The Bad Jokes Games Rely on Are Worse Than No Humor at All

An out-of-place throwaway gag might break the mood, but if a laugh isn't earned, is it any good?

by Rob Zacny
Jun 22 2018, 3:44pm

I always knew a tabletop RPG session was heading off the rails when people started doing gags and bits within it. Especially if that person was me. The same dynamic seemed to hold true for other game masters: The minute something unjustifiably silly happened, the minute people started acting absurdly for absurdity’s sake, you just knew the session was headed for an iceberg. The fun might last a while longer, but eventually the gags would burn themselves out, and then we’d realize that we’d lost the plot and it was time to call it a night. Or a campaign.

Video games are jam-packed with examples of this, to the point where I’m almost desensitized to how bad and jarring such asides can be. But lately I’ve found myself less patient with it, more attuned the discordant notes of weak humor being wedged into a setting that’s left no space for it.

Last weekend I started playing The Division again in a frantic attempt to finish the game before the sequel comes out, and I realized that in every single neighborhood, the local quest-giver has some overdone shtick. So as you’re listening to desperate last phone calls between people watching the world go to hell, or studying tableaus of mass-murder, you’ve also got a an “aspiring actor” in your ear whose bit is that he treats you like an agent or a producer. He’ll say stuff like, “Great job defending those supply caches, love your approach to the craft. Let’s do lunch!”

Because your character never answers, nobody ever engages with the weirdness of this character. Has he completely fallen apart during this crisis and is returning to what’s familiar? Is he really just so self-absorbed that he can’t actually interact with the beyond his experiences? Does he just have a life philosophy of always hustling, always networking, context be damned? None of these options precludes the character being the butt of a joke, but what exactly is the joke here? How does this character inhabit the same world as taciturn agent Faye Lau or the viciously aggrieved Joe Ferro?

I blame Rockstar for a lot of this. Their broad satires have always tried to balance prestige drama ambitions with the juvenile fancies of teenagers. Red Dead Redemption might feature a criminal with a dark past being pulled back into a life of murder and corruption against his will… but it also features a drunken stereotype of an Irish character (literally named “Irish”) that you have to help through an interminable series of comic misadventures and capers. As much as Rockstar likes to make games about the weight of the past, and the sins characters carry from it, their games are equally populated by characters who wouldn’t be out of place in an amateur improv skit. “Hey guys, it’s The Godfather but Clemenza can’t stop farting and the horse’s head can talk!”

Games have always had random goofy shit tossed into the mix. A lot of great adventures games will give you emotional whiplash as they veered between slapstick and suspense. But as games have grown more realistic, as their ambitions have encompassed wanting players to invest and believe in their worlds, the spitballing humor they employ has grown clumsier.

One reason this stuff always tends to fall so flat, or at least breaks my sincere engagement with a world or story, is that it’s generally tossed into a sequence at random, without any connection to the stuff that pre- or proceeds it. The humor has no organic connection with the setting or the characters, it’s just a desperate wink at the fourth wall in the hopes of drawing a laugh. The trouble is, comedy at its best requires an established premise and characters. Too often in games the premise is “it’s a video game” and the characters are “some quirky goofballs.”

Here’s a counter-example (there are a lot to draw from, but this is one I think about a lot). It’s the drinking sequence in The Witcher 2, where Geralt can throw down with the Blue Stripes commandos and try to be “one of the gang” for a night.

It’s a comedic interlude in a pretty grim game (even by the standards of the Witcher universe). And if you know where that story ends, the night becomes deeply bittersweet. But all that’s in the future: For about ten minutes or so, you get to see the withdrawn, prickly Geralt letting his guard down and winning over an equally closed-off, tight-knit group of medieval special forces soldiers. And as the night turns to ever more over-the-top contests and bonding rituals, someone eventually has the idea of getting Geralt a tattoo like all the commandos have. He wakes up the next morning with the most ghastly, trashy neck tattoo you could get in the five minutes between deciding to get a tattoo and blacking out… and for the rest of the game (or even series) you get to watch characters react to the tattoo and Geralt attempt to downplay it. It’s a great running gag, but it’s one that pays off as it reverberates through his different relationships.

And maybe that’s the problem with a lot of the way humor is deployed in modern games: It’s almost always devoid of relationship. Most open world games are oddly solipsistic affairs: Your character journeys through a world of strangers who appear briefly and then vanish, often within the space of minutes if not hours. Your character is frequently a cypher, silent or so non-committal that they may as well be. And so we are left with a brand of humor that is of necessity divorced from time, place, people, and consequence.

I don’t mind levity, but I always find something deeply sad about this kind of gag in a video game. Hours of evocative landscapes, interesting questlines, and environmental storytelling are routinely interrupted with a “wakka wakka wakka!” and expectant look at the camera. Because each time that kind of joke is deployed, it says to the players, “This doesn’t really mean anything. Pay no attention to what’s said. We’re just here to have fun.”

Am I alone on this one? What kind of humor in video games tends to land for you? What are some of your favorite comedic bits in games, and (on the other hand) what are some that have completely taken you out of a setting?

Let me know in today’s open thread!