GDC 10: Make ’em laugh: Comedy in games

Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord series), Tim Schafer (Psychonauts, Brutal Legend) and Sean Vanaman (Tales of Monkey Island), three of gaming comedy’s biggest names, got together to do a panel at GDC this year. Their topic was comedy in games.

This was an interesting discussion because it’s a topic not often visited. We often applaud videogames for their ability to move people in meaningful ways, but that “meaning” is almost always thought of as something serious. But it’s just as important to use games to make people laugh as it is to make them cry!

For an hour, these guys answered many questions, giving the audience a look into the hows and whys of videogame comedy in hopes that the developers in the audience would take something away from it. Hit the jump for a summary.

Why is there no comedy genre of games like there are for TV/movies/books?

“Because it can be used across genres,” Pratchett answered. Vanaman seemed to agree. “Comedy should be weaved into a story as seen fit,” he said. Always one to shake things up, Schafer told the audience that he wished it were a genre, just so more humorous games would be made.


How much of the humor of a game comes from its premise?

It shouldn’t be entirely dependent on writing. Funny gameplay and visuals are a lot of it as well. Pratchett looked to Overlord as an example. Many of the game’s funniest moments came from the way the minions were programmed to act and the little funny hats they wore as armor.


How do you create a comic moment in the midst of gameplay?

All three panelists agreed that timing and context are key. In Vanaman’s opinion, when the context of the player’s previous actions tint the next can make for the funniest moments. The Secret of Monkey Island is a great example of a game where this happens often. Schafer brought up one of his favorite funny MGS moments as another example: making Snake stare at a certain character’s ass until they respond accordingly/hilariously.


How do you create a unified sense of humor while on a team?

Schafer shared an old Lucasfilm adage: You have to have fun to make fun. “Telltale has a similar environment,” Vanaman said. They sit around and tell bad jokes all day, breeding a culture of funny at the workplace.

However, that culture will do no good if the team does not have a “safe” space to create. When working on Monkey Island, Schafer and his team were not aware that they were writing the game’s final script, which put pressure off them and made the funny flow freely. He admitted that he thought his three-headed monkey joke was lame, but it came to be just because he was comfortable enough to make the silliest jokes.

Vanaman said that he’s not allowed to be insecure about his jokes because of Telltale’s time schedule. With their monthly episodic model, it’s easier for workers to cut loose and be unashamed of their sense of humor.


Where do you get your comic inspiration?

Pratchett credited her humor to science fiction conventions, observational humor, and growing up with British comedy programs. For Schafer, it’s TV shows like The Simpsons. Vanaman loves the sense of humor present in Arrested Development and 30 Rock, but mostly cultivated his sense of humor through telling jokes with his best friend.


Is there a difference between the jokes you place at the forefront and the jokes that take more effort for the player to find?

Another unanimous yes came from the panelists. “It takes pressure off you when the player does somethimg silly on purpose,” said Schafer. Asking something like that of a player makes the creation of a joke much easier.

Pratchett likes to look at how much the player is trying to break the world and put stuff in those places. Making jokes for personal situations is not only funny, but also makes the player feel special.


The next question referenced Alice and Kev, an experiment done with The Sims 3 that is often sad, but also very humorous at times. Is it possible to create a game with a similar type of emergent humor?

Pratchett thinks we already have with The Sims series itself. “Psychonauts is another great example of a one-two punch,” she continued, “The comedy lowers your defenses and then it hits you with something emotional.” One of Schafer’s biggest inspirations is Kurt Vonnegut, whose writing was a mixture of sadness and comedy. “Humor is most interesting when mixed together.”

To keep up the Tim Schafer love, Vanaman relayed a story where, while playing Brutal Legend, his friend got his car stuck on something. When he broke free, he “peeled off on someone’s face” and thought it was hilarious.

Schafer laughed, wishing he had been able to foresee such a glitch and make a funny sound clip to accompany it. How smart the character AI is is not nearly as important to him as how aware they are of what’s going on around them.


How do you pick your moments?

Schafer likes moments where the player least expects humor to be. “You don’t want to be the guy who is always funny, because he gets annoying after a while. You want to be the quiet guy who suprises everyone with a rare gem of a joke.”

Vanaman inserts humor wherever the drama is, because it helps prop the comedy up. This is why humor is injected into the most serious scene of Tales of Monkey Island.


What’s the order of your creative process?

Schafer often begins with an idea of the world he wants to make. Then he thinks of the characters who would live there and the abilities they would have. This leads to the creation of gameplay mechanics. He uses this process over and over, and it’s led to a very different game every time.


Are you more inspired by books and television than other media?

Everyone said yes, but Vanaman more so than anyone else because of the episodic nature of the games he writes. He looks to shows like Lost as an inspiration. It has a hook that keeps viewers coming back week after week, much like Telltale games have to keep people interested from month to month.


What’s the place for long-running jokes, as opposed to one-off jokes?

They have to be very well planned. Basically, these types of jokes have to be written “along the spine of a game”. Schafer often uses foreshadowing in the beginning of his stories to set these up.


Closing thoughts?

“The best thing is to empower all of your people to be funny,” Vanaman answered. Everyone has the power to make a game funny, not just the writers.

Schafer urged those who are not in a powerful position of their dev teams to try and sneak funny in. He cited Portal as an example where this happened, and a very successful one at that; at this point, it’s hard to imagine the game without the humor.

Pratchett believes there is currently not enough trust in games writers. They are often brought in to a project late and have their funny lines taken out for serious situations. Writers have to keep building trust between themselves and game developers by finding those lighthearted premises that can hold up fun dialogue, mechanics or game design.

Ashley Davis