Funny Bits: The Art Of Comedy In Video Games

Comedy – it’s all about (long pause) timing.

Comedy is also about (long pause) timing. And repetition too, let’s not forget repetition. Because comedy is also about (long pause) repetition.

As you can see from that opening bit, comedy is not easy. It takes more than just slipping on a banana peel to have the world on its feet; you need to have (long pause) timing. And repetition. You need to have repetition too.

As you can see from those opening two bits, comedy can be incredibly irritating. The art of making people laugh is not a simple one to master; many actors claim it’s a harder task than making people cry. But audiences yearn for humor, we like to have a giggle. And it doesn’t matter if we get our comedic kicks from the stage, screen or in gaming – we’ll always be on the lookout for good jokes.

Perhaps the world of video games is not often thought of as a hot-bed for good comedy. But it can be, as the medium of gaming can provide a unique comic source of material. And like all comedy, sometimes it lands and sometimes it doesn’t.

Opening Acts

Some of the formative attempts at gaming comedy were, frankly, pretty horrendous. There was a childish assumption that in order to be funny, you had to be overly crude and offensive. Custer’s Revenge on the Atari was one particularly bad example of this; it was the gaming equivalent of Roy “Chubby” Brown.

When the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga came along though, the jokes thankfully got a bit better. Most of the time it felt like comedy performed by a Monty Python tribute act, but this was still infinitely better than having to see pixel penises on the Atari.

It might not have stood the test of time, but the music industry satire of Rockstar Ate My Hamster was a unique moment of comic joy in the early days of gaming:

And how about Monkey Island? One of the few games where fighting was conducted by being able to deliver punchlines to jokes:

Whilst home computers were providing the chuckles, the consoles remained stone-faced. Sega and Nintendo were more pre-occupied with trying to be cool, than trying to be overly funny. And this trend depressingly continued into the era of PlayStation and Xbox. There seemed to be little room for clever, original comedy on these platforms.

But for home computers, ah, now that was a different parable.

The Narrator Laughed

There’s always been a self-referential tint to humour in video games; a slight cliquey in-jokeiness to it all. When that’s done badly, it’s off-putting and unfunny. When it’s done well though, you get games like The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable seemingly came out of nowhere in 2013, starting life as nothing more than a Half-Life mod. It took the surprising laughs found in games like Portal and mutated them into something else; it became a meta-take on the art of video game design. And it blew our collective minds – as well as our fourth walls – through its use of knowing humour.

At times in the game it even made self-referential jokes about the game itself making self-referential jokes! As Keanu Reeves eloquently once said: woah.

Other games since have also successfully played on this self-referential comedy style. Undertale and South Park: The Stick of Truth both inverted how you play video games, and made the act of playing a joke in of itself. But humour in video games these days isn’t all meta and so inward-facing. Some of the best jokes in gaming now comes outwards through watching others play.

Canned Laughter & Applause

With the rise of Twitch and YouTube, watching other people play games can be more amusing than playing the games themselves. For example, there’s much hilarity at witnessing the eternal struggle of people playing games like Surgeon Simulator or I Am Bread.

Which brings us to an interesting question on the use of comedy in gaming: Is the joke on us playing the game, or on us whilst we watch someone else play the game? We might be finding more laughter from being part of the audience. If that’s the case then comedic video games could become more about the spectacle, rather than the taking part.

Like stage and screen, we’ll end up watching characters endlessly slipping on banana skins for all eternity. And is that still funny? It can be. But like any good comedy, it’s all about the –

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