Finding a game that actually makes you laugh is rarer than a Mewtwo clutching a copy of Stadium Events for the NES. When it happens, you want to cherish the experience, because you know it’s going to be a fleeting one. This was certainly the case the first time I played Portal, the much-lauded South Park: The Stick of Truth and the indie hit Octodad. I’m a guy who has been writing and performing comedy for the past ten years, and I want to take a moment to discuss just how games like the above three titles were able to achieve this uncommon occurrence.
Let’s start with Portal. The game takes place in a laboratory where you use a gun to shoot portals on walls in order to solve puzzles. The physics and puzzle solving are absolutely brilliant, but that content is driven by the game’s dry humor. This comes in the form of GLaDOS, an AI that promises you cake and grief counseling as a reward for getting through the lab’s tests. You later realize that this seemingly helpful yet soulless AI is actually trying to murder you. That contrast really works, because the writers don’t throw this at you all at once. They slowly unravel this information subtly using steady and well executed heightening as you move through the various test chambers.
The humor of Portal could only be sold by the top-notch voice acting of Ellen McLain. In fact, her take on the character informed a lot of the writing. Head writer Erik Wolpaw stated that, “when we were still fishing around for the turret voice, Ellen did a sultry version. It didn't work for the turrets, but we liked it a lot, and so a slightly modified version of that became the model for GLaDOS' final incarnation.”
I want to quickly note that a big challenge with comedy in games is length. Most games range anywhere from three to thirty hours long. Comedy films, however, tend to be around an hour and a half, since they quickly wear out their welcome past that.
Clocking in at a whopping fourteen hours, South Park: The Stick of Truth is, in my opinion, the funniest game of all time. This is largely due to the fact that South Park’s creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, wrote the entire script and actually like video games. In an interview for Gamerant, Trey Parker noted that, “I really loved RPGs growing up, and even now I really love them. We started kicking around the idea of a South Park RPG even a long time ago when we did an episode about Lord of the Rings. I think since then we’ve talked about how cool a big, real RPG with the kids playing a game within the game could be.” It is evident in the game’s content that they wrote it for people who have sunk hours of their time into this specific genre. You never feel, as a gamer, that you’re being talked down to.
Stick of Truth also features characters from the TV show that we all know and love such as Mr. Hankey, Randy Marsh, Terrance and Phillip, the Underpants Gnomes, and Timmy. This familiarity immediately connects us to the comedy. Stone and Parker have said that they intended the game to look and feel like a real episode of the show. I believe this is why even those friends of mine who outright dislike video games still enjoy watching Stick of Truth.
Then there’s Octodad, a game that pulls off laughs using its own physics. It stars an octopus that pretends to be a human by attempting various mundane tasks. For instance, grocery shopping becomes a challenge as his silly floppy tentacles are difficult to control. In comedy, you learn pretty quickly that showing not telling goes a long way. Octodad achieves this by putting physical comedy in the player’s hands.
Finally, let’s take a game that should work on paper, but just misses the mark. Before I get into this, I just want to note that my heart goes out to the large team of people that surely worked hard on it. I just need to do this to drive home a point about comedy in gaming. 2K Games’ Battleborn, a cooperative multiplayer on-line first-person shooter, tries too hard to get into the good graces of gamers by wink-wink nudge-nudging them into cheap laughs. Take this joke for example: "Guys! My ass! They're handing it to me!" It’s not terrible, but it’s a bit too ham-fisted for my taste made worse by the fact that you will hear this line over and over again in the course of a play through. It’s never enjoyable to hear a joke on repeat like that, and games do this all the time.
In conclusion, there are some clear paths to success in comedic video games. Subtlety and the constant progression of a funny premise using heightening can go a long way as we see with Portal. Familiarity with a comedic franchise certainly helps, but also witty meta writing specifically for your audience made South Park: The Stick Of Truth a huge hit. Lastly, treating your audience with respect, and not bashing them over the head with lame Internet memes for cheap laughs goes such a long way. It’s a really tough line to tread, and that is why those games that do it well are so hard to come by.