[This was originally an idea for the Untapped Potential community theme that I just couldn't bring myself to abandon completely. I ended up refocusing the topic a bit--hopefully it's still coherent!]
Quite unlike the world of film, video games don’t often set out to fall under the genre of “comedy.” Recent releases such as Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, which relied mostly upon gaming parodies, fail to excite in the way that, say, The Hangover might. And it’s easy to make fun of yourself—but that sort of humor doesn’t stay funny forever.
Then there are the games that are meant to be funny are often not funny at all. Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust is a great example of this—and a terrible, terrible game. Games that go for humor and nothing else often fail to achieve at even the most basic humor.
Any comedian or comedy writer will tell you that being funny is hard. With so much room for failure, it’s rare to see a game sincerely succeed at humor. Sure, there are those games that are unintentionally hilarious, whether it is due to translation problems like the famous Zero Wing or just because the game mechanics lead to humor, such as moments of town-wide drunkenness in Fable 2. But truly funny writing is perhaps one of the rarest things in gaming, especially considering the vastly different senses of humor that many players are going to have.
It came as quite as surprise to me, then, when Battlefield: Bad Company made me chuckle occasionally throughout the otherwise run-of-the-mill single player campaign. It was just my kind of humor: both silly and smart at the same time, being totally random and yet never becoming a burden on the gameplay. In short, the humor worked—largely because of a fictional monster truck.
If You Don’t Have Anything Funny to Say, Don’t Say Anything at All.
This is the simplest and also the most subjective of the game’s successes, but I simply found the inane banter of the characters to be very enjoyable. The basic story of Battlefield: Bad Company is, in itself, not particularly chuckle-worthy: the characters go AWOL in a vaguely described war in order to track down and steal a huge cache of gold bars. What it does do, however, is provide an environment in which the comedy of the characters can thrive in a way that doesn’t make the game feel like an interactive comedic failure.
The game’s humor comes in large part during the times that characters spend walking or driving to their next destination (and in cutscenes, of course). As you’re driving in a jeep, one character might be talking about his desire to have a huge monster truck/robot that he calls Truckasaurus Rex and how their current vehicle pales in comparison to this beast. It’s incredibly silly, but it’s the right kind of silly. Rather than attempt one-line jokes in order to add humor to a game where it doesn’t belong, lengthy discussions about robot trucks tell the player that, yes, this is indeed a humorous game.
Yeah, Robosaurus is real, and it breathes fire. Quake in your boots.
I think a lot of games fail in their humor because they try too much to aim for the one-liner. I don’t think anyone wants games to tell us jokes (unless, perhaps, we’re sitting in a GTA4 comedy club or visiting Wadsworth in Fallout 3. Instead, we want our games to be infused with humor when it is appropriate—perhaps when we meet a particularly strange character or when something truly bizarre happens. In essence, if there isn’t something inherently funny about the current gameplay situation, forcing humor in will only detract from the overall experience.
Together, We Can Fly
Some video games seem like random hodgepodges of characters that rarely interact with each other in any meaningful way. Basically, they’re there in order to advance a barely present plot or to soak up some of the bullets that were meant for the player’s character. Then, when the time comes for joking, we’ve already stopping caring about absolutely anything that these people have to say. It’s pretty hard to find characters funny when you’ve stopped paying any attention to them.
Battlefield: Bad Company avoids this pitfall by putting vastly different (and some would say incompatible) personality types together and exploring what would likely happen between them. You have the nerdy computers expert who only joined the military to pay for college, the pyromaniac from the country who really wants a monster truck, and the sergeant who has to put up with all of their bullshit for one more day before he can go home and fish his life away.
The interactions work here because they’re extremely varied in the way that they present funny situations. At times, the characters seem like they hate each other, hurling insults left and right. At other times, they find a common ground in something ridiculous, which is equally amusing. The fact that the characters are so varied only helps them to seem even more hilarious—their amusing differences come to light in a situation where each character seems to act as another’s foil. Funny situations are made even funnier just due to how the characters interact.
It also doesn’t help that the game actually has some great voice work. It’s hard to find a character funny when he’s voiced by a barely articulate “actor.”
Haven’t We Met?
Not Truckasaurus Rex. Just look at how sad they are! We cry for you.
The identification of archetypes in literature, movies, etc. has largely become a joke. Definitions of archetypes have grown so broad that even the greatest and most original characters can be called archetypes. However, when it comes to the faces that inhabit the world of Bad Company, it’s hard to say that the people described above don’t fall under well-established archetypes.
However, they’re well-crafted archetypes, which makes all of the difference. The characters rise above the archetypes that they’re based on by offering unique things to say and by interacting in ways that both surprise the player and make him or her laugh. In fact, over time, it’s easy to forget about the basic foundation that makes up the character—they (Haggard especially) instead become defined by their humor. You won’t remember Sweetwater as the computer expert—you’ll remember him as the guy who has a creepy crush on the radio operator.
Really, this article is as much about strong character writing as it is about humor in games. When it comes down to it, they go hand in hand. There are a handful of other recent games that have done humor well, including Portal, anything made by Tim Schafer, and (to an extent) the Ratchet and Clank series (it’s up and down). They all have one thing in common: interesting characterization and top-notch writing.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s a simple one. Games need skilled writers, especially if they’re dabbling in humor. Even a mediocre gag in trained hands can turn into something memorable, and the humorous ideas of a developer can be explored fully by someone who is able to devote the necessary amount of time to make them good. A half-assed attempt at humor isn’t going to get us anywhere, and that sadly seems to be what most comedic games put out.