Why Some Games Win At Comedy Where So Many Fail
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
There have been many “funny” games made in the short history of this industry, but so few of them have actually been genuinely funny. Most attempts at comedy in games come across either as awkward cynicism, labored zaniness, or inelegant pop culture references masquerading as parody. A lot of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that most game developers aren’t comedians. Hell, many of them aren’t writers, but the demand for narrative hooks requires them to trot out some sort of story, and when that story calls for humor, the results can be incredibly unfortunate.
Duke Nukem Forever is one of the worst offenders, in my mind. Even outside of that unfortunate level where women were being forcibly impregnated and physically tortured in the name of good fun, the actual “jokes” in Duke’s grand return weren’t jokes at all, they were just lines from movies, parroted verbatim, with no actual context or meaning behind them. Another dire example is Naughty Bear, a game in which an evil teddy bear mutilates other teddy bears — potentially a funny concept, but pulled off without any sense of wit. It’s just a banal series of repetitive, bad animations that never build in scale or extremity, clinging to the hope that the core fundamental idea is good enough to be funny when an audience is exposed to it for the tenth time. Games like this are great at working out that something IS funny, but they never bother to find out WHY it is funny. Knowing the why is the important detail, and it’s so overlooked. It’s all in the delivery, after all, and if you don’t quite “get” your own jokes, you’ll never deliver it the right way.
The mention of a Gearbox game, in particular, is ironic, because Borderlands 2 is one of the best examples of humor in games working. There is a fundamental difference between this game and almost every other game in existence — a writer with a genuine passion and understanding of the humor he’s using, as well the audience he’s appealing to. This is why Borderlands 2 has been praised for its writing, and so few other games have — even games that do feature strong narrative and dialogue.
I’ve had discussions with a few people online who don’t get what all the fuss is about with Borderlands 2. Why is that game being praised for its writing, when other games have just as good a narrative and aren’t half as complimented? Indeed, we’ve had well-written games before Borderlands 2. Grand Theft Auto IV, for all its mixed messages and sliding car physics, was a tightly scripted story featuring a likable protagonist (provided you don’t delve too deeply into the psychological implications of his self-loathing and excuse-making). Beyond Good & Evil, of course, features an intensely memorable cast and a really gripping plot. But with Borderlands 2, people seem to have taken their appreciation of the writing to the next level. It’s been hypothesized that it’s because writer Anthony Burch was well-known before his stint at Gearbox — he was the brain behind the popular “Hey Ash, Watcha Playin’” web series, and was a prolific online writer before that. There may be some truth to that — people already liked Burch, so they were happy to praise it. However, there’s more to it than that. It’s not just that people like Anthony because he’s from the Internet — Anthony is good enough to justify the praise because he’s from the Internet.
Most game writers aren’t like Anthony Burch, or co-writer Mikey Neumann. They’re not as young. They’ve not been so entrenched in online culture. They don’t quite “get” what it is that makes the current generation of gamers laugh so much. The difference may only be a few years between most writers and their audience, but these days, where trends move so fast and the culture is so mutable, it may as well be eons. Borderlands 2 uses a lot of memes and web-friendly jokes in its writing, and it’s been criticized for this. However, the difference between Borderlands 2′s use of memetic comedy and any other game’s is that with Borderlands 2, it’s sincere. It’s not just some game regurgitating a few words it heard online, or saying a line from a popular movie out of context. When you’re “from” the Internet, you have a deeper understanding of what it is about these jokes that are so funny. You can tell the difference between someone saying, “I can haz cheezburger” simply because they heard it’s popular, and someone who changes the entire name of an enemy class to “Bonerfarts” because of the patent audacity of it. Sure, we may have an affinity with Burch because he’s “from” the Internet, but that works the other way — he can maintain that affinity specifically because he’s “from” the Internet. He knows what makes the gamer community laugh, not because he saw it on a spreadsheet, but because he’s right there laughing along with it.
Another game that exemplifies the difference between cynical attempts at pandering and genuine love is Retro City Rampage, the 8-bit style action game that hit Steam and PSN this week. Now, we’ve all been here before — yet another indie game, exploiting retro graphics because they’re the “in” thing right now, with some cute self-referential jokes because isn’t that so witty these days? Except, again, the difference between Retro City Rampage and the competition is that developer Brian Provinciano gives the utmost of shits about his industry and his craft. His is a game where you can set the screen filter to make it look like a Commodore 64 game, or running off CGA. His is a game where there’s a working cover system in what looks like a GTA demake, because why not? The game doesn’t just pay lip-service to videogame history with a few cheap references. It bleeds videogames. Every single mission is packed full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags, some so obscure that even the most hardcore of gamers will miss at least some of them. It’s a game made by a true gamer, who is pouring his heart out onto the screen, and it’s the kind of genuine love that can be so easily told apart from all the other “8-BIT LOL LOOK AT ME” games out there.
Retro City goes beyond surface level jokes about Mario and goes so far as to goof about forgotten hardware, the TV shows of the 80s that we grew up around, and even many modern-day games, demonstrating a full understanding of the entire history of the industry, not just select parts of it. Its music isn’t just plinky-plonky MIDI sounds, lazily crafted to evoke a sense of nostalgia. The style of music sounds like something you’d get on an NES, all while remaining wholly original. Retro City Rampage isn’t just a reference collection, it’s got an atmosphere to it. It looks, sounds, and feels like a tribute to everything this wonderful hobby of ours was and is. It may look like just another indie game, but when you start playing it, you start feeling it.
I think we can tell the difference between games made with real understanding of the subject matter, and those made to tick boxes. It’s why Borderlands 2 and Retro City Rampage have been lavished with such praise, even though there are many games that feature good writing and savvy references. Even the games that do succeed in comedy and referential humor still have just this slight air of insincerity about them, the likes of which we don’t get from Burch or Provinciano. As more web-savvy and game-wise people start filling roles in the game industry, it’s my hope that we’ll see many more Burches and Provincianos out there, people who grew up loving games, who got exposed to the Internet and its beautifully varied world of wonderful (and sometimes terrifying) ideas, and bring honest zeal to the interactive art they create. Games like Borderlands 2 and Retro City Rampage are exceptional right now, but I hope they become normal. I hope, in time, the spreadsheets and analytics are put to one side, so that those who come from the audience publishers try to appeal to actually succeed.
We can but dream.