Why videogames aren't funny | PCGamesN

Why videogames aren't funny

Funny PC games

Games, demonstrably, can be funny. Point-and-click adventure games in particular have made a tradition of it, from Maniac Mansion through to Tales from the Borderlands. But the conditions they’re made in conspire to kill comedy. As triple-A team sizes get bigger, the number of voices grows ever larger - and too often, they cancel each other out.

That’s the impression I was given by Nick Bruty - designer of MDK, Giants: Citizen Kabuto and Armed and Dangerous, all commonly cited as rare Funny Games - when I interviewed him last year.

There is occasional comedy to be found among the best indie games on PC.

“Certainly on bigger games, humour is a much harder thing to get through the process,” he says. “On any triple-A thing, you can imagine, there are a lot of people involved with that. And human beings are so subjective, it’s hard for [comedy] to survive a large group.”

Bruty describes a typical design meeting - the kind he’s sat through on many occasions since co-founding Shiny in the early ‘90s. In it, a large group of developers throw around a wild, funny idea, and the room erupts with laughter. And then nobody puts it in the game.

Giants: Citizen Kabuto

“I think what happens with a lot of games is that people just vet themselves,” he muses. “They say, ‘We can’t possibly put that in, the publisher won’t like it’. My approach is to get it in as fast as you can and see what flies.”

Perhaps this is why laughs are relatively scarce in our Steam libraries - while comedy’s more marketable cousin, zaniness, looms large in a new wave of brightly-coloured MOBA shooters.

But some games are funny, clearly. So how do exceptions like Monkey Island and MDK slip the net?

MDK was bankrolled by a toy company with no prior experience in game production, and Bruty speaks most fondly of the projects on which he enjoyed little to no publisher oversight. He has that in common with Ron Gilbert. Musing on the success of Monkey Island last September, Gilbert praised early LucasArts for knowing to “leave creative people alone”. In fact, he began work on Monkey Island 2 without company approval, before anybody knew whether the first game was going to sell.

Monkey Island

“I think that was part of my strategy,” he recalls. “Start working on it before anyone could say, ‘It’s not worth it, let’s go make Star Wars games.’”

Some of the strongest comedic teams in games have been led by these slightly bullish individuals - single-minded enough to push their jokes and leftfield ideas beyond the impasse that is difference of opinion.

A figure like that can help, too, with a second large obstruction facing comedy in games - the fact that these things take a heck of a long time to make. Before Double Fine transitioned into the business of smaller, more frequent releases, they averaged two a decade. Jokes don’t tend to benefit from repetition - and during the development of Psychonauts, the nascent studio heard the same lines blare from their speakers for five years - as if testing some elaborate Guantanamo torture.

While making Portal, Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek switched to foreign language voice acting so they wouldn’t have to hear their own jokes anymore. There’s a point, evidently, where bouncing your ideas off a sounding board starts to look like pummelling.


Having an individual able to act as both motivator and joke advocate seems especially useful when there’s only one metric worth anything comedy - the volume of laughter from your audience. In game development, writers are often years out from hearing any response to their material.

“Tim [Schafer] is really good at reminding people why these projects are cool,” Double Fine’s Anna Kipnis tells Rock, Paper, Shotgun. “Some of these projects are very long. Psychonauts, I think we were still laughing at some of the jokes…”

“I don’t remember that,” adds Wolpaw, Schafer’s co-writer. “I don’t remember much laughing.”

Even once that audience does sit down with a Funny Game, of course, they only go and ruin it. Comedy is about timing, and that’s the one thing you can’t guarantee in an interactive medium foolhardy enough to let the player wander freely. What you can guarantee is that they’ll have pressed play on a holotape seconds before walking over an invisible line to trigger the perfect quip from the protagonist; that they’ll have skipped the last line of dialogue, which happened to be the set-up for the next.

That disconnect between intent and delivery is compounded by the fact that the writer who conceived the joke is rarely in the room when it’s recorded, or sat with the animators and level designers before it’s implemented (a luxury that in-house Valve writer Wolpaw makes a point of exploiting, incidentally).

The Stanley Parable

What rare Funny Games like Portal, The Stanley Parable and Firewatch have in common is a bunch of jokes that are reactive - their timing in response to or even up to the player. In Portal, it’s GlaDOS chiding you for knocking cameras off the walls; in Stanley, it’s unplugging the ringing phone with your wife on the other end; in Firewatch it’s picking up and then dropping disposed beer cans in the Wyoming wilderness (“Fuck it, I’m not the maid”). These moments of sabotage, when a game surprises by acknowledging your actions, are well-coupled with comedy.

But perhaps more naturally still, humour can emerge from a game’s systems. In the interplay of the sound bites and situations in TF2 - or the slapstick fisticuffs of co-op Rayman - there’s no tension between the player and the laughs. Perhaps the reason so many videogames aren’t funny is because people keep trying to write them.

“At strip clubs, there’s a guy whose job is to talk between the strippers,” says Wolpaw. “He tries to do a good job and be entertaining and enthusiastic, but everybody’s just there for the nakedness. That’s a professional writer trick we call called an ‘analogy’. 

“What I really mean is that game writers are the game equivalent of the guy who talks between the nude girls at strip clubs. Nobody cares about what that guy does, and anybody who does care is probably a little maladjusted. So I’d have to say the hardest part of being a game writer is learning all the writing tricks like ‘analogy’.”

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AnAuldWolf avatar
AnAuldWolf Avatar
2 Years ago

It's all down to the writing.

In a funny game, you have someone like Tim Schafer or Ron Gilbert writing up delectable yuks. And when you've a studio of writers even serious games can have moments of humour in them better than the best written sitcoms and their efforts to evoke laughter.

New Vegas had some genuinely funny moments, despite not being necessarily a fun game. The problem is? Being funny requires a person to be clever, subversive, and relevant to a demographic. I don't find Family Guy funny (ever) because I'm definitely not their demographic. Instead, I'm left scratching my head at all the references, and feeling like a future archaeologist unearthing entertainment trinkets of years past and watching with no small amount of vexation and utter bafflement as to what purpose that show is supposed to serve.

Similarly, talking to Americans, many of them refer to Monty Python as 'stoner humour' because they can overlook the context and the nuances that make up British humour. So it just looks silly rather than being relevant. And yes, it is silly, but there's intellect behind a lot of Python, you just have to be of the right culture to get it. I could be generalising, of course. But I regularly speak to yanks (including my partner) and that's what they tell me. That Monty Python is 'stoner humour' over there.

So 'funny' is a very subjective thing. It has to be relevant, without relying on the unpredictable, thus falling into the cheap writing pit of 'lol, so random.' You want a mirthquake, not a lolcano. And no, that didn't really have anything to do with anything, I've just really wanted to insert that into something and it demonstrates 'lol, so random' perfectly. I'm not a great writer.

This is the problem with something that comes so much down to taste, subjectivity, and blargh. It's like "ARE VIDEOGAMES ART?" and how do you contextualise that? How do you even begin to quantify that? Do you invoke ideals of originality, speaking to the creative elements that bring new ideas to the table? Do you consider the passion involved? Is it more down to the technical effort involved? Is it all of these things and so much more? Or is it really just a bunch of fops having a bunch of bloody fancy words which make for a long-winded way of saying 'I like that?' It's probably the latter. In fact, I know it is, since I know a thing or two about being long-winded. I'm autistic, being succinct isn't as second nature to me as it is to neuronormatives.

And that's the thing. A B-Movie is just as valid a form of humour as any other, even if it wasn't intended to be so in the first place. I know quite a few old movie buffs who use them to cheer themselves up when they're feeling down.

So, what I will say is this. Humour, like art, is diverse. It requires a person who understands diversity, and can be clever and subversive with that without necessarily being insular and relying on cheap shots. With that, you have a chance of writing things that different audiences will find amusing, because you can talk to their lives, their times, and their troubles in a way that's relaxing to them. All the while helping them laugh it off.

Though many video game writers seem to be insular people, and as such they end up writing very po-faced, serious storylines and their humour can be insulting. David Gaider is a great example of this. He's been held up as a 'great writer' in the industry but I could never really share that fan fervour. Now, he is most certainly a decent writer, but is he great?

Well, when he's not being serious, he's making fun of trans people for his jokes. To me, that's not great humour. That's the kind of insular cheap shots that average writers rely on.

You really have to be worldly and understanding to be able to talk to people in a way that's genuinely funny and not hurtful. The Ghibli film Laputa was endearing, charming, and funny because Miyazaki had visited Wales and fell in love with the place. He wanted to tell a story about it, that conveyed his feelings.

I think you need talent, and passion, and a certain worldliness. But how many writers are working in the video games field that have that? Yes, you have notable people like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert, but they're the exception rather than the rule. I think the truth is more that it's not that video games aren't funny, but that video games regularly aren't written well, because no one wants to pay for that talent.

And this is where indie games comes up, as mentioned. An indie game has its own talent, with a person taking on a passion project that may or may not make any money. The end result of this can be Internet phenomenon like Undertale, which is almost Universally loved by all but the most insular goons, usually the hipster-wannabes who can't enjoy something if it's 'cool.'

As a small segue, if I may? I never understood that. I get that oversaturation can kill off one's enthusiasm for something, which has afflicted me more often than I'd like. I do find it weary when the same-old, same-old is being pushed all the time. I'm not a hipster when I'm bored by the thirteenth cynical instalment of a Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed game, I just don't find doing the same repetitive thing over and over appealing. And I'd have no self-respect if I were to shill myself and tell everyone that I'm into that just because they are. I can have become bored and tired of what they like and that's fine. That's not being a hipster, that's just having an appreciation for novelty and creativity.

Hating on Undertale because it's 'cool?' That's being a hipster. A game like Undertale will come along once in a decade. It's like Skies of Arcadia or other games which were so stand-out unique that you really don't see their ilk very often. It's okay for games like that to be 'cool,' because they deserve it. They took a risk, such a massive gamble, and it paid off. I wish that were more often the case.

In my experience with the industry, risks and gambles only generally don't pay off if you played it too safe and you end up not really appealing to anyone. You don't create a niche or serve a niche, because you're too typical, and you don't serve not niche taste because you're too strange.

That was Sunset Overdrive's problem.

Segue over!

The thing is is that a lot of publishers these days want to cast their net wide because they want to grab the greatest amount of people possible. So even creating a mainstream game can be a risk, but usually because they're hoping that providing more of the same will addict a large enough audience. They have to be careful not to alienate anyone, so they stick with what everyone knows, the kind of things that'll make them happy.

This defines my opinions on things like Overwatch versus Battleborn. I'm not really into Overwatch. I'm happy for those that are, but it just doesn't appeal to me. Generally, it's an incredibly safe game, with a safe setting, and safe characters. It's not at all imaginative, or evocative, or compelling. The writing is just dull. And then you have Battleborn, which is more interesting. If you have guys in a Eurogamer video complaining in whiny, hand-wringing voices about it being 'strange and weird' because it's not 'something they know,' going on about how it's 'not one thing or another' and it 'confuses them and frightens them?' You're doing something VERY, VERY right.

Oh so very right.

But that's not commonplace. Usually, a game developer will be looking at those Eurogamer guys and they'll want to make something accessible and not at all challenging, they'll want comfort food games. And this brings me back to my point. See, if you hire a team of clever writers, you'll introduce complexities, things will fly over the heads of a portion of your audience and you'll end up making people feel stupid. And they won't like that, that'll be offensive to them. I agree with what Stephen Fry has said on the topic of what's offensive, but the average person can be a little... privileged. They expect big money releases to be comfortingly stupid.

A talented writer doesn't do comfortingly stupid. That's not what they do. No, you need marketing and design engineers to very specifically fashion a stupid form of entertainment. I remember reading that someone said that that's what James Cameron and Michael Bay were in regards to films. They're not clever film makers, they're clever at making deliberately stupid films.

And many publishers are clever at making deliberately stupid games. Good writing doesn't fit into that.

You'll want cheap shots. You'll want cheap, dumb humour. You'll want it to be comfortable and familiar. Except that won't be funny to everyone. And there'll be some critics who'll just sigh over and over at the sorts of stupid 'jokes' that seem to be so commonplace in video games. Jokes which, to their merit, serve their purpose to be inviting to a massive audience of below average intelligence.

More mainstream sports tend to not have clever announcers for the same reason. You're casting the net wide. And to cast it wide you're casting it out to catch the lowest common denominator.

And I'm glad those games exist. I'm fed up of the saturation of them, but people deserve to be happy. Even people I don't like. I feel that no one deserves to suffer, and no one really deserves to be bored. I'm of the opinion that no matter what your position in life, you need your basic needs covered. We're not like the rest of the animals on this rock of ours -- we can't get by with just food, water, and playing around with the rest of our kind and/or our environment. Sometimes, I think I'd have been more fortunate if I'd been born as one of those critters in a time before humankind came along and wrecked the place. I'd be much more easily entertained. But I'm not easily entertained.

But every human deserves entertainment, they deserve intellectual stimulation, they deserve to be occupied and happy. That's my opinion. It's not a popular opinion, but it's mine. In an ideal world, everyone would be an anarchist (see: Anarchism, rather than Chaos) and we'd all be happy. But human nature isn't really designed for such equivalence. It has to be learned.

And usually the only way you learn is through prejudice and suffering. Hence the open-minded minorities versus the privileged and shitty majorities.

And this all ties back to video games. The fact is is that video games will be made for the majorities. And those majorities aren't necessarily going to be the most clever, are they? In fact, I'd say that society is becoming more and more anti-intellectual (even so far as to say it's anti-wisdom, as people hate old people more now than at any other time prior) by the year. So if you want to make a game that sells to a majority rather than a niche, you'll want to create something that's comfortably stupid.

I have made the point before that a few publishers could get away with serving underserved niches. Insomniac, up until around the '06 crash (when the 360 and PS3 came along) did just fine knocking out yearly PS2 games aimed at a niche. And now they find themselves struggling more than ever before, because the costs of game development have skyrocketed, and in order to gain profit they've had to make their games more typical. Sunset Overdrive was an effort at that. The problem is is that they're a little too clever, a little too talented, and that's why they're struggling.

However, they could just go back to what they were doing. Aim at around the size, fidelity, and ambition of a PS2 game. Then release games yearly aimed at different underserved niches. That way, every two or three years, a starved niche is going to jump on that game like a pack of... bored humans, basically. There's no metaphor that really fits, the reality of it fits best.

Then you could have talent creating passionate games. Instead of just creating one game every couple of years or so and hoping it's just comforting, stupid, and familiar enough to grab that giant market share they got last time.

I feel the games industry keeps failing at this. They try to create a giant budget game that's more creative but they fail to realise that the niche doesn't have the money to support that, so they file that as a failure, and they go back to making the same old rot. A weird analogue of this would be to look at Prince of Persia 2008. Ubisoft released it without DRM and then used its poor sales to prove to themselves that it piracy hurts them. The truth, however, was that it didn't sell well because it was neither particularly good, nor particularly mainstream.

So Activision will put High Moon Studios (???) on a Call of Duty game (?!?!) and have them make something that approaches on actually being interesting. But then when it doesn't make back the development costs with profit on top, it's a failure. Why? They went for a massive budget game aimed at a niche.

Instead, you could just do what Nintendo did with Splatoon. Keep the fidelity down, and then allow a bunch of genuinely creative people to go crazy with a new IP. You keep the costs low, you keep the potential in check, but you allow them to be as bonkers as they like. What you end up with is a very SEGA-like experimental game for a reasonable price. And then from that you can make money off of a niche demographic. That works.

As long as publishers think they have to make stupid and familiar games to cast the net wide, we're not going to see many funny games, no. It's the same reason why the Avatar and Transformers films weren't particularly funny. They were just popcorn material for an audience to turn one's brains off to and enjoy the dumb action scenes and explosions. Deliberately engineered to be stupid.

Here's a truth: Stupid isn't funny. It's never funny. It's only really funny if you've got some sort of mental illness and you get off on the schadenfreude of laughing at the misfortunes of stupidity. That's how I feel.

So games aren't funny because they're deliberately designed to be stupid. Whenever a game isn't deliberately designed to be stupid, it's funny. See: Undertale.

As long as most games are deliberately designed to be stupid, they'll be deliberately designed to be not particularly funny.

AnAuldWolf Avatar
2 Years ago

As an addendum? I find myself thinking about Xenoblade Chronicles X. (I only just got a Wii U and I'm amazed by how much it reminds me of my Dreamcast.)

That's a game that's deliberately designed to be anything but stupid. It's got wanderlust, ridiculously complicated systems, and... a girl who wants to tell me all about her fan-fictions involving giant robot fetishes. There's a certain open-mindedness and self-awareness that made it just so delightful. From L's adorable attempts at understanding the peculiarities of human language, to the undeniably bara moustachio'd-engineer-turned-faux-macho-military-man.

See, that's weird. That's really weird, and it's too uncomfortably unfamiliar for most people. Fallout 4 wouldn't even risk making the player character a synth. How could it ever have had a character that writes incredibly sexy fan-fictions about power armour? (And really, power armour is just fursuit equivalents for robofetishists. It totally is. You can't deny it. Totes is.)

And that's what I mean. When you're making something familiar, you need to also make sure that it's not going to be alienating in any way. No intelligence, nothing outside a person's sphere of knowledge, and thus nothing that could challenge them. And humour? Good humour is innately challenging by its very nature.