Playing the Fool

The "Laughing Dog" of Duck Hunt (Nintendo, 1985).

Successful video game comedy often depends on whether the player is willing to be the butt of the joke.

Mel Brooks doesn’t strike me as an avid video game player, but his famous description of comedy does a great job of describing how many games approach humor: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

In video games, even the most linear scenarios require a relatively high amount of participation from people who in other media would be considered the “audience.” For a game to use comedy in a way that truly utilizes the medium’s strength, it needs to include more than passive dialogue jokes and amusing sight gags. Just as an adventure game gives the player control over the hero’s actions, a comedy thrusts them into a situation where they actively participate in creating humorous situations.

It’s difficult to create the smooth, yet improvisational feel of a stand-up routine or sketch comedy bit within a game. Whether it is players working with other players or humans working with AI routines, creating the spontaneity integral to effective comedy is challenging the confines of most games’ rules. To circumvent this, many games approach humor through digital slapstick or virtual practical jokes. In doing so, they practice the odd habit of inviting the player to participate in pranking themselves.

DeathSpank, one of the few unapologetically comedic games in recent years, utilizes the player’s willingness to follow the game’s rules for comedic effect. While DeathSpank is full of dialogue jokes, puns, and visual gags, its humor also stems from systems structured to antagonize the player. The game takes typical Action-RPG genre conventions like side quests and item collection and implements them in ridiculous ways that force the player into absurd situations. When DeathSpank meets the aptly named Talking Tree, it asks him to find a copy of The Giving Tree, setting off what seems to be a standard fetch quest. Rather than let the player bask in the glow of a job well done once the quest is finished, the tree continues to ask DeathSpank for more favors, most of which involve collecting vintage rock albums and posters that suit its groovy mentality. These items are literally seconds away from the tree, which creates a situation where the player is simply walking back and forth collecting largely pointless items for a largely pointless character. Viewed from a distance, this is a funny scenario; the quest is commenting on the absurd nature of genre conventions. Additionally, the player’s actions make the protagonist an object of ridicule: “adventuring” by walking back and forth between laughably short distances, performing menial tasks for a tree who continues to offer more menial tasks as a reward, and listening to the pointless stoner talk of an bark-covered burnout is a hilarious waste of DeathSpank’s time. Since DeathSpank acts as the player’s avatar, the player is instrumental in performing a joke in which they end up being the punchline.

Practical jokes at the player’s expense are the video game equivalents of candid camera stunts: the player’s expectations and participation make them part of the joke. This sort of humor appears even in relatively serious games. For example, Hideo Kojima has repeatedly demonstrated the pleasure he takes in incorporating bits of comedy in the Metal Gear Solid series. The fight with Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid fakes a system shutdown and includes a false TV “VIDEO” input screen that instead says “HIDEO.” While few people found it amusing, its arguable that the entire hype cycle and opening act of Metal Gear Solid 2 was a joke at the expense of people who thought they would be playing as Solid Snake. I remember feeling a mixture of embarrassment, exasperation, and ultimately grudging respect during the ladder sequence of Metal Gear Solid 3. Doing nothing but holding “up” for two minutes was annoying at the time but hilarious in retrospect.

By simply playing the game, a person is implicitly placing some level of trust in the game’s designer; the player must have faith that the game’s rules will make sense. Getting laughs by toying with the player is a delicate operation that requires a person to hold the viewpoint of both participant and spectator. It probably helps that games like DeathSpank and the upcoming Swarm have exaggerated art styles that suggest their worlds might contain unexpected pratfalls for the player. Something that might be funny in one game might fall flat in another. Failing to land a jump a dozen times in a row seems more amusing in ‘Splosion Man than in Mirror’s Edge because of the games’ respective tones. Not only must practical jokes walk the line between amusing and abusing the player, they must also feel at home in the games in which they appear.

Despite the mental gymnastics required, this form of comedy is widespread in games. Ribbing the player is a standard way to express humor in games across all sizes and genres of games. If monstrous creations like “Asshole Mario” and LittleBigPlanet’s “Unfair Platformer” are any indication, increasingly democratized game development will only increase the amount of slapstick humor in video game culture.

Truly unique video game comedy is more than wacky one liners and funny cutscenes; the medium’s interactive nature allows players to engage with a game’s systems to create humorous situations. Because such active participation is required, comedy in video games often presents the paradox of asking the player to tickle themselves. Anyone who has ever watched the Three Stooges knows just how funny it is to laugh at a buffoon. Anyone who has ever played Duck Hunt knows how annoying it is to be that buffoon. The beauty of great video game slapstick is its ability to make us laugh at our own buffoonery.

To revisit Mel’s original quip, you might say that video game comedy is jumping down an open sewer to your death and laughing all the way down.

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