Why are there so few funny games? Recently we’ve had Portal 2, possibly the biggest release to have comedy as such a central intention. Aside from that however, we get some one-liners and a couple of comic relief characters. Why such a lack of games that make you laugh? In what is fundamentally a playful medium, we seem so desperate to make “serious” games.

Is it simply the difficulty of making a game funny? There are two ways  of games where comedy works. The most obvious is simply funny writing. This is where we can steal the most from passive media, although interactivity throws a spanner into the works. Timing can’t be predicted so easily, nor can the player’s position or what they’re looking at. Still, geniuses like Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek and Tim Schafer manage to get it very right. Sticking to sight gags, one liners and other shorter form ‘jokes’ seems to work. I can’t see conversations or monologues managing to hold player interest long enough to build up to a punchline, unless the player is forced to watch them via cutscenes.

What games can claim for themselves is ‘emergent comedy’ That which the player makes themselves out of their actions. This could be onscreen through character actions, player mistakes or even bugs (ever laughed at a physics bug? It counts) Or it could be from players’ actions in the real world: motion  or other “novel”  controls, social interactions. This “meta” (blurgh) comedy has a strong connection to the player. When telling someone about a funny game experience, how often is it pre-written dialogue? Instead, we usually relate actions we feel as our own. Hmmm, sounding familiar yet?  Oh wait, it’s just the game narrative discussion in another form.

So you don’t want to make a comedy game. Fine! But adding humour to the usually po-faced AAA releases is refreshing. Uncharted (especially the sequel 2) does this very well. By emulating the banter between characters in pretty much any buddy/cop/adventure film, they’ve not only kept the mood lighthearted, but fleshed out the characters far more than could be done purely by cutscenes. Half Life 1 knew it was a pulp sci-fi game (see Nihilanth) and has several gags and references that rely on that self awareness. Although they pulled off the change in tone in Half-Life 2, it still has a couple of comedic moments. Learn from them! Take note of the funny game related stories you hear/share, how did the game itself help create that experience?

Perhaps it’s ironic to write about games taking themselves seriously in what has turned out to be one of my drier posts. So here’s a joke to balance it out (thanks to almost every Christmas cracker I’ve ever seen)

What’s the difference between a train and a tree?

One sheds its leaves, the other leaves its shed.

Ha. I’ll be here all week.

Oh, and here’s the beginning of a movie (Funny Games) that may be dark and seriously disturbing, but is still pretty damn funny at times (example below). Also the title fits.