Why Do Video Games Struggle To Be Funny?
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's daily comedy Superstation. For more ComedyNerd content, and ongoing coverage of the funniest video game ever, the Iran/Contra Affair, please sign up for the ComedyNerd newsletter below.
There are so many cool video games out right now that quitting my job and ignoring my loved ones still wouldn’t give me enough time to keep up with them all. Believe me, I’ve tried. But whenever a game tries to make me laugh, odds are it falls flatter than a pancake run over by a steamroller.
Take Destiny 2, a gajillion dollar game with jokes that sound like they’ve been cut from Chuck Lorre sitcoms for being too hacky. Or play a gritty game like Gears 5 and the supposed comic relief character might deign to say “Well, that happened” after you defeat an enemy who showed up with a slightly different gun. These games have larger budgets than some nations, yet it feels like they’re outsourcing their comedy to Laffy Taffy.
Some of you have counterexamples in mind, and I can rattle off a few, too. If Disco Elysium can’t make you laugh then you need a mortician. But if you look at articles listing the funniest video games, they inadvertently paint a bleak picture.
This 2017 piece from The Guardian mostly names indie titles and games where the comedy emerges from the wacky gameplay (like Hitman), and they still had to pad things out with two games from the mid-‘80s. And hell, one of those was the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure.
There’s nothing wrong with a licensed title, but existing media properties do a lot of the heavy lifting for game comedy. Screen Rant’s “10 Funniest Video Games of All Time” included a Simpsons game and two South Park titles, so yeah, there’s a clear shortage of games that most people agree are funny.
This isn’t a new observation; the BBC explored why games struggle to be funny in 2014, and Slate complained about the problem all the way back in 2004. In an article that praised the 1984 Hitchhiker’s Guide game, sentences like “Teenage video-game addicts are the same people who enable the careers of Ben Stiller” feel like they’re from another epoch, but the piece still isn’t wrong when it says comedy is a low priority in game development.
So why are we still stuck with the same problem? Is God punishing us for the time nerds looked at Portal’s many jokes and thought “What if we screamed ‘The cake is a lie!!!’ at each other for five years”? Well, imagine replaying a frustrating level several times that has a joke. That joke you chuckled at the first time quickly becomes a joke that makes you want to rip your hair out.
Now imagine you’re working on a major video game, and you’ve seen that level hundreds of times. According to various game writers in a 2016 PCGamesN interview, a good gag has to survive years of development, including all the stages of game creation where the joke’s writer is unlikely to be involved.
What if a joke falls flat during dialogue recording because the person who wrote it isn’t there to guide the actor's execution of it? What if someone adds a good joke to a serious scene, but then their boss reworks the dramatic element and doesn’t send the new version back for a fresh joke? Video games are made by massive teams, and it only takes one key person not clicking with a joke for it to die.
Repetition is even a problem for games meant to be funny. If you think you got sick of dorks repeatedly screeching the same handful of Portal punchlines, the game’s developers used foreign language voiceovers to save themselves from getting smothered by the endless repetition of their own work. And its writers were able to sit in on the relevant acting and level design decisions, creating what the kind of people who can’t write jokes call synergy.
So the key seems to be twofold. Either someone on a large project has to believe in their jokes enough to fight for them and babysit them through development, or the team creating a game has to be small enough for everyone to stay intimately involved.
Disco Elysium had a small development team, the hilarious West of Loathing’s crew was even smaller, and the majority of the famously clever Stanley Parable was done by two guys. Jokes, perhaps more than any other element of a blockbuster game’s design, are at risk of vanishing into a bland corporate void.
But while that may explain why a lot of games lack jokes, it doesn’t tell us why those that have them tend to be so bad. Not every game needs to be funny, I’m not asking for Dark Souls bosses to try out their tight five before they step on you.
But while other dramatic mediums use comedy to break up tension, gamers still tend to get nothing better than a grizzled manly man grunting “Looks like someone woke up on the wrong side of dead” after every firefight.
Well, it’s worth noting that being a good writer doesn’t necessarily make you a good comedy writer. And yes, that sounds like something internet comedians would say as they eat their dollar store noodle cups and watch literary writers win awards, but you wouldn’t want to read Cormac McCarthy’s Garfield any more than you’d want Jim Davis’ No Country For Mondays.
Studios making games that actually try to be funny usually go out of their way to hire writers with comedic experience, while the writers of games that just cram one-liners in-between all the grizzled monologues about stopping Dr. Bad Guy have to wing it. Perhaps nothing illustrates the consequences of this more than when the same studio that gave us Gears of War: Judgement tried to go pure comedy with Bulletstorm, and the result was eight hours of Jennifer Hale screaming “I’ll dick your cock off!” amid gameplay that’s incredible if you can avoid cringing long enough to focus on it.
It doesn’t help that game developers are still whiter than BYU in a snowstorm, although that is changing. At worst, that lack of diversity leads to odd comedic misfires, like when Duke Nukem Forever launched with bizarre, atonal rape jokes, or how Blizzard still hasn’t discovered forms of comedy beyond bad puns and sexual innuendo ripped from vaudeville routines. Every person who writes jokes for World of Warcraft owns a “sarcasm now loading” shirt and wonders how Fuller House manages to stay so fresh.
But the more common problem is a mundane one; a lack of different perspectives. Comedy is about looking at the world in weird ways, like asking what would happen if Cormac McCarthy wrote Garfield again even though we’ve already moved on from that. If you have to design by committee, having more perspectives will better your odds of shaping jokes until they’re weirder and sharper and better. Maybe it’s not essential, but there’s a reason every single joke told at CPAC is “I just flew in from the gender neutral washroom, and boy are my arms triggered!” Hollywood’s not exactly perfect on the representation front, but look at the writing rooms for successful shows and you’ll probably see a different look than at most game studios.
Of course, TV shows also have characters while most games still just have walking TV Tropes pages, and it’s easier to tell jokes when you’re working with personalities that bounce off each other. Night in the Woods and Yakuza are games that take the time to not only properly write their characters, but to let those characters slow down and goof around.
If you’re just trying to cram in jokes while rushing the player though firefights and plot points you end up with Destiny 2, where a dozen interchangeable aliens named Ducal Prince Hexalot the Remembered give five minute monologues on the darkness within themselves.
Then there’s the fact that what a gamer wants to do doesn’t always line up with what a developer thinks they’ll do. Maybe a game thinks you’ll appreciate hearing a joke as you search a room for supplies, but because you’re impatient you’ve already careened off to the next battle and the punchline gets drowned out by bullets.
That’s why the best gaming jokes are often reactive, popping up only if the player does something a bit weird, like press the same button a dozen times or refuse to move on to a new objective. If you try to mess with a game and the game calls you on it, you feel like you’ve discovered a joke instead of having one forced on you.
Let’s end on a positive note. I don’t think gaming’s comedic landscape is as bad as the thinkpieces we get on the subject are, it’s just that a lot of the best comedy is hiding. RPGs that emphasize dialogue and side quests, whether it’s an epic like Mass Effect or an adorable little adventure like Bug Fables, have good jokes because they’re paced slowly enough for players to enjoy their funny interludes. Nintendo doesn’t get enough credit for their excellent slapstick, or for cramming weirdly horny jokes into otherwise family-friendly games. And more and more indie games are realizing that a funny script is a good way to get attention in an extremely crowded marketplace.
It's almost like comedy, when done correctly, sells.
For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:
Top image: Electronic Arts