4/16/2014

Comedic games

Hello everyone! I was recently  translating the newest episode of Extra Credits for Polish audiences. Guys did a very good job at analyzing the pitfalls of creating an interactive comedy, but for some reason (most probably the length of the episode) didn't elaborate on the reason why we have so few comedy games in general. Here's the episode, freshly baked:


Now... As much as I agree that making interactive comedy is not a piece of cake, I also believe that it's not the reason of the diminishing number of comedy elements in games. In my opinion, the main reason is fear of the public opinion. 

Let's face it. Every artist wants to get recognized for what he does. Every artist wants to be admired and benefit from his/her art. Every single garage, Metallica-bashing band wants to get discovered and "sell out". Every Coelho-hater would gladly write books making even less sense and sign them with his name as long as it gives them a decent income and recognized name. Now let's make short lists of "the greatest" rock bands, movie directors, writers, singers, actors... First three that come to your mind. How many of them were involved in comedy? Why did we list Iron Maiden not Tenacious D? Why almost none of us knows the director of any of the comedies released in the last decade, but everyone knows Spielberg? Why Stephen King and why do these names not ring almost any bells? Why Sting, not Stephen Lynch? Why Anthony Hopkins, not Vince Vaughn?


Because comedy is silly. It doesn't matter that John Cleese is a brilliant philosopher. It doesn't matter Jim Carrey is an amazingly versatile actor. It doesn't matter Tim Minchin is an incredible musician. They are all comedians. They are silly. Human society has developed an unnatural harshness to everything that makes us laugh. We all love a good laugh, but within our four walls. When we choose a movie to relax with in the evening, we watch American Pie, but then we discuss the new Scorsese with our colleagues at work. We instinctively degrade our comedic experience to something irrelevant, a filler, a method to let the steam off in our otherwise boring, sad, mature lives. We feel somewhat ashamed and guilty to spend too much time with comedy. Comedy is this funny little brother of the mature, majestic art. Comedy episodes in TV series are 20 minutes and the "serious shows" are 40-60 minutes. And games... 

We have all noticed that the game industry is no different. Comedy is becoming more and more scarce. Smaller games, like Plants vs. Zombies can still afford being humorous while titles with bigger budgets get even easter eggs removed, because it's "silly". We are somehow okay with "small games" being funny, because they are just "small, silly games". With bigger titles we expect depth and maturity.

There's another reason why games with bigger budgets have problems getting away with humor. Investors have hard enough time believing in the silly game industry. Believing in the silly game industry making straightforward silly games is even harder. Seeing what sells, I would rather put a million dollars into another Assasin's Creed rather than The Mighty Quest for an Epic Loot. Developers themselves also have a deep problem with the image of the industry they work with. They want to appear professional, they want to show the stuff they make is not just for kids, it's mature. And how can a comedy be mature, huh?


And if we want to make the comedy mature, we encounter another problem. Mature comedy is not about shallow tit jokes or hitting someone's face with a pie. It often needs to challenge the current status quo we live in. Society, religion, politics - no matter how silly or clever you go about them, majority of people will always feel like you are offending them. And in a way they will be right - many people really believe in their way of living. Games already don't have the best image. Adding bashing of religion to the list of game sins is not exactly what the developers are so eager to do. The heat Portal got for adoption jokes is a clear example of society not being ready to accept an above-PG comedy in games. Cartoonish explosion and stars circling above character's head - good. Jokes about euthanasia - very bad.

Let's sum it up: society looking down at comedy + lack of respect and recognition for comedians in general + developers wanting to show how mature they are + investors unlikely to support comedy games + risk of touching the touchy topics in a humorous way in games = shitload of reasons why as a developer, you would rather make another shooter than a decent comedy game.


So yeah, interactive comedy in games is widely underdeveloped. But it's no wonder not many people even want to try and change that. It would have to be a comedy genius. Also, a game designer with a fair amount of fourth-wall-breaking knack. On top of that, he/she needs to have a relatively high disregard for money and be immune to social heat that he/she is very likely to get. Not so high odds of that getting together, right? I'm sure someone like that will sooner or later come and revolutionize the way we think about game comedy. But while we are waiting for this savior to be born, let's do our part. Let's all have a laugh in public once in a while. Let's all admit we love comedy, and not only the half-too-boring, half-too-clever Woody Allen comedy. That will make it so much easier for everyone. And definitely more fun!



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