When I heard that Telltale Games had released a downloadable poker game featuring Max from Sam & Max, the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, Strong Bad from Homestar Runner, and Tycho from Penny Arcade…well, you might say I went all-in.
Fortunately, the jokes in Poker Night at the Inventory are much better than what I just delivered. (Not that that's saying much but trust me.) Bitmob community writer Alex Martin has a great write-up on the game and why it succeeds where other card-style games have failed — specifically, because the players banter with each other in hilarious ways.
Unfortunately, Poker Night is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to humor in games. Outside of Telltale's adventure games, Portal, and anything by Tim Schafer (who we had on our Mobcast a few weeks ago discussing the topic), the pickings are pretty slim.
So why is it so hard to make a genuinely funny video game? Here are a few reasons, along with some ideas for improvement.
It's all in the delivery
It's not enough just to have well-written dialogue or jokes. These days, you need voice talent that can make them sound funny. And even if your actors are solid, you need the right rhythm, cadence, and inflection — a hard thing to pull off when many games still have tiny pauses between each character's lines. It's especially difficult in role-playing games, where you wait as you choose a line of dialogue from a conversation tree. It breaks the timing of the joke. And as any comedian will tell you, timing is everything.
So is this just a fundamental flaw in video games? Not necessarily. Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins manages to overcome these obstacles; his sarcastic delivery is both believable and funny because the character, script, and voice acting all work together. On the other hand, Portal sets GlaDOS' robotic tone against her overflowing contempt and wit. The juxtaposition, more than the actual joke, emphasizes the humor.
Another key element of humor is the subversion of expectation — in other words, surprising people with a situation or outcome they didn't anticipate. This is especially common in sitcoms and stand-up routines. But those are mediums where the audience is a passive observer. Allowing players to control what they see and hear, and in what order, ruins the possibility for setting up a joke.
The funniest games use this to their advantage. Classic point-and-click adventures like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island frequently use surprise and unintended consequences as jokes. You might think you know what that item is supposed to do…but when you actually do it, something completely bizarre happens to make it all the funnier. (I mean, using an exploding cigar to remove George Washington's false teeth? I never could've seen that coming.)
Also consider Katamari Damacy, where the strangest objects (the kinds of things you normally can't interact with in a game) become part of your rolling ball. I always crow with laughter when I pick up a few skyscrapers or even clouds. That feeling is an integral part of the gameplay.
Hell is repetition
Sitcom writers know they have to write 22 minutes' worth of script. A stand-up comedian might plan for half an hour or so of stage time. But games simply can't cover the full period of time that someone might play, especially when you have to repeat some actions. Consequently, you're going to hear some dialogue more than once. And no joke is as funny the second time.
The way around, as with surprise, is to subvert expectations. Of necessity, gamers are quick to learn the internal logic of a world — do X, and Y will always follow. When a game yanks that foundation out from under you? That's funny.
I found a perfect example of this in Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, when playing as a Malkavian. As in many games, you can turn on the various TV sets and radios you find and hear news reports about the plot. But one time I turned on a TV to suddenly find the news anchor speaking directly to my character, accusing me of a murder that had just happened. I'm still not even sure what set of parameters provoked it, but it made me roar with laughter.
It's hard to be truly funny in a game, but it is possible. Downloadable offerings like Poker Night prove that humor can be the main selling point of a successful title. Maybe more developers should stop treating it as an afterthought and go all-in, too.