The question, in all its bare simplicity, occurred to me yesterday as somebody listed their favorite comedy video games. They were all Lucas Arts titles and other graphic adventures of the time that stand up for the sense of humor put into dialogues, characters, and plots. So far, so good. I personally love the surreal sense of humor and the visual style of those video games, so I understand why they have become a benchmark.
However… the truth is, with the time, after seeing how the speech ends up focusing almost exclusively on Lucas Arts, I begin to feel a little bit of resentment. Does that mean that, in the last decades, we haven’t had other video games that have approached humor in brilliant and creative ways?
The scourge of cinema
This thread of thinking led me to wonder why Lucas Arts video games (and others that came in its wake) seem funny to us. ¿What are the mechanisms in which these games rely their humorous potential? In my opinion, and to simplify, it’s mostly their sparkling dialogues, the crazy characters, and the absurd plots. Coincidentally… All of them are elements inherent to the script!
I mean … the artists of The Secret of Monkey Island made wonders having into account the limitations they had, and the puzzles are undoubtedly a hallmark of the point and click genre. But the essence that brings us to praise these games as masterpieces of humor are also foundations of cinema as means of expression.
Or what is the same… the general audience continues to judge how good a comedy video game is by putting it into relation to what they understand a good comedy movie should be like!
Looking for an identity
So… might the reason be that video games have not yet developed enough or established their own language from a narrative point of view? I mean… until very recently, video games seemed to be satisfied with just having a setting, or with scattering some plot drops here and there, where gameplay left the space. Either because developers didn’t want to make life difficult for themselves, or perhaps because players didn’t demand anything more sophisticated, the point is that there wasn’t even a person involved in the process that was dedicated to take care of the development and implementation of the story.
Which leads me to think… we still need video games that take humor one step beyond from where they took it in Lucas Arts. Creators who are aware of what makes this a different medium, and also, who have the initiative and the curiosity to explore it.
Which, in my opinion, necessarily requires to focus on the most powerful element that video games have in relation to films and all the other media: the mechanics.
Humor in the mechanics
Having said that, although I think the terrain remains mostly unexplored, there are some little jewels that appear occasionally to take a step further and to become examples to follow by their own merits.
The Stanley Parable: Even if you have played little lately, you’ll probably know this title Galactic Cafe published back in 2011. The funny stuff in this case resides, in large part, in the monologue of the voice over, but for me the really original contribution is how some basic mechanics of video games are manipulated to disorient the player and to unravel, in the end, a meaning that might be applicable to the real world where we live.
Little Inferno: This 2012 game developed by Tomorrow Corporation, apart from having an elegant level progression, sustains from beginning to end a subtle subtext that hides behind the apparent innocence of the visual tone. I think these guys went one step further by taking two basic mechanics (buying and burning), and relating them in a way that catapults the underlying irony.
Of course, the animations, the sound design, the particle effects… all this does nothing but enhance the humorous effect, but the game experience that develops, in its essence, is witty and fun by itself. Moreover, it does so in a specific and coherent way. Just as I could define Monty Python’s humor as surreal, I could refer to Little Inferno’s sense of humor as cruelly ironic.
In addition, this game is an interesting case because it also contains a lot of literal text (in the form of letters or television broadcasts, for example), but these are often deliberately descriptive or neutral, which is ironic and even produces some discomfort when the game experience keeps on developing.
The challenge of the designer
These are not the only good examples out there, but they are two titles with very different visual identities and gameplay experiences that have found ways to cultivate the humorous genre or tone in ways not explored by the classic graphic adventure.