The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is really adorable. It’s also very funny. It didn’t have me guffawing at gags or snorting at snarky remarks, no, it employs a sweeter kind of humor than you typically find in games, depending more on an appreciation of the absurd and perfect comic timing.
Created by Grace Bruxner (an indie developer best known for smaller games) and a tiny team of contributors, the adventure begins with our Frog Detective getting a call from their boss, presented in a stylized shot-reverse-shot style reminiscent of screwball comedies. The boss introduces a job investigating a haunting (there are spooky sounds!) on a nearby island. Then, you’re whisked off to an island of anthropomorphic animals (mainly “ghost scientists” and a few residents). You talk with all of the denizens of the island, including a wannabe secret agent koala and a dance-loving monkey, trading key items through conversation and piecing together an inventory that’ll finally allow you to progress the story.
It’s certainly not hard to puzzle through, but that’s exactly the point—everything about The Haunted Island is about enjoying the journey.
As Waypoint columnist Cameron Kunzelman noted in his own piece about the game over at Kotaku, most games that try to be funny are painfully bad at it.
“I mostly find comedy in games to be unbearable. From memeified Borderlands quips to warmed-over 90s jokes in the South Park games to ragdoll-physics-as-humor, the kinds of comedy that video games go for don’t often do much for me. That isn’t to say that those jokes don’t work or that those games don’t provide joy for other people. It’s just not what I am into.”
There have always been games that bucked the try-hard trend, many with at least one foot in the adventure genre—games like Full Throttle and Psychonauts, or the more recent Thimbleweed Park, all play heavily on absurd situations and characters. Brianna Lee’s Butterfly Soup is another good recent call, and that made me actually crack up at multiple points in the story. Navigating goofy scenarios is the name of the game.
The Haunted Island continues this lineage, but with the low-poly characters and color palette of something a bit more like Donut County, another game that is really funny without trying too hard. In both of these, what you’re doing is inherently absurd: whether manipulating a giant hole in Donut County, or here trading wacky items to make all of your new friends happy and suit their individual needs.
For instance, at one point you encounter a fearful koala who refuses to get out of the water, they want a magnet (so they can attach themself to a boat), and offer you a giant shell in return. You need to give that to another character who is just sick of having such tiny shells they need a magnifying glass to see them. And you need that mondo magnifying glass because there certainly is a tiny bear who things moonlighting as a ghost scientist is just training for the secret agent job they really want.
It’s a vastly simplified version of the usual inventory-wrangling in classic adventure games, because every object is telegraphed clearly and you’re only ever exchanging an item for another, not a seemingly-endless sequence of doodads that wink and nod at their own cleverness. The puzzles serve the story, not the other way around. All of them are wrapped in each character’s adorable neuroses, needs, or desires, and darn it, you’re such a nice frog that you’re going to go ahead and help everyone, all while solving the mystery.
This is the sort of cute, sweet humor you’ll see in a Muppet movie. Well, a Muppet production before the likes of The Happytime Murders, but that’s for another day.
The dialog itself and corresponding animations really sell it. Lead developer Grace Bruxner has done an astounding amount of work bringing this island to life with simple but really well-done animations for each animal. Big, cartoonish movements that are smooth and perfectly timed to our respective characters’ emotional states. Elation at having found the perfect item. Defensive posturing at a potential threat. Even dancing! There are a lot of unique dance animations in this game (and I mean a lot for a 45-ish minute project) that goes to show how much time and effort was poured into making this something both sweet and special.
It’s also warm and inviting in ways that well-made, personal games often are. The credits mainly list three developers, Bruxner, with code by Thomas Bowker and music by Dan Golding. Bruxner is known for this kind of work: silly, sweet, small games that evoke strange places and plenty of gentle laughter, like Alien Caseno.
In a keynote at Play By Play, Bruxner talks a great deal about making games for herself: using mechanics and gameplay styles that appeal to her own sensibilities. “I just want to make games for myself. For the longest time, I couldn’t find games that really appealed to me. I grew up watching people play games, so I didn’t have that sort of ingrained mechanics knowledge or experience…” but she noted enjoying watching other people play. “I felt like I had such specific tastes, but no one was making games to target me… and in what I found in making my own games was [that] other people like these games too!”
There’s something quietly important about this idea, of making games for yourself and your own tastes. The Haunted Island is successful because it does so much with those sensibilities: dry, funny lines, exaggerated animation, a premise right out of the LucasArts adventure playbook. It’s silly, but with a purpose. Funny and sweet because it takes all of its little characters’ concerns so seriously.