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Good humor, as most of us have come to realize, is a rare commodity in games, and with good reason. It’s an incredibly difficult and unscientific challenge to integrate resonant and effective comedy into the formal language of games. There’s no algorithm for it and developers can usually be forgiven for bombing. Like many young comics, you need to imitate Pryor and Hedberg and Carlin before you find your own voice. You bomb, and bomb, and bomb some more, until finally you’re armored and develop your own style and refine your material. The problem with game approaches to comedy is that it’s a tricky venue to explore, and you may work on refining that material throughout a 2 or 3-year development cycle before it gets much of an audience, just to find out it resoundingly bombed at launch.
There are so many discrete challenges in the game-comedy problem, it’s hard to know where to start. How do you create a comedic in-game character with a broad and subtle reach? How do you make the mechanical logic and sporting performance of gameplay funny and varied? How do you introduce a comedic layer that doesn’t feel awkwardly estranged from the gameplay? Etc. etc.
Recently, however, first with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP in late March, and now Portal 2 in April, these two games have endeavored to deliver some running in-game comedy, yet not in equal measures, not in equal style, and certainly, not in equal strength and success. But one trait they share is a penchant for meta-humor; jokes that implicitly or explicitly satirize and exaggerate aspects of the medium and player behavior. They both rely heavily on linear dialogue payloads as the dominant delivery method, but both games package their satirical commentary differently and have very different things to say. And, in my opinion, one is funny and the other is as lifelessly one-note and expressionless as a dead baby joke.
Be advised, there are something in the way of spoilers ahead, but they are minor and mostly vague. I’ll set the spoiler threat level to “GUARDED” (Blue).
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The original Portal presented some of the richest skewering of games from within a game, through dialogue, interactive situations, and objects. Perhaps that’s why for many players like myself, the memeification and overuse of many of Portal’s cleverer, compact, and catchy punchlines led to exhaustion, and irritation at the mere mention of them. Nevertheless, the game is not at fault for how it inspired a movement of its fans to beat all the funny out of some of its jokes. The movement occurred because smart, subtle, suggestive, but most importantly, funny in-game criticism of gaming tropes is virtually non-existent.
So, it sort of makes sense that many fans were ravenously propagating these punchlines because it was virtually the only well to draw from for memorable in-game witticisms that challenged the conventional and redundant wisdom of what a game could or should do. You didn’t even need to really think analytically about what the joke meant in a larger conversation on play, it was sort of intuitive and understood, even if you couldn’t fully articulate why it was funny.
The Companion Cube is a symbol for lifeless objects the player is routinely told in other games are characters they should empathize with and care for. The cube’s bare polygon primitive form resembles placeholder art or a character node in a level editor, a reductionist statement that strips away the façade of an empty character and shows it for what it really is, an expressionless object.
The baleful, macabre, and matter-of-fact testimony GLaDOS gives about the perils of test subjects past is an amusing allegory for game testing, designer scare tactics, prohibitions on unwanted player behavior, and other dimensions of behavioral psychology in game design.
The cake — yes, that sickeningly sweet treat many fans pigged out on — represents an inedible and intangible material reward of superficial value, used to extrinsically motivate the player into desired action that furthers game progression. Call it a carrot on a stick, call it a wedge of cheese in a lab rat’s maze, or a toy for good behavior, the cake turns out to be an empty MacGuffin, the blank and inanimate spoils of a grind, an insubstantial incentive to goad you through the labyrinth — mindless design comfort food.
This time around in Portal 2, there’s no confectionary MacGuffin, the comedy is much more situational, and it’s the creative process of game design that serves as one of the more central subjects for its humor. Once GLaDOS resumes her custodial labor of maintaining the presentation and functionality of Aperture’s test chambers, she begins to talk about the “testing” process. It’s like an addiction for her, to design test chambers, to feel that “solution euphoria” that comes from a test subject completing a chamber. Essentially, as the omnipotent, all-seeing, master tinkering mind of Aperture, she exercises her hungry god complex. She tests not to further any scientific hypothesis; she enjoys the act of creation, and observing how you — the tiny, powerless gnat — will suffer and survive her perilous art. At times, she says, the slog of designing and maintaining such a grand amusement park can be torturous and wearisome, but you pull through and keep on testing. You can hear the rigors and rewards of game development in these asides.
Halfway through the game, you enter the bowels of Aperture Science and explore the tarnished and derelict R&D experiments of its past. The voice of Aperture’s CEO and founder, Cave Johnson, booms through a PA system, colorfully explaining the many messy, broken, and insane hypotheses they entertained, usually at the cost of test subjects’ physical and mental health. You walk through areas labeled “Alpha” and “Beta”, stages for projects at particular phases of development, not unlike the development phases of games, which adopt the same naming scheme. These areas are tinged with a dark comedic insanity centered on catastrophic missteps, harebrained inventions, and exceedingly poor decisions that guided scientific development. Essentially, this is the exaggerated comedy of game development’s iterative process.
Then, you encounter signage and some of Cave’s recordings that promise $60 to participating test subjects. This dollar amount is not arbitrary. In one room, you can se a framed picture that depicts a beaming test subject clutching wads of cash. Another shows a jubilant test subject jumping for joy in a snazzy suit, with a large yacht in the background that has a $60 price tag attached to it. The joke is that gamers often expect unreasonable and superfluous value from their $60 purchases. This comment was ironically prescient considering some of the inane outrage that gamers directed at Portal 2 once it shipped, who bellyached and moaned about how the game was too short (some even making preposterous claims that it only took them 2 hours to complete single-player) and not worth full retail value. Cave also comments on his testers, “What is it these people buy? Tattered hats? Beard dirt?” No doubt a veiled insult to the hipster demographic of the buying audience, and what they choose to spend their money on.
LEVEL RED SPOILER APPROACHING. SKIP TO THE KEYWORD "TOPIARY" IF YOU WISH TO AVOID IT:
Bad and misguided game design is also an important aspect of the farce. When GLaDOS is deposed and succeeded by a new cybernetic overlord of Aperture, the design of test chambers changes. The new proud creator arrogantly challenges you to complete their first original test. It’s one of the simplest and most boring puzzles in the game, and it comes more than halfway through. Not knowing what to do and caught off guard by how quickly you completed it, the new creator forces you to solve it again, masking his inexperience by proclaiming that it’s perfect and should just be repeated endlessly.
GLaDOS, the design veteran, ridicules him and his shoddy design enough that he begins adding new chambers. Then, he pulls from a stockpile of completed chambers that GLaDOS once designed and starts mashing them together in some inelegant way to make them his own. After a number of these copy and paste, dissection and reassembly chambers, he proudly announces that you are entering a chamber that he designed entirely on his own. GLaDOS immediately recognizes it as a counterfeit of one of her own tests, to which your new bumbling overseer defends himself by pointing out that he added the word “test” to one of the walls, in his mind validating and exonerating his blatant plagiarism.
This cosmetic alteration of space, as an attempt to conceal the fingerprints of thievery, is an indictment of similar cases of petty theft you can find everywhere from the mod community to top-tier development, from derivatives to clones. The humor lies in the transparency of the cover-up and the foolish belief of the counterfeit artist that the player and creator will be none the wiser, like copying Crazy Train, but changing one chord.
Throughout the above sections, the joke is intentionally bad game design, further heightened by the fact that the choices and sensibilities manifesting in physical space are so far removed from what you would expect from premium Valve polish. Portal 2 introduces this new comedic theme of authorship and mad creative invention in games, but it also builds on its predecessor’s primary comedic preoccupation; the limitations of games, and timeworn narrative and gameplay trappings.
At the beginning of the game you are awoken from cryosleep by a tinny robotic voice, inside what looks like a cheap motel room. The voice issues a command to look at the ceiling and then the floor, for a “Mandatory physical and mental awareness exercise.” This is the routine physical examination of most first-person games, going through the motions of getting the player acclimated and oriented to the most basic control functions. Then, you are ordered to go to sleep. You awake to the same room, but now dark and frightfully deteriorated. You have been in cryosleep for quite some time.
Before long, a spherical service robot named Wheatley enters your room. He informs you that due to your irregularly long hibernation, “It’s not out of the question that you might have a very minor case of serious brain damage.” He asks, “Do you understand what I’m saying? At all? Does any of this make any sense? Just tell me, ‘Yes.’” A prompt appears on-screen indicating that you should press the action button to “speak.” By pressing the button, you jump up in the air. Wheatley responds to this non-verbal response by adding, “What you’re doing there is jumping. You just… you just jumped. But nevermind. Say ‘Apple’. ‘Aaaapple.’” The same button prompt appears. You press it, you hop up slightly like a dog begging for a treat, and Wheatley resigns by saying, “That’s close enough.”
The customary eye exam and toddling tutorial is a rather patronizing order to follow for those of us who have ever played a first-person game before. It does almost imply that you must have brain damage if you don’t know how to look up and down and put one foot in front of the other virtually.
Your inability to speak is a figurative rendering of almost every single player character in videogame history. You don’t ever truly have a voice in a game. Every player character — that is supposed to be a portrayal of a living, breathing human — does have some form of brain damage, like massive trauma in the left temporal lobe that prevents the formulation of language. You are a mouthless armature of muscles, joints, and nerves. The action button is your voice. You commune with the world through kinetic means — bombastic and broad sweeping gestures of injury and action — and not by introducing logic and autonomy into a narrative system. As the mute, brain-damaged cipher hero, other characters don’t want or need your opinion, you just pull the plow of progression along and let the adults talk in whatever forum they choose.
Portal 2’s co-op mode explores many other comedic themes that its single-player mode doesn’t, or only touches on in a cursory way. Both players control two robots that must solve new sets of spatial puzzles with GLaDOS chirping snotty comments at them all the while. In the second series of chambers, GLaDOS remarks, “This course was originally designed to build confidence in humans. To do that, the tests were nothing more than five minutes of them walking, followed by me praising them for another ten minutes… on how well they walked. Since you are thankfully not humans, I have changed the tests to make them far more challenging and far less pointlessly fawning.”
In the last room of the chamber, the area is cleared when a ball is dispensed and one player places it into a cup, which opens a door that leads to the end zone. GLaDOS’s monotone voice pipes in, “You did an excellent job placing the edgeless safety cube in the receptacle. You should be very— Oh wait. That’s right, you’re not humans, I can drop the fake praise. You have no idea how tiring it is to praise someone for placing an edgeless safety cube into a receptacle designed to exactly fit an edgeless safety cube.”
These remarks criticize a growing trend of positive reinforcement in games. With Peggle, you sit there and stare at a ball making its way downscreen, batted this way and that by the forceful persuasion of luck and chance while feedback explosions scream out some higher purpose to your haphazard shot. In many contemporary RPGs and action games, NPCs kneel at your feet and laud you for being such a good person and the savior of mankind, which most likely required very little work or challenge to win their little hearts and minds. But the coddling of players is most evident in many casual and mobile games now, which often spit out cacophonies of color, exclamation points, and kind adjectives and achievement points for fitting the shaped block through the right hole. GLaDOS’s opinion of this matter might not be the most comically successful of her snark-filled quips, but it is rich in suggestion.
Of all the above comedic constituents, and the many more I have not mentioned, it is only the patronizing coddling of players that Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP also explores.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
When not telegraphing useful information to the player, the game’s character dialogue is a distracting encumbrance that revels in its own flat and awkward meta-humor. And there’s a lot of it.
Text dialogue is necessary for providing hints, riddles, or rules concerning the song of sorcery gameplay, and the abstract and extraneous lunar puzzle mechanics. But, you need to wade through a sea of bad, jarring jokes to get there.
For example (a relatively small sampling):
You'll find this first S:S&S EP session to be fairly straightforward. It typically only requires 15 – 30 minutes to complete. #sworcery
We had bridged the chasm & we felt super smart. #sworcery
We got The Gold Trigon. We are so awesome. #sworcery
We have re-assembled The Trigon Trifecta & we are heroes. #sworcery
We spied a curious-looking nestbox with an inscription that read "Tweet & ye shall be re-tweeted". #sworcery
We were like groan, not another fetch quest, amirite? #sworcery
You woke the deathless spectre who still lurks in the darkness beneath Mingi Taw. What a creep, amirite? #sworcery
Astride a logbridge on the old road stood a grim flagpole adorned with blocky-looking skulls. #sworcery
Our research data shows a high correlation between a participant's progress in S:S&S EP & their aptitude for being awesome. #sworcery
The Grizzled Boor was included in S:S&S EP to allow participants to self-identify as compassionate, reasonable people. #sworcery
The characters never shut up and let the game speak for itself. It’s not cute, it’s not clever, and it doesn’t feel natural given the game’s underlying tone. It’s an irritating and abrasive spew of snarky, biting, and apathetic quips from some hipster’s Twitter feed.
The majority of the game’s humor relies on how these characters are transparently tearing down the 4thwall with a sledgehammer. The joke is that these “miracles” are worthless illusions. The joke is that you’re playing a game.
These intentionally patronizing characters sound as if they were GLaDOS’s consciousness after being uploaded to Twitter, dumbed down and remade in its image. It’s not as if any attempt at humor would be unbefitting for the game, but between the settled upon writing style, manner of speech, and meandering self-aware humor, it all sounds so out of place. Every character’s a comedian, and pretty bored and stoic ones at that.
These insipid and irreverent advisors who poke fun at the game’s own clichés and player conditioning only know a blunt force approach to 4thwall comedy. Craig D. Adams shows no restraint in presenting his 4thwall peepholes. Just as you run the risk in film of alienating or distracting your audience with an actor looking directly into the barrel of a lens, acknowledging the audience and the artifice, S:S&SEProutinely chides the player and unimaginatively points at the props and facades that surround them. The writer is trying too hard and too little to be funny.
Its heritage of medieval heroic folklore is at once a genre it honors and supplements through gameplay, and some throwback, thrift store vintage it wears “ironically” (nice ogre and wolf-moon profile tee, man).
The pretentiously unpretentious, painfully self-aware shtick is more damaging than simply being a hodgepodge of dead jokes, it’s a cacophony of empty intrusions that cheapen and undermine what is a good experience underneath.
These are not characters, they are out-of-game visitors, they are its writers. I felt naked, made to feel like a fool for taking the game seriously, mocked and derided for buying into its own lovingly crafted illusions and landscape. The world feels invaded and unreal because writers taken with their own lifeless material are lurking behind almost every screen edge, far more sinister and unwelcome than a Grizzled Boor, three-eyed wolves, and the Gogolithic Mass all sewn into one.
It really reads as if the game is making fun of itself and only half-heartedly believes in its own interactive vision. There are two halves that comprise this bipolar design philosophy. There’s the half I like, the game itself, the sweet one, the one that’s easy on the eyes and charming, the one that makes good conversation, and sure it makes some missteps, but I forgive it. Then there’s the dark half, the dialogue, the one who speaks loudly saying nothing when it feels insecure, the one who talks during movies and spoils every beat, the one who likes the sound of its own voice.
Even if the game’s dialogue can be so construed as a high concept commentary on the modern gaming populace, overly encouraging game writing, and the compression of meaningful communication through electronic text, it was a thorny, omnipresent obstacle standing in the way of my appreciating the interactive rewards.
Lines like, “We felt super smart,” “We are the smartest,” and “We are so awesome,” appear to be some attempt at humor by gratuitously complimenting the player for their simple actions, which are elevated to monumental proportions, casting a clear disparity between what the player actually accomplished and how that act is much more grand and heroic within the narrative. This is the “fake praise” and excessive positive reinforcement in games that Portal 2 also satirizes, but S: S&SEP is wincingly direct in its approach and revisits this subject far too many times, like a stand-up comic who has kept the same unfunny observation about airplane food in their act for the entire 20 years of their career.
Last comic standing
To be clear, Portal 2 is not without its deficiencies. The loudspeaker voice of God dialogue style can become monotonous, and is employed far more than interactive and environmental in-game comedy. The characters rarely comment on your discrete actions. The put-downs become somewhat played, along with the intentionally awkward, bumbling, hyper-literal explanations of the obvious (namely with regard to Wheatley). But these are all incredibly minor when I take into account all that Portal 2 got right.
In spite of some of their redundancies, the characters are well-drawn and deft humorists. They have clear motivations, they all want something, which is usually in opposition to the needs of other characters, and they undergo lively and funny implosions when their plans are thwarted. They possess all of the fundamental necessities for a strong comic figure, which helps sell their allusions to videogames as comedy. Game satire feels natural and rooted to the game itself because the premise of being a test subject/lab rat in a maze of space and abstract, intellectually humbling puzzles is so closely related to the nature of game design. Portal 2 does what many games do not attempt, or do not do well, which is to make an interactive challenge funny, even if only sporadically. The world and its characters feel alive, and the game satire presented is not a novelty trick, it’s a series of well-crafted, diverse musings that aren’t painfully obvious, and do not comprise the totality of the game’s comedic range.
In Sword & Sworcery EP, there are no characters. These sprites only feign wanting something, apathetically and ironically. They sorely lack any pathos, hubris, vanity, and other human ugliness that lends itself to comedy. The observations and quips of your character and others are written without any feeling, delivered without any emotion or action. You and the others are blank and bored observers. Add to that cumbersome dialogue screens you need to click through like a pop-up window, game criticisms that aren’t clothed in a metaphorical narrative distance, a surplus of well-worn material, dialogue that flagrantly abuses the 4th wall, and you’re left with obvious and barren game satire being delivered by boring, lifeless, and linear nodes.
I suppose it’s somewhat easy to make videogames the butt of a joke from within a game. Satirical videogame meta-humor doesn’t have a real shortage of material. Narrative games have a lot more maturation ahead of them, so picking apart their many pockmarks and blemishes for comedic fodder is convenient, but it’s not cheap. As Sword & Sworcery demonstrates, the material is plentiful, but not automatically funny. It’s all in the delivery. Portal 2 may not possess a comedic range found in other media, but its contributions are significant and the meta-humor, like all humor, comes from a perceived injustice, disservice, inferiority, and idealism, it just happens to be directed at the very medium it belongs to.
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