Comedy is hard. It’s much easier to do solid drama and liven it up with a few moments of humor than it is to do something creative that’s meant to be funny top to bottom. No one expects every joke in a funny game or movie to land perfectly, but there is some golden ratio of funny to amusing to ignorable to unfunny that every good comedy nails and every bad one gets wrong. I think Deathspank gets the ratio wrong, and I think that the problem starts with the name.
First, let me say that Deathspank is a fine game, and I’ve enjoyed my time playing it. But mostly I enjoyed it in spite of the humor rather than because of it. There’s some laugh worthy material in there but not enough for me. Worse yet, the stuff that doesn’t work not only fails to make me chuckle, it actually weighs against the game in my estimation. I recently spent time vacationing at the home of some friends who have an Xbox that’s primarily for the use of their children, who are 4 and 9. My visit coincided with Deathspank‘s launch, and the game’s ever present advertisement on the first screen of Xbox Live every time one of the kids wanted to play Lego Indiana Jones or Monkey Island. “I cannot wait until the word Deathspank is no longer part of my daily life,” she said to me. This is someone who has a fine sense of humor and enjoys playing through a game like Monkey Island with her kids, and she did not find the title amusing.
I’m sure that the game’s creators were well aware that some sizable chunk of the population wouldn’t appreciate the humor in their title and that my friend isn’t in their target demographic. Fair enough. But at the same time, I think there’s little good to be gained from having a title that just sounds dumb without being “clever” dumb. I keep coming back to it, but The Secret of Monkey Island sounds silly, but it doesn’t sound dumb. Deathspank sounds uninvitingly dumb. It doesn’t really mean anything (which is fine, most video game names don’t), but it also conjures up not a single thought or image that isn’t utterly puerile.
Looking around the internet for terrible names for video games, I’m hard-pressed to find one from the modern day that is as bad. Game Revolution had a list a while back, and the closest that I found was the terribly titled Wargasm, a 1998 PC game from Infogrames. That’s equally puerile and uninviting, but it’s also over a decade old. Most of the other really terrible names on the list go back farther than this, and even these tend to be ill-conceived or strangely obscure. Deathspank, like Wargasm, seem purposefully awful, a clear attempt to be funny or clever that fails in its primary purpose but mistakenly gives away more about the game’s nature than maybe intended.
As it turns out though, Wargasm isn’t nearly the over the top, machismotic bloodfest that the name suggests. According to this review, it’s just a mediocre shooter. The name seems like a desperate cry for attention, like, I dunno, Bullet Storm or something. The name did clue me into one thing though – I still don’t want to play it. Maybe Deathspank is closer to Game Revolution‘s number one pick, Irritating Stick for the Playstation. Apparently that title perfectly sums up the game. So does Deathspank, with its “trying too hard” humorous content perfectly. Actually, that’s not true, because parts of the game are funny, while none of the title is. That’s why I really do think that Deathspank might be one of the worst titles of all time – it never helps a comedy to get people in the door with a bad joke.