Release: February 7th
Publisher: Adult Swim / Necrophone Games
Easter eggs are a fine tradition in game development. From quickfire references to full hidden levels, these comedy vignettes provide surreal non-sequiturs that reward the most thorough with an unexpected laugh. Jazzpunk is what happens when a game's every interaction leads to some form of easter egg.
It's a first-person comedy adventure about espionage and technology, although to describe it as such is to misjudge the balance of comedy to adventure. Instead, picture the word comedy in block capitals, surrounded by flashing lights. Also, imagine the letter M has been formed from the outline of a pair of bum cheeks, and that they're mooning the word adventure. I didn't say its humour was always sophisticated.
You play as Polyblank, a secret agent working out of Darlington Station. Assigned various missions by the agency's Director (think James Bond's M as scripted by Guy Ritchie), you're sent out to explore a world where cyberpunk and '60s spy thrillers have collided into a retro alternate reality filled with robots, cyborgs and Cold War paranoia.
Explore is the operative word. To focus exclusively on the missions would be to miss out on the Jazzpunk's funniest moments, and also to cut out the majority of its three and a bit hour running time. There are objectives, and your path to them is blocked by the lightest of puzzling, but they never feel like the main attraction. In old LucasArts point 'n click adventures, the jokes were often a way to sooth the frustration of searching for a solution. In Jazzpunk, they're the reason to scour every area and interact with every object.
The sheer amount of comedic asides is extraordinary. Whether it's minor characters offering up computer puns, weird interactions from your rolling selection of props and gadgets, or surprising mini-games found in corners of the map, it seems as if every character and object is hiding something funny. It's a game where clicking on something as simple as a fruit bowl can lead to an unexpected encounter designed to make you laugh.
Tonally, the most obvious inspiration is from the films of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. There are plenty of similarities to Airplane! or Naked Gun, both in the volume of jokes, and in the game's fondness for parody and irreverent fourth-wall breaking.
Much like Blendo Games' Gravity Bone or Thirty Flights of Loving, Jazzpunk also makes great use of editing to sell its theme. Rather than being the focus, though, these cinematic skits are rapid in their execution: a dramatic flourish to announce your infiltration, or a split-screen mission briefing that efficiently sets the mood.
The appropriation of filmic techniques doesn't mean that the humour is passive. Even the best modern comedy games, like Portal 2 or The Stanley Parable, regularly fall back on simply delivering their lines. If the secret to comedy is timing, it's easier to keep the player out of the equation. Jazzpunk is unusual in how often it lets you play inside the joke. You're regularly asked to be an active participant, trusted to stretch or delay the punchline for as long as you like.
Despite its disparate and surreal collection of jokes, Jazzpunk is kept grounded by the visual and audio design. It's a striking aesthetic - the thick black outline that surrounds each character gives the game a cartoon sensibility. Because of this, even the strangest flights of fancy feel in keeping with its style. Not that it's afraid to break its own rules. Throughout, certain NPCs are visualised as featureless black figures wearing white ties, which lets the player know that they're unimportant and don't offer any possible interactions. Except for when they do.
The soundtrack works equally hard to keep the game rooted in a particular theme, by more closely tying the retro and cyberpunk influences into something cohesive. Each area of a level is tied to a specific track, and all of them take the form of repetitive electro beats played with analogue synthesisers.
All of this – the design, the music, the jokes and the plot – combine to make a game that, despite all its absurdity, feels like a complete package. Not that any of it would matter if it wasn't so consistently and refreshingly funny. While I occasionally encountered jokes that didn't work for me, it never soured the experience. Playing Jazzpunk, you always know that you're only a few steps away from something that will make you giggle.
That Jazzpunk so frequently caused me to laugh is a sign that it's a great comedy. That, days later, I'm still desperately fighting the urge to blurt out its best moments is a sign that it's a remarkable, unique and lasting one too.