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Why Is It So Hard to Make a Funny Video Game?

Last year saw a ton of hilarious games, but humor is often a barrier developers can't seem to clear.

'Shovel Knight'

Last year wasn't exactly a banner one for video games. Big developer layoffs, death threats, and games launching completely broken to name but a few. However, amid all the gloom, there were several shining beacons of hope. Games like Jazzpunk, South Park: The Stick of Truth, and Shovel Knight brought a little joy to our hearts. So let's take some time to celebrate the comedy.

In a pretty dark year, it was a surprise to see some of the most rib-tickling games ever released. Developers have been trying to create funny games for decades, but very few ever actually get it right. But why's it so hard? There are plenty of funny television shows and films—why not games? A good place to start is at what everyone knows is at the root of comedy, and that is.

Timing. This is what actors on screen and stage rely on to get laughs. The writing could be hilarious, but if it's not delivered properly then part of the magic is lost. Introduce a little audience participation—like that found in, say, a video game—and it becomes hard to get the timing down. If the player is looking somewhere else while the joke happens, there's not really any point in having the joke.

So if the main purpose of your game is to be funny, you have to either write your jokes and put them in a cutscene, or you let the player discover them themselves, which runs the risk of them not seeing them at all. The cutscene is the obvious choice, of course, but at that point your audience might as well be watching a movie. Alternatively, you could try and be clever about it by having subtle jokes written here and there, or simply a funny concept.

The launch trailer for 'Shovel Knight'

Take Shovel Knight, for example. Sure, it's one of the best games of last year, but it's also surprisingly funny. First of all, you play as a knight who uses a shovel for a weapon—pretty funny, right? Then you've got the goofy village area where it seems like everyone you speak to has a little quip. I spoke to David D'Angelo, one of the developers at Yacht Club Games, who worked on Shovel Knight.

"We were always interested in setting a goofy tone with sombre overtones—obviously the idea of a knight wielding a shovel is a little silly," he told me. "I can't speak for other developers, but I think funny games come most naturally to us. If we can make each other laugh, then we think it'll work for players."

It's not enough for your game just to be funny, of course, as it needs the substance and gameplay to back it up. "We've learned from games like Mother 3 that a game becomes much stronger when graphics, story and tone work together to unify the gameplay experience. Beyond Mother 3, our inspirations are vast. From Miyazaki films to Disney to every NES game you can name. Finding a character that felt unique and interesting in our game was the most important aspect."

'South Park: The Stick of Truth' launch trailer

A game like South Park: The Stick of Truth was always only going to survive based on how funny it was. The actual gameplay was slightly nuanced, if a little basic, but thankfully the writing was excellent (if South Park is your thing, of course). The cutscenes and item descriptions were funny, but the visual humor while you played was probably where the game shone the most. For as vulgar as it is, being shrunk down and fighting gnomes while you try to avoid your dad's swinging ballsack has a certain amount of humor to it, right?

Then you have Jazzpunk, which just happens to be my favorite game from 2014. The developers, Toronto's Necrophone Games, avoided the aforementioned risk of letting the player discover the jokes for themselves by making literally everything in the game a joke. I've played it through twice and watched two friends finish it, and I still find extra little gags from time to time.

I mean, a game where one minute you're playing a fake version of Street Fighter where you're beating up a Honda car (get it?), and the next you're using a fly swatter to knock over undercover agents while they make bowling pin sounds, is probably worth game of the year in my book.

With hundreds of jokes in the game, the list of influences for Jazzpunk is probably endless, but Luis Hernandez—one half of the game's two-person development team—gave me a short list.

" Blade Runner, The Difference Engine, Neuromancer, Raymond Scott, Josef Albers, Gerd Arntz, Tito Puente, Antonio Prohías. I grew up on a steady diet of Mad Magazine, Monty Python, Alexei Sayle, Weird Al, ZAZ comedies like The Naked Gun, Hot Shots, etc. The 80s and 90s were a special time for spoof comedy, I guess—I see less of it nowadays."

As for games? "The first Portal, there's some dry GLaDOS stuff that was pretty good. There's some really awkward, surreal, hilarious moments in Deadly Premonition that made me laugh, but it's always hard to know what's intentional, and what's perhaps translation error. I feel like a lot of good video game humor is like that; it's often the unintentional things—the glitches, bad dialogue or multiplayer or physics chaos—that gets me to laugh."

The trailer for 'Jazzpunk'

I ask him why he thinks writing good comedy games is so difficult, and why so few games pull it off well. "I have a few theories about this," he said. "A lot of game developers have been taught to think about design in a very economic way, so that most games revolve around one or two 'core mechanics' for the duration of the entire game, with a difficulty ramp. I don't think this approach is conducive to comedy. It's akin to a comedian going on stage and only telling knock-knock jokes: You will never get surprised by a punchline this way."

That's because "comedy requires an element of the unknown, not knowing what's coming or how things will play out exactly—it relies on that neural tension. Most core mechanics are centered around giving the player predictable, desired results, as they master a mechanic throughout the game. Also, if the player only has one form of interaction in the world—i.e. shoot stuff—it's hard to get more than a few jokes around that mechanic before you're just reusing them."

Another issue could be the size of game studios these days: a case of too many cooks spoiling the comedy broth, perhaps? "The teams are often just too large to allow for gags to make it in without being picked apart, or getting designed by consensus," Hernandez agreed. "The more hands a joke has to go through, the more diluted it's going to end up. Contrary to popular belief, Jazzpunk was made by just two people: Jess [Brouse] and myself. There are plenty of jokes in the game that were implemented directly by me or Jess, and weren't filtered through anyone else. This allows them to remain pure, and a product of a sudden whim, inspiration or serendipity. I feel that's how comedy thrives.

"If you're talking about an AAA company structure, I'd have to send schematics or a design document of my banana peel joke to a level designer on a different floor of my office building, and then they'd have to requisition some piece of code from a programmer on another floor to implement a physics interaction so that the banana will function in-game. Ad nauseam. If it takes three months to get a banana in the game, it's not going to be funny at the end of the line. Jess and I can throw that stuff in—in hours, not weeks. And we also have the luxury of pulling something out again if it ends up not being funny. The amount of cutting room floor we ripped out of Jazzpunk is absurd."

There must always be a worry that what you're creating simply isn't funny, a problem that stretches beyond game development into all forms of comedy writing. "Absolutely, it's impossible to know if a joke is going to land with an audience," says David, "besides having a lot of practice making other games, and seeing what works and what doesn't." I asked whether it was a case of testing jokes before putting them into the game. "Yes, we sent the game to our friends and family, and tested lines on anyone and everyone we could find."

However, Luis and Jess took a different approach with Jazzpunk. "People—and their senses of humor, especially—are just far too varied and subjective. We tried our best not to think about some gray-mass aggregate audience when we were designing stuff. We're our toughest critics: If a joke wasn't making us laugh, or didn't cause us to laugh upon initial conception, we'd scrap it, or try and retool it if it seemed worth salvaging."

Complete and utter nonsense was actually a theme of 2014 (both in terms of events and the comedy found in games). Recently, we've witnessed the rise of wacky "simulator" games, with Goat Simulator leading the way last year. As you might expect, you play as a goat. But that's pretty much where the simulation aspect ends. The game involves you doing as much dumb shit as possible, whether that be attaching yourself to a moving car using your tongue, or doing flips off a trampoline and blowing up a petrol station.

That wasn't even the stupidest game of 2014. On a scale of one to total ridiculousness, I Am Bread is pretty high up there. It's not some clever name with a double meaning—you're literally a slice of bread. And you have to become toast. While making sure your "edibility" meter doesn't go down. You also get points for "deliciousness."

The trailer for 'The Jackbox Party Pack'

Another trend has been the rise of the local multiplayer game. Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg, TowerFall, Sportsfriends, the list goes on. Of course, these are designed to be fun rather than funny, but get a group of friends together and play silly competitive games against each other and see if you don't start rolling around with laughter. Or throwing controllers at each other, depending on what kind of friends you have.

As an extension of this, 2014 saw the release of The Jackbox Party Pack containing You Don't Know Jack, Drawful, Fibbage, Lie Swatter, and Word Spud. Not only do you get five games for a very reasonable price, and not only does it have an excellent control system (you don't need a bunch of controllers, players can use their phones), it's funny! The writing in the You Don't Know Jack trivia game has always been... decent, and host Cookie Masterson's delivery has been unwaveringly stalwart for some time now, but you'll probably get a laugh or two out of it.

As for the other games in the pack, you'll be making your own humor, just like with the local competitive games I mentioned earlier. Fibbage gives you a sentence with a word or phrase missing, and it's up to the players to fill it in with a lie that they hope will fool the other players into thinking it's the truth. Now, you can try and win, or you can take the same route as I do and simply try to make your friends laugh when the choices come up.

Oh, and there were those horrifying, yet hilarious, facial bugs in Assassin's Creed Unity. It was an odd year, but there were certainly some thigh-slapping moments. As David says to me: "Games, in general, are too serious."

Very true. Let's hope for lighter hearts in 2015.

Follow Matt Porter on Twitter.