Party Hard is a rare kind of a game: a genuine dark comedy. Usually comedy in games is absurd in nature—think Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Stanley Parable, or Saints Row The Third—because the mechanics of any game are already absurd when taken at face value, so it’s a natural fit. What game mechanics represent are often pretty dark when taken at face value—casual murder, theft, and trespassing, to mention a few—and comedy helps undercut that darkness so that we don’t dwell on it. Be honest, did you even remember that the earth was destroyed at the end of Saints Row IV, or did you just remember that elaborate dance scene?
Party Hard, on the other hand, embraces its darker themes and ideas, putting them at the forefront in both its premise and its mechanics. It’s impossible to ignore the cruelty of what we’re doing, yet at the same time, that cruelty is still undercut by the presence of aliens, zombies, exploding bubblegum machines, dancing bears, sharknados, and everyone’s general ambivalence to the fact that you are committing mass murder. The result is a game that embraces its darkness and finds humor within that darkness.
I should probably describe the game, though. Party Hard is a kind of stealth game in which you play a man driven mad by lack of sleep because his neighbors are partying late into the night. He takes it upon himself to end the party by killing all the party goers, and when he’s done with this party, he moves on to another, and another, and another.
The gameplay is pure dark comedy. The entire point of the game is to find various ways to quietly kill people at a party, and when you can’t make any elaborate traps, you can always just stab them in the back. It sounds violent, and it is. However, when these acts are represented in abstract pixel art and your weapons consist of knives, stoves, gasoline, bubblegum machines, horses, bear traps, trees, cars, golf carts, and sharks (to name a few), all backed by a pumping soundtrack, then, ironically, murder becomes a pretty fun party. And it’s fun in a way that doesn’t shy away from the fact that, yeah, you really are murdering all these people. It’s not trying to hide its violence behind points or some kind of sympathetic justification. This isn’t a revenge fantasy in which we can argue for the just nature of our actions. Party Hard makes you an irredeemable killer and highlights that fact with balloons and confetti.
It’s all fun and games until someone… adds a narrative.
The simple premise would be enough to carry the game for several levels. Who hasn’t wanted to go all serial killer on someone/thing keeping you awake? It’s not something you can honestly justify, but it makes for a nice darkly comedic fantasy. However, Party Hard isn’t satisfied with its simple premise. In between the levels are cut scenes that present us with a larger cast and a larger story, a more serious story that pops our balloons and vacuums up all the confetti.
We listen to an interview with the lead detective on the “Party Hard Murders,” recounting this whole story after the fact. As a detective, this character has a sense of responsibility, so naturally he’s a wet blanket, a killjoy who emphasizes the death of his daughter and the social panic caused by the killings.
Even worse, the interviewer (who sounds creepy and insane in every clichéd way) ascribes more extreme motivations to your character. He says that maybe you killed people in a skyscraper because they deserved to be closer to the dirt than the sky, he calls your killings works of art, and claims you gain followers because they think you are creating a human utopia. These are all terrible and clichéd motivations for serial killers in fiction—killing out of a sense of warped justice—and Party Hard originally avoids this cliché by keeping its premise simple: You just wanted sleep. Now, however, the game tries to make you into a grander character, and the story loses the small-scale scope that worked so well.
When my actions were limited to a single level, they remained funny because there were no obvious consequences for them. Each level is like an episode of a sitcom. By each one’s end everything is back to normal, and nothing I do exists outside this pocket universe. It’s all meaningless because my actions have no greater context or purpose. As the game confronts its player with the larger narrative consequences of his actions, it loses its humor because with narrative comes theme and with theme comes meaning. In this case, though, the only meaning behind my actions are nihilistic and cynical. Not the best ingredients for comedy.
A narrative could have worked so long as it didn’t take the gameplay seriously. This narrative, however, forgets that the game wasn’t supposed to be serious, that its violence was supposed to be cartoonish. Hell, when a dead body is found, a cop comes by to zip it up in a body bag and then leaves it there. The implication is that, sure, someone died, but that doesn’t have to kill the party! Death isn’t serious in the game, but it’s very serious in the cut scenes.
Party Hard is a dark comedy that doesn’t know how to balance its darkness with its comedy, so its darkness ends up engulfing its comedy. What was once a fun game becomes oddly off-putting.
It’s still a good game, just as long as you skip the cut scenes.