Funny Video Games: No Such Animal?

Filed Under Funny 2.0

A recent article in Slate bemoans the lack of funny videogames. It’s rather cursory in the limits in the medium to create funny content, but still interesting as a jumping off point. As Variety’s EEG blog points out the usual suspect of lack of quality writing certainly doesn’t help. But it might just a fundamental problem of the medium.

I do think videogames can be funny, but I don’t think intentionally funny is a possibility. Recently I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with a friend. In the game, we climbed to the top of a mountain and began to take great delight in driving vehicles off the top, bailing out midair and activating a parachute so we could float down safely watching the car hit bottom in a satisfying explosion from a safe distance. The third time we did this, we realized that we had failed to acquire a parachute at the exact moment we bailed out of the car mid air. There was only one thing to do as we watched our avatar plunge to his death.

We laughed. Hard.

Video games, like comic books, are mostly adolescent power fantasies. You attempt fantastic feats against overwhelming obstacles, mimicking an action movie. Being competent and skilled are not qualities you put into a comedic protagonist. Comedy protagonists may struggle against overwhelming obstacles, but usually those obstacles are their own stupidity, greed or other character flaw. Not exactly qualities that makes for the visceral escapism of a video game. The best you can hope for is a comedic action character… an Axel Foley covered in Fur.

The great thing about the parachute mishap was that the game was built for me to make my own fun, also allowing me the freedom to let my human failings to create a moment of slapstick. It’s not intrinsically funny, but if you create a funny action (like a gun that shoots, oh, cows), after a while the humor of the items gets superceded by the function of the item (a gun destroys enemies, even if it shoots mooing cows). Humor is based on surprise. Shoot a cow gun 1,000 times, the surprise is gone.

However, I think satire is actually possible in videogames, which is one of the reasons I like the GTA series. Grand Theft Auto paints an exaggerated version of the world that you can dive inside… highlighting how crazy our own is. Though it aspires to realism in many details, including violence, these thing only serve to ground the series enough so that the satirical details of thug life and the early 90s come through even sharper. It’s pretty impressive experience design and makes me wonder how other games set in a satirical world would work. An adventure game in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil anyone?

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