Video games distinguish themselves from other media through interactivity, but on a deeper level they’re the apotheosis of audiovisual art. Games have borrowed elements from movies, books, paintings, radio, and whatever other creative forms you can think of. And nowhere is this sheer amount of variety more apparent than in how games use humor. More than just telling jokes, the best games use witty writing, ridiculous choreography and cinematography, and fourth wall-breaking references in different measures to hilarious results.
The most traditional way developers insert humor into their games is through jokes and banter delivered through dialogue—but it’s not always successful. A lot of games lean on a quippy style of humor that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Marvel movie. This approach can be seen in games you’re meant to take seriously, like the Gears of War franchise, or in games that make humor a central focus, like Bulletstorm. But a lot of this joke writing often clashes with the ultraviolence on display in these examples. Too much of what Bulletstorm and Gears of War offer up as funny is making light of the horrible dismemberments that happen on screen. The rest tries to repurpose what already worked in other media without understanding why it works. Matt Hazard is the poster boy of this. Billed as a sendup of and loving tribute to action games, the Matt Hazard series proved to be just a stream of endless references and quips minus any wit or larger overall point.
Punchy dialogue is better utilized in games like Portal, where humorous writing is juxtaposed with sterile, staid surroundings. A robotic voice gradually getting more passive aggressive with you as you go gets under your skin in a way that a sendup of action media that’s indistinguishable from the real thing doesn’t. The way it subverts your expectations gradually leads you into humorous scenarios before you even know it. GLaDOS is initially positioned as a cold, sterile, emotionless robotic proctor of scientific tests, but that slowly gives way to a murderous, callous being that finds the idea of your death or injury funny. Good dialogue is the baseline of good humor, and how it’s positioned to take advantage of your expectations makes all the difference.
Good humor also often needs a straight man to bounce wackiness off (a concept that even the writers of the Gears of War games understand, as Delta Squad is split pretty evenly between more and less serious members). But it also helps when the character you’re controlling is said straight man. That way, everything around them can be written to be hilarious. Such is the case in the Yakuza games. You play as Kazuma Kiryu, an off-again, on-again member of a Japanese crime family who must navigate the various crime dramas at the center of the games’ stories. They’re usually played entirely straight, with a tone that wouldn’t be out of place in a hard-boiled detective book.
In between the serious main stories, though, are the substories that Kiryu can stumble into as he runs around Tokyo’s fictional Kamurocho district. These stories are often completely ridiculous and fly in the face of the tone of the rest of the game, giving the player some much-needed levity in between fighting crime bosses. But the reason they work is because of Kiryu himself. He’s portrayed as entirely straight-laced (as much as a mafia person can be, at least), which makes his reaction to the world around him the punchline.
For instance, in Yakuza 0, Kiryu runs across a woman who’s having a hard time learning how to be a dominatrix, so he must assist her in the art of humiliation. At no point in this scenario is the woman the butt of the joke, as the entire scene is played straight, and Kiryu is earnestly trying to help her, free of judgment. Rather, the joke is how awkward Kiryu is in stepping into a world that’s entirely unfamiliar to him. It’s a twist on the old straight man humor construction, using a man with a very narrow focus as a cypher off which the designers can bounce the character of Kamurocho itself. Through Kiryu’s eyes, Kamurocho is continually surprising and bewildering. It’s hilarious to watch, but it also helps to develop the character of both Kamurocho and Kiryu.
But there’s also another kind of humor writing in games, one that is criminally underutilized: wholesome, earnest humor. In the same vein as so-called dad jokes, this category of humor is focused on making you smile without punching down. The targets for the jokes are often the ones telling them.
This is illustrated best in the recent release Later Alligator. This game is set in a city that’s populated by anthropomorphic alligators as you try to figure out a mysterious event that’s set to happen to a scared gator. But everything turns out to be a hilarious misunderstanding. The entire game is wrapped in pleasing animation, expressive visuals, and a generally good-natured soundtrack. Everything about the game is meant to make you smile, and while this kind of humor can often dip into the groan-inducing, Later Alligator spaces these jokes out enough that any groans you may have are good ones. They do this by giving every character a theme—the bulk of the dad jokes and puns are found with the actual dad archetype, the kids are written to be precocious, and so on. But most of all, the jokes in Later Alligator aren’t meant to make anyone feel bad, but rather to make the audience feel good. Cheerfulness in writing is criminally underrated in games, and Later Alligator provides a clinic in the form.
Writing isn’t the only way that games indulge in humor, though. As the Yakuza series shows, choreography and staging can create hilarious situations. Here, the biggest fights in the games have special cutscenes weaved throughout the conflicts, upping the ridiculous factor to extreme levels. One such memorable scene is in Yakuza 0, when Kiryu must fight his way through the office of the Dojima Family, to which he currently belongs despite the fact they’ve framed him for murder. He goes room to room and has fights with groups of enemies, much like the normal flow of a Yakuza game, but in this case, after each encounter, a little cutscene plays that connects one fight to the next. During each cutscene, a recurring guard gets his face beat in by Kiryu in one way or another. He’s the only guard that keeps appearing, and with every appearance, he keeps getting more and more beaten down and frustrated. The way that the game accentuates the recurring appearance of this one nameless guard adds a shot of humor to an adrenaline rush of a sequence.
Staging plays a very important role in embedding humorous themes into games. Portal accomplishes this through specially designed puzzles that coincide with computer nemesis GLaDOS saying a line appropriate to the situation. This also had a similar effect to the straight-man act of Kiryu by making you the stooge, the focal point of normalcy around which humor would follow. Triband’s What The Golf employs a similar approach, making you the butt of the game’s antics. One of the first levels tasks you with putting the ball into the hole like a normal golf game would. However, when you make your putt, the hole moves suddenly. Other holes will position you like you’re about to hit the ball, but what you’re really hitting is, for instance, the club, your own body, or even the hole itself. What The Golf uses tiny subversions like this to play harmless pranks on the player on every first impression of a hole. The staging of the levels is key here, as misdirection is what lets the pranks work. Most of all, though, you’re made the target with such a light touch that you’re not even mad at the game for putting you in its sights.
What The Golf doesn’t stop at staging pranks on the player, though. It also delves into perhaps the most overused subgenre of game comedy there is: referential humor. This means referencing a well-known game in the canon and injecting it into a completely different game in a humorous way. Many games—whether it’s Borderlands, Duke Nukem, or any number of other games that purport to lean on humor—use this kind of comedy as a crutch, emphasizing the reference itself as if that alone was the funny part.
But What The Golf does referential humor in a smart way: one that honors the games it references by incorporating its allusions into the fabric of the game to the point where they feel like they belong there naturally. What The Golf has entire groupings of levels that are homages to two specific games: Superhot and Portal. It’s not the fact that these levels exist that makes them funny. Rather, it’s how the developers adapted the specific gameplay of these games into What The Golf’s template. What you end up with, in the Superhot homage, is a golf game where people are shooting at you, but only move when the ball moves. The Portal section combines golf with portals in such a smart way that you’d think that the concept belonged to the game in the first place. In fact, it’s entirely ridiculous that these concepts work so well in What The Golf, which is the source of the game’s referential success.
No matter the medium games borrow from, some concepts that remain constant when inserting humor into works: awareness of who your target is, how you juxtapose the status quo with the ridiculous, and how the moving parts work in service of subverting the expectations of the audience. As we’ve seen across the history of art, comedy can come in many forms. As the apotheosis of all art forms, games have the potential to surpass all of them. Developers just have to keep borrowing from what works in other media intelligently.
Jeremy Signor brings quality games writing from the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania. He’s been in the freelance game now for nine years. You can find his byline at EGM, Unwinnable, PCGamesN, Gamespot, USgamer, and elsewhere. He’s also a radical dude in every sense of the phrase. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Writes to find out why.