Today's video games don't do comedy. Sure, there's the revived Sam & Max series and Penny Arcade Adventures. GLaDOS is funny in Portal, and Brucie Kibbutz has some choice lines in GTA IV. Battlefield: Bad Company brings some dark humor, and MadWorld takes it to an unhinged extreme.
But for a medium that generates so much entertainment content, it's surprising how few modern games can be described as genuine comedies. It wasn't always the case.
Back in the day - roughly the decade bookended by Duke Nukem ('91) and Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001) - we saw a steady stream of games designed to tickle the funny bone: Crazy Taxi, The Monkey Island series; Day of the Tentacle; Sam and Max Hit the Road; Grim Fandango; Banjo-Kazooie; Crash Bandicoot; Earthworm Jim - the list goes on.
Before that, of course, Infocom, Sierra and others produced sharp-witted games like Leather Goddesses of Phobos; Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Leisure Suit Larry; King's Quest; Space Quest; and the Zork series.
What happened to all the laughs?
Actors and writers often say comedy is hard, and that's because it honestly is. Comedy is tough because it can only exist as an unwieldy 3-headed beast. Comedy is cerebral, technical, and deeply human. If you don't understand the joke, it's not funny. If the gag isn't perfectly timed or executed, it falls flat. If you don't see yourself in someone else's predicament, the humor leaves you cold.
Video games can handle the first two with ease, but the third element - the human factor - is where most recent games fail.
It's no coincidence that as next-gen games grew more photorealistic, they also grew less funny. The uncanny valley is nobody's friend, but it's an especially harsh environment for comedy. We can create amazingly detailed worlds populated by characters who walk and talk and ride horses fairly convincingly; but despite all the progress we've made, it still feels just a little stiff and awkward. And when comedy feels stiff and awkward, it dies.
So writers and designers have increasingly come to rely on comedic dialogue to deliver the laughs in games like GTA IV and puerile offspring like Saints Row. Toss in a wacky sidekick, an assortment of nutjob NPCs, and a stream of sardonic observations from the hero, and presto, you've infused your game with comedy. Wisecracks are everywhere in today's games, but ripe comedic situations are in short supply.
The problem is that comedy can't be delivered like a pizza; nor is it an ingredient stirred into a recipe. Comedy is a system. It's a living body made up of interdependent parts forming a unified whole. A game that wants to be a comedy must be a game channeled through a comic vision that defines the project. Back in the 80s, Infocom regularly provided such a cohesive experience, drawing the player into the comedic world of the game from the moment he opened the box.
Happily, a new game has arrived that conducts a virtual clinic on how to do video game comedy right. It's called DeathSpank, and it's easily one of the best games I've played this year. I'll discuss it at length in my next post. In the meantime, I encourage you to check it out for yourself. A demo of the game is available on both XBLA and PSN.