Kings of comedy: the art of interactive humour

Few games are designed to make you laugh. And among those that do, laughter is often a happy accident, the inadvertent by-product of a combination of systems that provoke moments of unintentional comedy.

“People laugh at videogames constantly,” says former Irrational Games alumnus Jordan Thomas, who recently worked as creative consultant on South Park: The Stick of Truth. “But largely it's because they're laughing at the clumsy and often absurd intersection between the designer's intent and their own.” Thomas insists there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the distinction is clear: we're laughing at games, not with them.

For comedy writer and director Graham Linehan, it's pretty low on his list of priorities when playing a game. “For me it's like comedy in porn,” he says. “It's kind of beside the point.” Valve writer Erik Wolpaw, who co-scripted Portal and its sequel, admits that he once likened the idea of comedy in games to “the guy who talks between dancers at a strip club. Nobody cares what that guy says and anybody who does is probably kinda maladjusted.”

Linehan suggests that in most cases the problem is that the writing simply isn't good enough. The desire to ensure the audience is in on the joke is perhaps why GTA's satire has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball (by design, arguably), and why parody rarely works—Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon's attempts to mock bad tutorials by forcing the player to sit through one has all the wit of Scary Movie. “I love that argument trotted out about a bad game: oh, it's a satire,” Linehan laughs. “When Alan Wake came out and the dialogue was just grim, [people said] 'ah, but he's supposed to be a bad writer.' No. I really don't think they're good enough to do an impersonation of a bad writer.”

And yet it's easy to sympathise with writers attempting interactive comedy. There are intractable problems with a medium in which authors cede control to players: if the secret of comedy is in the timing, how you do ensure the player delivers the punchline at the right time? Nor does the natural repetition of core game mechanics lend itself to humour. “The point of surprise is the punchline in a joke,” says Luis Hernandez, one half of indie duo Necrophone Games, developers of Jazzpunk. “And by virtue of having a core mechanic, you're expecting a certain outcome. I think that's less conducive to surprising people and as a result [less conducive to] comedy.”

Perhaps that helps to explain why there are so few blockbuster comedy games around. Hernandez cites the desire for efficiency among large developers working on big-budget productions as an unavoidable issue. “Comedy by its very nature is an inefficient thing. It's not a survival skill, it's sort of a peacock feather.” The loss of individualism in a large team, he says, means that it's harder to reach consensus, “so you end up with a designed-by-committee feel.”

Necrophone's Jess Brouse agrees that larger developers aren't best positioned to explore comedy, simply because they're less free to experiment during production. “A lot of triple-A developers don't just play around and see what happens—or rarely get to do that. Whereas we do it all the time, we do a lot of experiments and stuff that we don't end up using. I mean, we made another 40 to 50 percent content for Jazzpunk that ended up on the cutting room floor. But we got it to the level of prototype rather than just designing it on paper.” The secret of Jazzpunk's success, he suggests, is down to the two-man team's ability to test and play their ideas, without having to run them past a superior.

Which isn't to say it can't be done, as the two Portal games have proven—though as a studio Valve can hardly be said to be typical of large development teams. Erik Wolpaw suggests that financial concerns are part of the reason why so few big publishers will take risks on comedy. “I think in film and TV, comedies are generally cheaper to produce than big dramatic spectacle movies. In triple-A games, where you have to make everything from scratch, they cost about the same, so you don't mitigate the risk with a cheaper budget. Plus, failed comedy tends to fail a lot harder than failed drama. Bad comedy is pretty much unbearable to sit through, whereas bad drama can at least crater into unintentional comedy.”

Ignoring the financial barrier, he's unsure why people don't attempt to write more comedy games. “It's probably because they think it's hard. That's why I don't write more drama or horror or romance or whatever—I'm pretty sure I'm not good at it and it seems like it'd be a ton of work to become good at it. So, fear and laziness mostly.”

And yet for all the issues inherent in creating good videogame comedy, it does feel that we're seeing the first real resurgence of humour in the medium, arguably since the classic point-and-click era, where LucasArts games in particular offered a rich seam of wit. The two Portal games, Hernandez and Brouse's Jazzpunk and South Park: The Stick of Truth have all made players laugh, and while the likes of Goat Simulator and Octodad stretched their one joke a little too far, for all their flaws they're indicative of a culture that's daring to explore an untapped area of the interactive medium. The recent rise to prominence of indie games is undoubtedly an influence, as smaller developers such as Necrophone have easy access to tools like Unity and are empowered to build games without needing to break the bank—the “democratisation of technology,” as Hernandez calls it.

In that environment, South Park: The Stick of Truth is something of an anomaly—while its budget might not compare with a GTA or a BioShock, it's a reasonably high-cost comedy from a large publisher. Its risk as a business venture is, of course, mitigated by the fact that it's based on an established licence, but that in itself has proven to be as often a hindrance as a help in the past. Yet with the involvement of Trey Parker and Matt Stone at every stage in the process, it plays out like an extended episode of the show. In that sense, it could be argued that it's funny despite being a game, and yet, as Jordan Thomas explains, part of the reason it works so well is that the player becomes a participant in the joke; they're not merely a passive observer of the game's comedy.