I'm wrapping up my series of 'infatuated critic' posts on DeathSpank with my latest column over at GameSetWatch. I discuss the evolving role of comedy in games and why I think DeathSpank is worth noting in this regard. In a desperate lunge at objectivity, I also explain why I think the game falls short in a few places.
Here's a snippet:
As a comedic game, DeathSpank advances the ball down the field in some creative ways, and I'll discuss those in a moment. But I also think DeathSpank exemplifies the conundrum faced by video games that try to be funny. We can illustrate that tension with two apparently contradictory claims:
Claim 1: Video games are well-suited to making us laugh. Like a well-crafted game, a successful comedy is highly technical, based on a set of clearly-defined rules, and carefully engineered to trigger a calculated response. It relies on the precise execution of a final build, fine-tuned through iteration and feedback.
Comedy, as Henri Bergson observes in his seminal "Theory of Laughter," is "something mechanical encrusted on the living." One could easily apply the same phrase to describe games. Game developers understand how to build complex systems for interactive communication, and that's exactly what a successful comedy is. Comedy is aimed at the intellect, and gamers are smart. We can do this!
Claim 2: Video games are hopeless vehicles for comedy. They may manage to deliver wordplay and 'wackiness,' but desperately trying to 'be funny' usually results in an outmoded brand of one-liner comedy that died with the Borscht Belt. Furthermore, player agency in an interactive world (a defining feature of modern games) is mostly antithetical to comedy.
When choice, pace, and timing are handed off to the player, the potential for comedy dissipates. We may play an interactive role watching a live stand-up comic, but we don't write the punchlines; nor do we decide when to deliver them. In the same Bergson essay referenced above, he describes comedy as a "social gesture." Nearly all the 'funny' games we've seen are single-player affairs, lacking the spontaneous group-mind formed when we experience comedy in other media. We're out of our league!
You can read the whole essay here.