Comedy in games no laughing matter

GDC 2010: Tim Schafer, Rhianna Pratchett, and Sean Vanaman trade tips that made Brutal Legend, Overlord, and Tales of Monkey Island humorous hits.

Who Was There: A panel of industry humorists including DoubleFine Productions founder Tim Schafer (Brutal Legend, Psychonauts), narrative designer and scriptwriter Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword), Telltale Games writer/designer Sean Vanaman (Tales of Monkey Island, Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures) appeared, answering questions posed by A.V. Club writer John Teti.

What They Talked About: After a full Game Developers Conference week of serious, high-minded discussion about business models, social media, and emerging trends, it was finally time for a humor-in-games panel to lighten the mood.

First big lesson of the panel: Tiny creatures wearing hats is comedy gold.

Teti's first question to the panel was to ask why there isn't a genre in games simply known as "comedy." Pratchett said there shouldn't be. Comedy can be used across genres, she argued, and should be used to enrich gameplay of any sort.

Schafer said the games industry is incredibly imitative, so all it would take is one massively successful game known as a comedy title to spur publishing executives around the industry to churn out enough titles to support the genre tag. Vanaman said when developers set out to make a funny game, they actually have to start with a story that they weave comedy in and around. If developers think the point of their game is strictly to be funny, then it would come across as too forced.

Pratchett agreed, saying comedy games go bad when it's just about the writing. She said the comedy in great games starts with the gameplay. In Overlord, she said, the comedy stemmed in many places from players' treatment of the minions (as well as the amusing hats they could wear). In his own games, Vanaman said the actual mechanics of walking around and interacting with objects aren't inherently humorous, so the comedy stems from the script and characters, and heavily from the art.

Given the importance of timing in a good joke, Teti asked the panel how they handle being funny considering how much of the timing is interactive and in the hands of the players. Schafer said that with adventure games, it was like writing a play where the main character (the player, essentially) wanders around drunk onstage, improvising his actions throughout while the rest of the cast tries to work around him. Schafer said the key is for the developers to anticipate the player's actions as accurately as possible and design the game around that. He specifically mentioned a moment of perfect comedy in Metal Gear Solid 4 where a player can linger Snake's view on a female character. After a while (just long enough to make it obvious that the player is being kind of creepy, Schafer said), the woman asks what Snake is looking at.

Pratchett said that when making a game funny, it helps when the team is smaller and working together. With fewer people on the Overlord team, she said there was more trust among the developers, and she was able to go through with level designers on a day-to-day basis and ensure that each part of the game worked both for the gameplay and the humor.

Sometimes the goofy lines never intended to see the light of day wind up getting the biggest laughs.

Schafer said he wanted to create a safe atmosphere at DoubleFine to experiment and try stupid ideas. Reminiscing about his time on Monkey Island, Schafer said the best content and dialogue they came up with was when everyone was just goofing around. Once series creator Ron Gilbert made it clear that the lines they'd come up with weren't placeholder and were going in the finished product, Schafer joked that he never wrote another funny thing for the game.

He also pointed to a specific line in the game, "Look behind you! It's a three-headed monkey!" The line went over well when it was first proposed, but Schafer said he had plenty of second thoughts once the idea got to the stage where they were asking the art department to draw the monkey.

"That impulse, that fear of 'That's too ridiculous,' is the enemy," Schafer said.

Schafer noted that the standard for comedy in games isn't set. As a result, he said it's too easy for developers and game writers to become lazy about it and settle for substandard humor.

"So the key is to care that it's going to be funny?" Teti asked.

"Or be absolutely terrified that it's going to suck," Schafer responded.

Vanaman said he inspires his own writing by taking in episodes of 30 Rock and Arrested Development, or even watching YouTube play-throughs of games like Schafer's own The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.

Teti asked about how the panel doles out its jokes, whether they put the best stuff up front where everyone will see it, or whether they hide the gems away for completionists to discover.

"Well, they're all like my babies," Vanaman said. "So where do I hide my babies…"

Taking another, more serious crack at an answer, Vanaman said he writes the game linearly, so it just depends on what he's working on when inspiration strikes. He also talked briefly about exercising restraint when it comes to writing comedy in games.

A little drama can complement comedy nicely.

"You don't want to be that guy," Vanaman said, "'I'm funny! I'm a wacky dude!' You don't want your game to be that guy. The game knowing it's funny is the hard part, and drama, if you sprinkle it in, will take the edge off that."

As for how developers can translate their own natural wit into their games, Vanaman said it was important to empower the development team to be funny, to let them try out bold, specific ideas for humor even if it looks a little odd on paper. Schafer said if developers weren't in a position to make such high-level decisions, they could always try to be sneaky and slip humor into the game wherever possible, whether they be programmers or sound designers.

Quote: "Clown suits. If everyone's wearing clown suits all day long, it's totally funny. All the time." --Schafer, on how he fosters a humor-friendly environment for the development team.

"Things that are funny? Don't use them as taunts in a boss fight. Nothing is funny 30 times in a row." --Schafer, offering a pearl of wisdom that he learned the hard way.

Takeaway: Making games funny is as difficult as making them fun.

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Discussion

104 comments
Spacerac
Spacerac

A game can be funny even when it's overall tone is dark, like inFamous' Zeke. To me the Ratchet and Uncharted series are the defacto examples of how to pull off game humor. Psychonauts was straight up witty and so was Bully. And don't get me started on that little orange wise cracking Ottsel. I still lol at Jak II's bar scene. I remember being 14 and getting my hands on Crash Twinsanity and thinking it wasn't funny and my beloved Crash was ruined. :laugh:

yoyohahaha
yoyohahaha

i think we all can agree metal gear did a great job xD alot of new stuff from 1 to 3

Nkosistryder
Nkosistryder

lol, well i think the funniest in-game humor has to be from the GTA series. Those radio stations r f*cking hilarious. two thumbs n two big toes up for GTA.

gamerpipe
gamerpipe

@CaptainHerlock that's right. but that's what I hate about today gaming company , most of them have to milk the same genre on and on , and copy each other. they can instead focus and renew some other great genres. I love click adventure, I'm pretty sure it can be very successful if coupled with humor and mystery, just like Monkey Island new sequels. Sim City, yes not comedy, but I mean different genre that can be successful if upgraded to the new generations mindset. and so on. Actually Destroy All Humans is not much new, there was a game I believe for ZX spectrum. I remember I saw it in a gaming magazine, it shows Space Invaders game reversed, aliens shooting humans. lol but it could be the magazine joking though, I was too young . but you get the idea, people thought of it. let's resurrect comedy. my first attempt at game after undetermined time. lol I will include comedy in it. Hopefully won't be Duke Nukem Forever

Ceraby
Ceraby

"Clown suits. If everyone's wearing clown suits all day long, it's totally funny. All the time." I would actually be more frightened than happy if that ever happened =). Anyway, I've always liked comedy in games. I hope they continue to make good 'funny' games available just as much as the 'serious' ones.

codename-60091
codename-60091

Half Life 2 episode 2 is the first game to feature comedy acts. followed by crisis!! "Someone have problem parking their ship" soo funny!

Dan21278
Dan21278

Who said games have be to serious all the time? Entertainment and Comedy go hand in hand games are supposed to be entertaining so why not?

ultramalakian
ultramalakian

I don't think comedy alone would be a decent genre. Time Splitters, Team Fortress 2, No More Heroes... They all make awesome use of comedy, and still, deliver a perfect style of gameplay. Using comedy INSIDE the games, is what developers should try.

ultramalakian
ultramalakian

I don't think comedy alone would be a decent genre. Time Splitters, Team Fortress 2, No More Heroes... They all make awesome use of comedy, and still, deliver a perfect style of gameplay. Using comedy INSIDE the games, is what developers should try.

iowastate
iowastate

Disgaea is one where the comedy is what makes the game. and an under appreciated little gem is The Bard's Tale. gameplay is mediocre but the sense of humour runs through the entire thing and makes it enjoyable. also the twist of variable endings makes any game more fun and I do just love a game there they can resist taking theirselves too serious. after all these are just video games and we are passing time and playing around. the Elder Scrolls games are loaded with double take moments where you are surprised at the little enjoyable things that were added to them.

Shadow_Fire41
Shadow_Fire41

@Zidaneski i do agree quite alot with that statement, although there are some serious games i adore.

The_Dragon_Wolf
The_Dragon_Wolf

Nice read, but i really noticed that comedy in games is quite lacking compared to other genres of stories (horror, action, .. etc etc). The best examples of comedy infused games i played are Point-and-Click adventures "The Curse of Monkey Island" and "Day of the Tentacle", The Platformer "Psyhconauts" and the JRPG "Disgaea" .. pure gold comedy games.

CaptainHerlock
CaptainHerlock

@gamerpipe What "happened" was that gamers started taking themselves too seriously. Developers took themselves too seriously as well. Everything had to be this dark, brooding, melodramatic epic. Anything less and it wasn't "hardcore enough". I remember alot of gamers thought Destroy All Humans was "stupid". But that's what made it great, it was the turn off your brain kind of fun that the industry needs more of.

Zidaneski
Zidaneski

I would say comedy games are the best games there are. Everyone that has played Disgaea has to agree with that.

Rottenwood
Rottenwood

Interesting stuff. I just read an article about, of all things, professional wrestling, and how much of its success in the mid-nineties (or whenever the last boom was) could be traced in part to the effective use of comedy. Not just toilet humor (although I'm sure there was plenty of it) but legitimately witty performers, using off-beat or self-referential comedy. No matter how fringe or dorky your product is, if you can make people laugh, you have a chance of getting their attention. Many people here have referenced Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, and for good reason. A lot of adults (and even women, the lost demographic) loved those titles because they made you chuckle. Even classics like Star Control 2 and the WarCraft/StarCraft series effectively used humor to help them stick in your mind. BioWare does this well to this day, to be fair. It's a shame that you often have to choose these days: a funny game (usually fan-made) with generic or mediocre gameplay, or a well-made game without much personality.

TTDog
TTDog

I'll listen to Ms Pratchett when she produces something of merit rather than riding on her Dad's coat tails... thus far she's producing absolutley nothing that would warrant a second glance.

mrklorox
mrklorox

Also it seems games aren't as funny as they used to be due to everything being voiced nowadays. The original Lucasarts adventures were hilarious, not only because of the writing, but because of the way I imagined the lines being delivered. Unlike when an actor messes up a line read and kills a joke because of it.

mrklorox
mrklorox

Hint to developers: Hire known comedy writers who happen to also enjoy videogames. Game designers don't make the funniest of people, albeit some are pretty good.

ZephyrKama
ZephyrKama

The announcers of Madworld had some surprisingly funny immature humor (Greg Proops of 'Who's Line' Fame and John Di Maggio who plays Bender on Futurama). During the bonus rounds though, they killed jokes big time, after every kill they repeat the same two or three lines back-to-back as if it were some glitch. I ended up hearing the same jokes nearly 20 times in 3 minutes which made it very unfunny by the end. It's difficult keeping random lines funny since there is such a high chance of repetition. Still though the commentary of NFL 2k5 brings a smile to my face no matter how many times I've heard it. I find the best humor in games to be those that come about thanks to the physics engine. GTA IV is filled with what I call "Accidental Fun" where you set off a Rube Goldberg like situation of AI interactions which on that special occurrence yields comedy gold (i.e. getting other people arrested). The physics of GTA IV's NPCs led to so so so so so many hilarious moments, just in coincidences of how they interacted, the funny lines they'd say were just icing on the cake. I wish more games would take the collision detection from GTA like they did the open-world gameplay.

pip_boy_3000
pip_boy_3000

Conker's Bad Fur Day is the funniest game i've ever played

FF_fan2004
FF_fan2004

Must be difficult now to make a decent comedy game...

raiding_kvatch
raiding_kvatch

Surely the reason for the lack of a comedy genre in videogames is because game genres tend to be based on the gameplay, not that the writing e.g. first-person shooter or role playing game don't really state whether the game is a thriller, or sci-fi, or action, or comedy, or whatever.

gamerpipe
gamerpipe

I miss comedy in games, what had happened to the industry? there were a lot of humor in games before, the monkey island, ( I also miss this kind of adventure game, why not getting them back? please? ) , Grog's revenge, it was funny whenever he hit a rock or slam into wall, Leisure Suit Larry series, which VU and Codemasters ruined it, (btw, thanks a lot codemasters for that, I used to respect your brand, never after that, ahats)

Aletunda
Aletunda

i think gta had a decent amount of comedic lines woven into the story, sarcasm mostly from niko, but in ballad of gay tony that yusuf guy was funny as

commanderPOWER
commanderPOWER

And for the record, EAT LEAD THE RETURN OF MATT HAZARD is a prime example of comedic gaming done right.

commanderPOWER
commanderPOWER

Wheeeee! "Hey, he's not being square and susceptible to crowd intoxication like me! He's not likeminded! Let's give him thumbs down! That'll show that hardy chap not to come into egocentric circles of gladhanding and ridiculously intense introspection of themes and cases that don't warrant anywhere near the kind of time and attention we're giving them! Harumph! Harumph!" Pssshh, kids.

ethanpaige
ethanpaige

Both Uncharted games had great humor in them, enough to make me laugh out loud at certain points.

tehepicpwnzor
tehepicpwnzor

Call of Laughter control scheme: Press R3 to rip a knife out of thin air, teleport 20 feet, and magically slit a guy's throat, without leaving any blood on the ground.

DigitalExile
DigitalExile

If we take other games, say MW2, where an enemy raiding a fridge is just about the only joke it's only funny because it's so out of place and I doubt they could get away with any other jokes. Should games have more comedy? Definitely. In this day and age where everything is about the best graphics and the most technical game engine which can pass x amount of threads, which is y more threads than the previous game engine, blah blah blah, it seems as if a lot of games are forgetting to just be fun! I grew up on the N64 and I played some classic games that were FUN. They were silly and funny and comedic in their own ways, much like TF2 or GTA as I mentioned. They could have been serious games, but I think the best comedy comes from being able to just have fun and enjoy what you're playing. If I'm being forced to make moral decisions then I'm not going to have a lot of fun, in the innocent, childish sense. This turned into quite the rant. I apologise.

DigitalExile
DigitalExile

TF2 is an excellent example, in my opinon, of a game that does humour well. For starters, it's not a totally serious game. You don't play TF2 to learn a life lesson or cry or make moral decisions, so that helps to inject the comedy. What makes it funny is the unique characters, the way they can intereact (through player actions, of course) and generally how subtle things are. For example, a domination line might be funny, and you will hear it, but it won't be this big set-up joke waiting for laughs. It will be a fluid line that is played as the player plays - and the player may not even hear it amidst the action. Valve also released the "Meet the ..." videos which further capture and enhance the in-game character personalities. Because they have a script, they are more set-up, but they are equally as subtle. In other words, because the game world of TF2 is stylised and slightly comic in nature, having character say genuinely funny things, or even things that are only funny in the context of TF2 does big things for the overall feel of the game. Grand Theft Auto is also another game that subetly injects comedy. Well, it's not always subtle, but it's fitting. GTA CAN be serious, but it's also a game where you EXPECT something funny to come from it, and the game world is set up in such a way that comedy can be injected and not be jarring.

PapaSmuffs
PapaSmuffs

The Metal Gear Solid series is FULL of humor. One of the most memorable funnies is in MGS3 when you have the Raiden mask on and Volgin grabs your crotch exclaiming "You're not Ivan!". Also weird and funny is the reoccurring theme of guys pissing their pants... I love those games!

bigd575
bigd575

One of my favorite games that made me laugh a lot was Bully one of the best imo.

TLM16
TLM16

Destroy All Humans was fantastic for comedy imo. But yeah, comedy in games is easy to get wrong.

commanderPOWER
commanderPOWER

I like that my previous comment got thumbs down. People are funny. What? Lack of related context? Not enough immature jabs? Grow a pair, get a life and get lost. :)

Transparanoia
Transparanoia

@Purplekjw And I loved how Alistair would cop jokes on the chin, and even encouraged them. It really made my game feel like sort of a buddy-cop (buddy-grey warden?) movie when he'd reply to things such as the "royal bastard" comment. :p

big-boss-91
big-boss-91

the anchorman: the game, bonus ability, The sex panther which gives you 50% more power in bed

Mr_arizona
Mr_arizona

I hope we get a Ron Burgundy video game. The furry tractor mission would be awesome.

Purplekjw
Purplekjw

I love comedy in my games, but not too much of it. The few moments that make me laugh stay with me, but if it's constantly cracking jokes then it gets tedious. I actually liked the comedy approach in Dragon Age though. Let's face it, real people can be really boring, so a character is often more amusing and interesting than a real person. The mix of realism and... unrealsticness (couldn't think of a better word) in the Dragon Age characters is what makes me love them so much. Or even the option to say something daft to someone, even if you don't actually say it. Having it there as a choice made me laugh. Example, when the dog puts an animal carcass in Morrigan's pack, and you quip about what usually goes into her unmentionables. Also, Alistair. I loved Alistair, he was hilarious.

tehepicpwnzor
tehepicpwnzor

The new face of the comedy genre: Call of Laughter. Maybe this time though, COD can be INTENTIONALLY hilariously unrealistic. *cough knifing people from 20 feet away cough*

Amz1217
Amz1217

Bad Company 2 was quite a funny game especially the random banter between Sweetwater and Haggard....the humour makes the experience feel more satisfying

OGKNav
OGKNav

In times where everyone thinks they're a comedian or a critic, there's no way to pull off a fully comedic game. Specially if the devs aren't comedians.

maitkarro
maitkarro

I like the funny moments in BioWare games were sometimes they have a funny comment about something, similar was in Prince of Persia (2009) but you had to trigger it in specific places. Specific gameplay aspects were funny in God Hand (kneeing down, putting a woman over your knee then starting to slap her ass really fast (button smash) , then in the end a super slap and she ends flying into a wall)

pete_merlin
pete_merlin

I find very few games funny tbh. Bully or GTA:SA were probably the most funny games i ever played

Gamesmasterx
Gamesmasterx

I believe it can fit in, but a game purely comedy? I can't see it working.