Where Are the Funny Video Games?
Interactive comedy is a hard thing to pull off, so we asked Alex Navarro why it doesn't work.
Video games used to make me laugh. I would cackle at the weirdo moments in old school point-and-click adventures — where I needed to combine a chicken and a gun to open a door — and then I would be delighted by unexplained gameplay elements, like when Mario touched a leaf to turn into a flying raccoon, or when Earthworm Jim launched a cow into space. Games don’t often make me laugh that way anymore, even though I’m pretty sure more outings are trying to sell themselves on a “comedic” platform.
It throws me into a weird spiral, where I worry that somehow at 31 I’m aged out of the medium’s target demographic entirely, or that perhaps I’ll have to spend all of my time playing only games my friends have made to feel like my particular itch is being scratched. Is everything either air quotes “Edgy” or Weird for Weird’s Sake? Are we all just forcing catchphrases and bro-ism on the community, or am I looking back through rose-tinted glasses not to think I was being sold a product when Earthworm Jim shouted, “Groovy!”?
To finally hash out some of this unpleasant disconnect, I cornered Giant Bomb’s Alex Navarro, a professional funny man of games, to demand answers for the crimes of gamic non-humor. Turns out we’re both stuck in some laugh-doldrums and we point to modern releases that show the greatest promise of digging us out.
Alex, what’s the funniest game you’ve ever played?
I’m a bit colored by my recent memories as a reviewer, but there’s only one title that really stands out: Jazzpunk. I knew very little about the game going in, except that people I knew and trusted kept promising that it was “insane in all the right ways.” And they were right. Very few games use environmental storytelling in a comedic way. You know how the background elements you’re used to seeing now is someone spray painting “The Government Is Bad” or “Get Out!” on a wall, in the way no one would ever do? That’s not Jazzpunk. The game requires you to poke and prod the environment, and jokes just fall out of it. Which seems so impossible. Jokes are so much about timing, and outside of, say, a cut scene, you can’t control how a player will experience a joke — it’s a masterfully crafted system whereby these gags land without forcing anyone’s hand.
There are so many ways a game can fail to be funny. The first big problem is that games are often not written by funny people. Game developers, especially when working alone, are not comedians. They just aren’t schooled in how to be funny. And sometimes writers are even just people who rose through the game production ranks — who think they’re funny — but there’s a difference between compiling a bunch of joke-like substances and turning out something genuinely affecting. It’s a hard thing to reconcile.
The funniest game series for me growing up was probably Space Quest, and Sierra was so good at controlling that side of the “funny” game industry for so long, but as a kid I didn’t understand that Roger Wilco was a joke, or even any of the references. I thought it was the biggest, weirdest science fiction universe with all these crazy elements that I found hilarious because they were creative and, dare I say, self-referential. Now I replay those games and notice how funny it is supposed to be that everything kills you. And I’m still finding references. I watched an old episode of Doctor Who from 1971 and there’s a character who the opening monster in Space Quest IV is modeled upon. At 31 I’m still shouting out “I get it now” in relation to those games. But I just grew up thinking they were brilliant adventures.
Sure, what you think is funny when you’re a kid is different. I unfortunately grew up as mostly a console kid, and there was very little humor there except for parts of Maniac Mansion and the like. ToeJam & Earl is what I think was “console funny.” One of the first PC games I ever played was Pyst, which was a Myst spoof featuring John Goodman. But I’d never played Myst, so I didn’t get many of the jokes. And, in retrospect: not a very good parody either. But, at the time, I thought it was a funny game because it kept shouting at me: “THIS IS A FUNNY GAME!”
Sierra carved out the comedy market with a lot of those Leisure Suit Larry-style point-and-click adventures that defined early “adult” humor.
Oh God. I used to have friends find copies of that on their dad’s computer in some folder labeled “Taxes” or whatever. One of the earliest games I had to review was the console reboot of that franchise LSL: Magna Cum Laude and I said, “This isn’t a great game but there are some good jokes in there.” Twenty-two-year-old me was a fucking moron. I was so starved for comedy in games I was willing to overlook so much. I gave it a vaguely positive score, which makes me think no one should be legally allowed to review anything until they turn 25. The flip side is that Psychonauts came later and that holds up over time. That game illustrates how comedy in games can be done well.
And that’s a platformer, not a point-and-click adventure game. Platformers aren’t known for their humor. But, platformers do age pretty well.
They age better, but still I will never play that Meat Circus level again. Psychonauts was never a huge seller though, so when they announced the sequel I really wanted to know what the level of nostalgia level is or if we’re remembering it accurately. I’ve never thought of Double Fine games as wild successes. A lot of what they do is humorous and quirky but that comedy is in the forefront instead of off to the side. When I played the second Costume Quest game I was pretty bored because I’d already done an entire game of this kind of quirk and humor, and there wasn’t anything new in the gameplay to make it different enough to make it worth my time.
I’m finding that the most memorable comedy moments for me are now coming in unexpected packages. Witcher games and the Mass Effect series will have long stretches of total seriousness and then you’ll meet a character or be given a mission that just cracks me up. I’m not sure if it’s the dynamics or the expectations.
Witcher can be very funny in a dry way and suddenly grizzled-ass Geralt is chasing a sheep around and it’s great because it’s tonally different. I appreciate writers who are able to interject that. Nathan Drake is another character who always pulls that off.
Is there any part of reviewing that takes the joy out of doing a comedy game? I know what it’s like to be on deadline and that poisons you against a wall of jokes.
No. Genuine humor in-game is always a breath of fresh air even if I’m tired of the game. Comedy is rarely a grind. I used to play and write about a lot of bargain PC games; puerile trash like Panty Raider: From Here to Eternity and that sours you on comedy for a bit. We’ve been playing Toonstruck and Phantasmagoria 2 — these FMV games where it feels like the writers are literally calling out for help. They aren’t necessarily funny games, but you can see lots of people reaching for humor in FMV. I don’t know how any player could have ever found this funny.
Repeating character dialogue lines has really become the nadir of game comedy. Spider-Man titles often have this problem, the Deadpool game has this problem, and Mad Max was plagued by it.
The Mad Max game was the most joyless experience of the year. Deadpool meant incredibly well, but they were going for the most addled, over-the-top version of the character. I understand why they went that route, but Nolan North screaming “Chimichanga!” and “Fuck!” a lot doesn’t do it for me. But maybe back at 22 years old it would have?
What’s the last game where the mechanics tickled your fancy? The only thing I can think of in the last few years that I’ve played — outside of a Portal title — was Octodad 2. Part of that stems from the ability to stick a controller in anyone’s hand and watch them lose their mind.
Oh, I loved Octodad’s use of this. Physical humor becoming a part of gameplay can be great. A lot of people loved Goat Simulator but that wasn’t for me. I’m not talking shit, but the bit was done for me after 15 minutes. Shower With Your Dad Simulator has resonated with people I trust. It’s hard because anyone who carves out an interesting idea in that space will be flooded with copycat games pretty quickly.
It might just be because I’m watching more Jim Sterling these days, but I feel like a huge percentage of my video game comedy needs are being met by watching garbage get released on Steam Greenlight.
Before viral videos were a thing, my career got started with this review of Big Rigs, which was such a bad game I had to lie down in the street. Doing that with publisher-backed games is hard enough. For my mental health I can’t go back in there. That can’t be the basis of my career. You know, with these reaction videos, personalities on YouTube can get something up quickly. For my Big Rigs review, it had to be copyedited and multiple people had to read and approve it. We peer-edited everything so that made it extra sad.
I cannot even remember the name of the big game from last year that pegged itself on gamer humor so hard, and then died on that hill … Sunset Overdrive?
It was a particularly depressing outing. I like it OK as a game, but the attitude was so … Warped Tour? It felt like a throwback to old school “Video Game Edgy” with its sassy protagonist and a rogue gallery of wacky characters. It didn’t register. I like that it was colorful, but it was entirely forgotten about the moment I stopped playing.
A lot of games are forgettable. You remember puzzles or story moments or lines of dialogue, but not so much the story. And when you do, it’s a very rare thing. I love the Uncharted series, but quiz me on the plot of the games or individual moments within them. I’d get maybe 50 percent of it right. Jazzpunk resonated with me in all the ways I want a game to resonate. It’s hard to find those kinds of gems in a marketplace where everything is focus-tested to death instead of letting people do their own thing.