Written by: Bob Mandel
Published: April 17, 2002
Something has been vanishing from computer games in recent years -- intentional sidesplitting humor. As developers pride themselves on offering increasing realism, it seems they have simultaneously become way too serious. This pattern is ironic because interactive entertainment is supposed to provide relief from the stressful trials and tribulations of daily life, and laughter is presumed to be one of the greatest cures for almost any ailment.
By intentional humor I am excluding offerings which are inadvertently funny due to shoddy design, poor localization involving hysterical language mistakes or incompetent execution. The essence of comedy is ridiculous exaggeration, lighthearted reference to known cultural symbols, and surprising twists of events with no dire consequences. Given that making people smile can depend on delicate timing, delivery and setup, getting such results can pose a real challenge in computer games -- and attempts in this direction may often flop badly.
Tons of modern computer games that contain subtle in-jokes appealing to those "in the know" are available. Players may look for these inside laughs in titles they play and often squeal with glee when they find them. These jokes frequently emerge in the form of hidden Easter eggs that only some players manage to find. While this trend is admirable, many can play through an entire release of this sort and never see the funny material. For this reason, lighthearted injection does not qualify as intentional humor that can be appreciated, understood and enjoyed by everyone.
This column was stimulated by a recently opportunity to replay LucasArts' Monkey Island series. I had forgotten what truly wonderful two-way dialog these titles incorporated, with such memorable lines that I chuckle just repeating them in my mind. LucasArts released several other offerings with similar humor, most notably the great Day of the Tentacle. In a somewhat parallel vein, Sierra used to publish titles that were full of fun like the Leisure Suit Larry series. After playing some of these oldies for hours and finding myself cracking up every few minutes, I asked myself, where has all the whimsy gone?
Because the stimulant for my investigation was the adventure genre, I looked around to see whether anything recent fit the bill. The closest I came was the 2000 release Stupid Invaders, developed by France-based Xilam, published by Ubi Soft and based on the animated series "Space Goofs." The plot involves five bumbling aliens trying to escape from Earth, where their spaceship crashed, and it contains quite a lot of humor, even if most of it is in the form of bathroom jokes. Though relatively successful and a lot more recent than the earlier comedy adventure classics I mentioned, Stupid Invaders also did not stimulate any resurgence of this kind of offering.
The first-person shooter genre has gotten notably ultra-serious of late, with the clear exception being the Serious Sam series from Croteam. Just as Serious Sam is a throwback to Doom-like mindless action without any pretense of plot or sophistication, so it harkens back to the zany humor that used to be more common in interactive entertainment. But rather than humorous interactive dialog, laughter in this release derives largely from the amusing one-liners uttered by Sam himself. Again, even with two successful releases, Serious Sam has not appeared to stimulate smile-inducing copycats.
A little known example of an extremely lighthearted first-person shooter is Chex Quest, a polished title based on the Doom engine and packaged, remarkably enough, free in cereal boxes a few years ago. The story has a valiant Chex-shaped hero fighting the evil Flemoids, who look and sound like snot. The whole experience was a crackup and quite a hit with the breakfast-munching public, but publishers and developers failed to notice. Its underpublicized mass appeal is a sign of the untapped marketing potential for this kind of wacky tongue-in-cheek release.
Among third-person action releases, Shiny's original MDK stands as a beacon of how to have a title simultaneously involve you in intense action and smiles. Rather than Serious Sam's method of having the hero constantly utter funny comments, MDK makes even the pickups hysterical. I will never forget how, at the very beginning of the game, there was a power-up behind you to restore your heath. What cracked me up was when you went to pick it up, it ran away from you screaming, forcing you to chase it down. This was a tiny element, to be sure, but it convinced me from the start that I was going to love Shiny's game.
There are many ways to introduce humor in computer games. You can have witty dialog, great one-liners, or outlandish sound or visuals. Of all of these approaches, the last element seems to be the most endangered, as the acceptability of cartoon-like graphics and animation -- such as that used in Monkey Island and Stupid Invaders -- is becoming less acceptable for major retail releases. The assumption appears to be that such graphics were simply a function of prior computer hardware limitations, and now that we have speedy machines with powerful graphics cards, we can create accurate three-dimensional renderings of whatever we chose to depict on the screen. But this unfortunately leaves out the laughter-inducing injection of visual hyperbole.
Some genres seem almost completely devoid of any kind of intentional humor. Can you imagine a real-time strategy game making you chuckle throughout? How about a brain-melting puzzle title that makes you roar with laughter? Sports simulations appear by and large to be dead serious. Even arcade offerings oddly do not usually take advantages of opportunities to make you chuckle. It seems as if developers who create titles in these genres tacitly believe that inducing those who play them to crack a smile would somehow diminish either their game's quality or marketability.
There are those would argue against injecting more humor into computer games. Some would claim that zany idiocy has no appeal for mature adults, and that if you want such an experience you should turn to children's offerings, where humor is more plentiful and expected (the Zoombinis series from The Learning Company is a wonderful example). Alternatively, others assert that humor reduces the potential for games to immerse you in alternative worlds, allowing you to recognize the artificiality of what you are seeing or to detach yourself completely from the virtual setting. Still others contend their ability to use recreational offerings as a litmus test of their virility, and as a means of gaining respect and admiration from their peers, is hampered by the presence of levity.
Humor has fared much better in other entertainment media. There are plenty of lighthearted television shows, movies and books, and the popularity of releases that make us laugh is just as high as those that make us cry. As Shakespeare originally demonstrated in his prolific works, there is no inherent reason whatsoever to assume that tragedy should be more popular or satisfying than comedy. There is absolutely nothing in computer gaming that should change the universal truth of this telling insight. Think of how depressing it would be if you wanted to watch TV or read a novel, but you could not find a single recent lighthearted choice.
A lot of positive benefits would result from game developers and publishers releasing more humorous titles. Such titles tend to be accessible to everyone, so the ESRB would be less likely to rate them in such a way that makes them off-limits to a significant number of consumers. Such offerings tend to be family-oriented, so they could help knit together strained relationships among parents, children and siblings by introducing a bit of mutually enjoyable merriment. Comedic touches can help reinforce the legitimacy of gaming for those who have to beg, plead and cajole for every playing minute they can get. Because stimulating laughter usually requires an explicitly developed context, such a move could also reinforce the importance of story in games. Perhaps most importantly, such products can help to silence vocal critics who argue that interactive entertainment invariably causes people to become violent sociopaths.
In the end, I would like to call for a renaissance of humor in computer games. There is no reason that LucasArts' creative gems from the distant past should permanently tower head-and-shoulder above modern releases in this regard. To wary developers and publishers, I would say look at the pattern of sales from an earlier era to see how truly successful these releases were. Try an experiment with a non-serious title and see how many people it attracts. Consider hiring people with wit in addition to coding or artistic skills, and see what the outcome might be. Maybe game reviewers ought to comment explicitly on where each title falls on a continuum between happy and relaxed, and tense and depressed. I cannot see how the world would be any worse off than it is today if it were filled with people who spent more time looking at the lighter side of things.
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