Humour in Video Games: Unexplored Potential

What are the challenges of creating humour in video games? What type of humour works well? We caught up with four game developers to discuss comedy.

Humour has been a part of video games since its inception. Unintentional humour is possibly the most common form; odd glitches, cheesy dialogue or bad looking graphics amuses players.

On the other hand, there are also elements of intentional humour found in most titles, even in dark games either for tension relief or to contrast the serious tone. The Hitman series is a perfect example of this with silly assassination methods and costumes, just like Metal Gear Solid V’s hiding in cardboard boxes and sending off animals into the air with balloons.

Some games are entirely built around humour, such as Goat Simulator, the South Park series, the later Saint’s Row titles, Portal, Brütal Legend and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. All of these offer wildly different takes on comedy and they use both narrative and game mechanics to illustrate this. These types of games are anomalies, because there are few titles out there with a clear focus on humour, at least in terms of high-budget games.

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The challenges

Julian Quijano, project manager and creative director at Beautiful Glitch, creators of “Monster Prom”, argues that the writing in video games is lacking, which is one reason for the absence of successful comedy titles:

“Humour in general is difficult. It is one of the – if not the – hardest thing to write in general, regardless of the format or medium. Think of the games you know that are really funny, not because they are fun to play, but because they are funny in their narrative.

They are almost non-existent. The only one I remember as a stupidly funny game was any game within the Ace Attorney franchise. They were silly, absurd and funny in a pretty naive way. In general, writing in games, and especially in indie games, is in an early stage compared to other medium, such as literature or TV shows.”

For many, humour goes hand in hand with entertainment value and is an important part of games, which developers know and they try to incorporate it in various amounts, but it is not an easy task. Humour is subjective and in order for it to be funny, it has to be daring and focused on specific topics, which by default makes it hard to please large crowds from different parts of the world with the same joke.

This is the same problem facing other medium such as movies, books and music, but video games have more dimensions. Herein lies the greatest challenges (and the biggest opportunities) – comedy from game mechanics and player interaction. Not only is this difficult, but also risky. This is another reason why comedy as a genre is rarely found among the blockbusters in comparison to movies.

Healer’s Quest (Rablo Games)

Artjoms Patomkin, the creator of “Dude, Stop”, explains the unique challenges when creating humour in video games:tm
“Usually, a joke consists of two parts: setup and punchline. It is an easy task to tell it on stage or in a movie, yet in our game Dude, Stop, it was quite a challenge; what if the player does something in between the setup and punchline? This created unique problem that other medium do not really have – a joke needs to be interactive and still be funny even if the player did something unexpected. In some cases, this required multiple punchlines, just to make the joke work.

Another challenge for Dude, Stop was when a player had a bit of freedom in some places, such as entering any four-digit number or building something from blocks. We can not obviously create a joke for every scenario there is, yet a joke needs to work with any number or any figure.”

Francesco De Angelis, co-founder of Footprints Games and programmer/script users interface developer of “Detective Gallo”, argues that the shock factor is the hardest to get right:

“The most challenging part is finding something that makes the player surprised in an unconventional, new and funny way. You can obtain that by changing or inverting some cliché standards or fiddling with epic and heroic behaviours. It might be a very long process – because humour must be universal – so you need to study the same topic from many different point of views.”

Pablo Coma, founder of Rablo Games and creator of “Healer’s Quest”, says that finding a balance is difficult with humour:

“In Healer’s Quest specifically, humour is mostly present in narratives. I did not have to create relevant humour with gameplay elements only, which is super-tricky to do well in my opinion. The most challenging part for me was to keep dialogues as short as possible and to delete the parts which were unnecessary or not funny enough.

As the game breaks the fourth wall quite often, it was a challenge to balance whether I was going overboard with it or not. Breaking the fourth wall is something great if done correctly, but can really bother the player if the writer is not careful. I learned a lot by making people play the games at conventions and looking to their reactions while they are playing. If nobody is laughing at a given joke, that is probably something to modify or to cut.”

What works well?

It is clear that comedy is hard to make, but what type of humour works the best in video games? Different gameplay mechanics over a wide variety of genres suit different types of humour, which makes it far from an easy question. There are many opinions regarding the matter:

“I think it is quite early in the historical existence of video games to know what type of humour is supposed to work or not, as there are still many things to try out. But overall, I think it is a good idea to use humour as a reward. At least that is what I tried to do with Healer’s Quest – presenting burlesque situations in very short narratives at the beginning of each level,” Pablo says.

Dude, Stop (Team Halfbeard)

Francesco argues that parodies are easy to build jokes for in video games, because characters and environments that are already well-known creates a solid base. In those circumstances, the players already have a connection with them and the developers can use this advantage to shock or bend expectations.

“Verbal, written jokes are the easiest to add to the game. Slapstick humour on the other hand is a little harder to show, at least for indie developers, as well as any other visual humour that requires proper animation,” Artjoms says.

The future

It can be argued that there is a lot of unexplored potential for video games when it comes to comedy. What type of humour can we expect to see going forward?

“I would say mature jokes are rare – this adds age restriction to the game and not every developer wants to limit their audience just for a few adult jokes,” Artjoms explains.

An increase of high-budget comedy titles would create healthy competition in the industry and ultimately pave way for better humour. This is likely to happen more and more as developers realise how to utilise the medium’s strengths and avoid its weaknesses in regard to humour. Last year, South Park: The Fractured But Whole came out, which was an important title for the cause, selling over half a million copies in its first week, proving that comedy can be successful in video games.

Francesco concludes that while humorous games based on already existing characters and stories can be profitable, it is important to have new, brave original comedy titles that do what movies or books can not do:

“Many games base their own humour on citations and parody. A harder way for obtaining humour is exploring new scenarios, original characters and worlds that the players have not seen before.”

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