Games with funny elements have always existed, but at what point does an interactive experience become a comedy game?
There are games that are obviously flat-out comedies, like the Borderlands series. Other titles, like Left 4 Dead, feature constant quipping by characters, and by movie standards could easily be described as comedic.
But looking at games you'll notice that, by their very nature, they are comedic. Even ultra-serious dramas can become comedic by virtue of allowing you, the player, to do things that go against their style...
Finding Humor Where the Developers Didn't Intend It
Any effect the player can have on the world can let them do or create something humorous. In Half-Life, shooting a wall leaves a bullet hole—suddenly, all kinds of options for shenanigans open up.
Long before the release, when this feature was first implemented in empty test rooms, developers were surprised by how testers started "writing" words on the wall. (Half-Life 2: Raising The Bar)
I find this telling: Given an empty room and only a single (inherently violent) ability to affect the world, people chose to do something that made them laugh.
This becomes more pronounced the more serious the setting is. Deus Ex, for example, is set in a dark and serious world ravaged by a plague. Yet any conversation is instantly seen in another light when you've first spent ten minutes collecting random detritus and piling it onto your boss's desk.
Want a more modern example? The recent Metal Gear Solid 5 styles itself as an ultra-serious espionage thriller, yet at the same time allows you to drop crates of equipment on unsuspecting people, hoist animals into the sky, and jump from a pink helicopter as Billy Idol's Rebel Yell plays over its loudspeakers.
- Old Man Murray's Deus Ex Walkthrough, in which you are advised to carry a flag to every conversation and decorate your office.
Besides this unintentional, inherent comedy, there are a few ways to intentionally create comedy and humour in games, which boil down to story, chaos and gameplay. They are not mutually exclusive, and often actually complement each other well. Let's take a look at them...
Humor Through Story and Narrative
One way to include humor is via the story. This essentially boils down to "a character says something funny", but is a bit more complicated than that to get right.
One of the best examples of this can be found in Portal, where throughout the entire game you hear the narration of GLaDOS, the AI.
It starts out simple, but gets progressively more outrageous and ludicrous throughout the game. Portal 2 repeats this with its multiple narrator characters.
The Monkey Island series (and the majority of point-and-click adventure games) also do this nicely. Their worlds are filled with characters that offer funny dialogue, and players are encouraged to look for all funny and interesting responses.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 falls into this camp, too. The gameplay is identical to other Battlefield titles, but it features most characters spouting funny and witty dialogue.
A straightforward way to implement these elements are simple statements or quips, triggered on certain conditions: "If situation X occurs, character Y says Z." "When you walk into the room, the bartender greets you with one of three humorous statements." "When you begin the new test chamber, GLaDOS gets a few lines explaining the setup." "Every once in a while, Francis laments that he doesn't really like bridges, especially with zombies on them." "After you have clicked a unit in Starcraft 2 15 times, their regular barks turn into comedic, fourth-wall-breaking-lines."
But make sure to not overdo it. Because no matter how brilliant a line or gag is, people will grow to hate it if they're continually bombarded with it.
Another important element of this is to not make everything into a joke. Comedy is based on contrast, and when everything is zany, nothing stands out. Borderlands 2 does this nicely by having its main story and a lot of other elements remain relatively serious; against this backdrop, unique and fun elements tend to stick out better. Even in Portal, the light-hearted narration only occurs when entering a new test chamber, with the rest of the game offering serious and not-particularly-funny surroundings.
Referencing pop-culture or other jokes also needs to be approached carefully. A simple reference á la "here is the same Monty Python gag that has been repeated for decades" will only point out how lazy you are with this. If you need to make a reference-based joke, always use it as a springboard to start your own idea. In the process, it might even surpass your initial idea.
- Dying is Funny, Comedy is Easy by Anthony Burch of Borderlands 2
- Eric Wolpaw's 80 minute NYU lecture, in which he discusses Portal 2
Chaos and Mayhem Are Often Hilarious
Comedy from chaos is about the unforeseen. It can appear unplanned, when you careen off the track in Trackmania before doing some amazing stunts (yet still failing), or somehow so gravely miscalcutating a manoeuvre in any action game that you fail abruptly within the first few seconds.
One game actually engineered around this is Magicka. In it, you can combine elements to create spells, of which there are thousands of combinations. These tend to go wrong an alarmingly high proportion of times, which creates a lot of unforeseen comedy.
On your team's first attempt, you might say "I wonder what this does..." before setting everybody on fire.
The next attempt, everybody vows to do better. And then, oops, your healing spell targets an enemy, restoring them to maximum health, the ice mines laid by your buddy go off on your own team, and the energy blast cast by one of your comrades blows up in their face to catapult you all into a lava pit.
And then you all hit "Again!", because it was just too much fun.
Engineering these moments can be tricky, as they walk the line between frustration and fun. When looking at games that center around this (Magicka, Goat Simulator, Surgeon Simulator, I am Bread, QWOP) you'll notice that the entire experience is often centered around the conceit of chaos.
They all also offer the ever-present possibility of abrupt explosive failure. When you fail in Magicka, you mostly fail in a spectacular manner. When you fail in Trackmania, you do so by driving off the road at mach speed before doing something ludicrous. When you fail in Kerbal Space Program, you do it often by realizing that your massive three-stage-rocket might have some rather profound design flaws, as you watch it tip over on the launchpad and explode on the spot.
An important thing to note is that the failure must be fair—all elements must be known to the player. A sudden, un-telegraphed death out of nowhere is just frustrating and no fun.
Humor Through Gameplay
Gameplay is a bit more tricky to pin down. It relies on unexpected and unique interactive gameplay elements that serve to illustrate the joke (compared to spoken lines, which are non-interactive). A vital point is that you have to actively perform something and get a reaction.
Borderlands 2 does this nicely. A typical quest in Borderlands consists of getting it, going to a place, having to shoot a bunch of enemies, and then possibly finding one or several macguffins, before returning to get your reward.
This "scheme" of gameplay has been established all throughout the first Borderlands and the early parts of Borderlands 2. At that point these quests are what players expect—so it is a perfect time to subvert their expectations.
Now, creating a quest that's completely different can be humorous just through the sudden and complete disregard of this established formula. For example, the "Shoot me in the face" quest wants you to shoot a character in the face. Additional objectives consist of not shooting them in other body-parts, which are already "checked off", but can be unchecked by shooting the respective parts. And just as soon as it's started, the entire thing is over.
And there are more! One quest can be completed by jumping off a cliff and killing yourself in a certain spot. Another has you listen to Grandma Torgue talk droningly for 15 minutes. You don't fight anything, you just listen. You can't even leave (which you aren't told), because she realizes and bursts out in tears. Then, when you've stopped listening and resigned yourself to waiting it out, she asks a question about the myriad of random details she mentioned. Fail, and the entire thing starts over. All the while I was laughing, admiring the developers for putting this in, and describing it as the hardest boss fight in the game.
Use this by noticing the system that the game employs, that the player expects, and then subverting it. A mission that is comprised of nothing but listening is by its nature funnier when every other mission is about shooting things.
Also, re-purpose regular game actions for other actions. In Portal 2, Wheatley asks you to talk by pressing Space. You can't actually talk, and pressing the key makes you jump, which he remarks upon as the wrong action. At multiple points in Borderlands you can high-five characters, which you do by performing a melee-attack on them. The same system is used for slapping another character. At one point you have to "teabag" the corpse of an enemy, which you have to perform by repeatedly ducking over them.
- Hideo Kojima - Tactical Action Comedy
- How to Make Your Game Just Completely Hilarious by William Pugh of The Stanley Parable
There are a lot of straightforward ways to make a game more comedic. Use these to engage the player with comedic elements, instead of just having funny things appear.
And remember, even when you try to avoid this, your players will probably find a way to subvert a serious game, so accepting this and going with it might be more efficient.