Why aren't video games funny (via)

Nov 11, 2004 quarter to one pm

See here's the thing, and the joke goes like this:  There are these two super-models and a geek in a lifeboat.  I don't remember why they are there, probably something to do with their ship sinking, anyway, a bunch of stuff happens that I can't remember, and then the geek says to the remaining super-model: "Sex?  I'm sorry, I thought you said Hex".

Stephen Totilo of Slate writes about Why aren't video games funny and misses what I think is the obvious conclusion:  game developers aren't that funny.

It's not that difficult the integrate comedy into games... if... you're actually funny.

I've worked with a lot of writers over the years and there are exactly two (0x02) five (0x05) that I think are funny and get how to integrate humor into games.  I've also met a lot of funny linear-writers, but they end up writing these long scenes that are funny, but don't connect to anything else in the game.  They come across like short SNL skits interspersed between gun-play.

Comedy is a building process.  One-liners are great filler, but real comedy it's built in slow layers, and even the one-liners need to be set-up in advance.  The "funny" one-liners you hear in a lot of action games aren't set-up in the game, but rather in some movie you saw three years ago.  Without that back-knowledge, the lines aren't really funny.

Another issue with comedy is that we love to laugh at bad things happening to other people.  It's funny to laugh at the main character in a movie dealing with one travesty after another or being made a fool of, but in a game, the main character is us.  Now these bad things are happening to us, not someone else, and if those bad things are preventing us from making progress in the game, that's not funny, that's frustrating.

Comedy is also about timing, and you give up a lot of the control over timing to the player, so you need to think about building your jokes differently.

Comedy in games isn't hard, it's just different.

Hex.  Eh.  Now that's funny.

Other people's comments:

Posted by tankko on Nov 11, 2004 one pm

Have you played the new Bard's Tale?

Posted by steve on Nov 11, 2004 five past one pm

Also, the repetitiveness of games zaps a lot of the humor. What might be funny once quickly becomes amusing, then ignored, then annoying.

Posted by Ken on Nov 11, 2004 five past one pm

Many people feel the question for determining when games have reached some sort of emotional communication nirvana is "Can games make us cry?", but personally, I'm more concerned with why games don't often make me laugh.

Though it is possible to write funny static scenes, or have funny characters in a game, most of the humor generated by gmaes I find is unintentional. There's a saying that comedy is tragedy that happens to other people, and anyone who's snuck up behind a focused camper with an AWP-40 in Counter-strike and stabbed them in the back of the head knows that this is the height of hilarity.

Sadly, it seems that in single-player games, the funniest things that happen are bugs. I've laughed my ass off at the Driv3r video of the car doing donuts in the sky, and behavior of the police AI in GTA games is often quite funny as well. Dynamic humor isn't hard to make, it's just hard to make on purpose.

Posted by DuncanC on Nov 11, 2004 half past one pm

I'm a comedy geek almost as much as a computer geek, and I'm still impressed by the quality of humour in SoMI. One thing that strikes me about the independent graphic adventure game community is how much they all try to crowbar in humour into their games, and it's mostly really horrible formulaic stuff that breaks the fourth wall far too often. It also feels like they're using it as a defense mechanism, i.e. "I'm not really taking this game seriously, so you shouldn't either". Which is why I found 5 Days A Stranger quite admirable and refreshing.

Posted by Rodi on Nov 11, 2004 half past one pm

Agreed. Not many games can make me laugh out loud. Now I'm a hard audience, I don't laugh a lot at the stuff I receive in my authenticized Entertainment. I've never really reviewed why that's so... maybe it's the lack of direct interaction with you, you personally? Well regardless, an actual funny game is a treasure, even though there are tons of humoristic [adventure]games that are very amusing in terms of dialogue.

Posted by Edmundo on Nov 11, 2004 ten past two pm

"Another issue with comedy is that we love to laugh at bad things happening to other people.  It's funny to laugh at the main character in a movie dealing with one travesty after another or being made a fool of, but in a game, the main character is us."

I remember in Final Fantasy VII when you had to dress up Cloud (the main character) as a girl in order for him to get inside a specific place. I though that was funny (and cute, too). One thing about making fun of the player character is that sometimes there is too much emphasis that the player is the main character (specially in FPS, where the point of view is first person), but if the player somehow understands that he is merely a puppeteer, then you can do so much more things to that character, and he just laughs along.

My two cents:
If I'd made a game, I would hire someone like Seth MacFarlane and the Family Guy team to write the dialog bits, while I work with them to help them undertand the magic behind the objective game dialog. Some of the most enjoyable and funny amateur underground adventures out there are made by people who want to be are writers but somehow can understand basic C-like scripting so they can make games. Yet, I think these games suffer from gameplay problems, because there is too much focus on the writing. It's really a complex balance between the designer and the writer. I think there needs to be two separate folks, and they both need to colaborate and understand each others ideas. Just look at games like Gabriel's Knight 3... very famous for the most stupid and senseless puzzles, but probaly great for the story. Wasn't Jane Jense the lead writer and designer of the game? and it didn't really work out.

Posted by Don Alsafi on Nov 11, 2004 quarter past two pm

I don't suppose you'd care to mention who those 2 people are, would you?

I agree, as I'm sure most of your readers would, that the humor in MI is what gives it the replay value that so few adventure games have.  I'd be interested to know who the others are that you think are spot-on in this area.

For my money, Steve Meretzkey rates pretty highly in both game design and comedy.

Posted by Ron Gilbert on Nov 11, 2004 twenty past two pm

Yes, Steve's infocom stuff was very good and very funny.  I'm sure there are more than 2 if I really thought about it.  I was just trying to be funny.

Posted by Yufster on Nov 11, 2004 five to three pm

I've also met a lot of funny linear-writers, but they end up writing these long scenes that are funny, but don't connect to anything else in the game.

An example of this was Discworld Noir, I think. There would be these long-winded conversations which, yeah, were funny (at first) and to the style of the Discworld novels, but they just went on and on and on... If I recall correctly, it was insanely infuriating because in between all the maddening dialogue (which quickly lost it's humour because it simply became an annoyance), they'd actually put bits of relevant information. So you couldn't skip all this stuff in case you missed something relevant.

As well, there is nothing more frustrating than waiting for characters to finish their 'idle' animations before you can speak to them...

'Funny' games are often simply games that try too hard to be funny but end up being really tiresome. Kind of like all those adventure games that wanted to be like DOTT, and had crazy graphics and inane characters with no real motivation or personality... they're just there to say and do stupid things. It's like somebody tried to recreate DOTT, but completely missed the point.

Posted by AdamW on Nov 11, 2004 ten to four pm

Whoever did the writing on Sam 'n' Max has to be in the list. That's got to be the funniest game I've played.

Posted by Someone on Nov 11, 2004 ten past six pm

Yea, Tim Shafer is probably on that list, because Ron kind of works with him.

Posted by Marek on Nov 12, 2004 twenty to seven am

Although he didn't make Sam & Max, and his name isn't spelt like that. ��

Posted by AdamW on Nov 12, 2004 twenty five past ten am

Who did write the Sam 'n' Max game, anyway? I know Steve Purcell wrote the comics and the TV show, but I don't think he was the lead writer for the game. And I don't have time to run through it and check the credits out either :)

Posted by Someone on Nov 12, 2004 twenty to eleven am

I'm pretty sure most of the TV show wasn't written by Purcell.

Posted by AdamW on Nov 12, 2004 twenty five to eleven pm

really? Oh, well, I stand corrected.

Posted by jp-30 on Nov 13, 2004 half past midnight

Sean Clarke & Mike Stemmle, wasn't it?

Posted by J-Ho on Nov 13, 2004 quarter past two pm

Yeah... but then they went on to make Escape from Monkey Island . And something went wrong there...

Posted by Will Jordan on Nov 11, 2004 five to five pm

When I first played Halo cooperative, I thought it was hilarious every time I whacked my friend with the butt of my gun, and whenever I did we'd end up not making any progress for half an hour because it would turn into a whack-fest, and we would have a great time.

The problem with humor in games is that so many developers are still harping about imposing their disrupting linear narratives or interjecting 'humor segments' into the environment to make the games funny for the players, rather than structuring the game in such a way as to allow the players the opportunities to make the game funny for themselves.

Posted by Tom Spilman on Nov 11, 2004 ten past five pm

Anyone remember a little old game called "No one lives forever"?  That was a damn funny game if you caught all the 60s spy theme gags.

Posted by JBlessing on Nov 11, 2004 twenty five to six pm

I loved No One Lives Forever.  I would never get a good time on all the levels because would sit and listen to the conversations between the NPCs.  I agree with Rons comment about humor in layers, one liners can be good but they can't fill the void of humor thats been building up which was a strong point of series like Monkey Island and Leisure Suit Larry.

Posted by Tom Spilman on Nov 12, 2004 twenty to one pm

There were sight gags too.  For instance in the space levels when you shoot a guard with the ray gun they would strike the classic "i'm being vaporized" pose.  The "sheep" scene was another.

Posted by DerekW on Nov 11, 2004 ten past eight pm

I recall playing the very first level of Thief, where the very first thing you do is stand in a shadow and listen to two guards talk about how the bear pits aren't as good as they used to be, and thinking I'd be happy to play a whole game where the object was to walk around and listen to the NPCs tell funny stories. Since then I've noticed that humour in games works best when other characters perform for you as an observer, and when the pace is relaxed enough that you don't mind standing there for a while to watch the show. Therefore I say the stealth genre, even more than the adventure, is the best canvas for funny gaming. "What'd they do? Just sort of bump into each other?"

Posted by SiN on Nov 11, 2004 quarter past eight pm

I've also met a lot of funny linear-writers, but they end up writing these long scenes that are funny, but don't connect to anything else in the game.  They come across like short SNL skits interspersed between gun-play.

kind of like the stuff Planet Moon has been putting out. i absolutely love Giants and Armed & Dangerous, but most of the humour was in the cutscenes as opposed to in-game. It created a neat gameplay mechanism, where your incentive to finish the level was pretty much to see the next little skit in the story. It's not a great mechanism, but its what got me thru the last 5 or 6 levels of A&D so it kinda works.


Posted by jp-30 on Nov 13, 2004 twenty five to one am

Both Giants and A&D did have humour in the gameplay too, though. Such as the shrub disguises, the wacky weapons (A&D especially), the excellent totally OTT blood and splatter marks in Giants - but yes, the cutscenes certainly were funnier than the game, but I guess thats kind of a limitation of the FPS genre*

I'm actually playing through A&D for the first time right now, just crashed a zepellin in the desert and ate some stowaways. Heh.  

*not that Giants was strictly an FPS, but much of the gameplay was about running around shooting and blowing things up.

Posted by michael on Nov 11, 2004 twenty to midnight

hmm i sent Ron a link to a Dos based game i made for school. hope this thread wasn't inspired by that rofl.


happy gaming

Posted by spaceship789 on Nov 12, 2004 twenty to three am

I'll use this forum as a blatant way of plugging a few underrated humourous games of late.  Alien Hominid I think is funny. Kung Fu Chaos is funny.

Posted by hadehahaha on Nov 12, 2004 five to five am

Humour is personal - attempting to make something "funny" in a game pretty much ensures that it wont be.

Universal humour, something that transcends cultural and demographic boundaries? > I don't think so. The wider the gag the less likelihood that it'll be funny. I use the grandma analogy...a joke that you are happy to tell your Granny, is a priori unfunny, or at least unlikely to elicit a belly laugh in a normal person regardless of age/sex/religion/cultural heritage/country of origin. It may raise a smile, but rarely anything more.

Mildly amusing stuff (there's plenty of anecdotes about various games here), maybe. It's pretty easy to be amusing with someone that knows you, much harder with someone that doesn't....ever had a tragic misunderstanding in the lobby of a multi-player online game?

Shooting someone you know in the head in a FPS...heh, gimme a fart joke anyday.

Posted by Alan on Nov 12, 2004 five to nine am

I personally think this is a slightly tapped area in games but, like you say Ron, it takes a specific group of people to make a funny game.

I've never seen a game that was funny that wasn't also an adventure game. Perhaps it's because of the narrative format. In an adventure game, bad things can happen to the main character, or other characters, without restricting the forward movement of the game.

I actually know a software developer where I work that is, perhaps, the funniest guy I know. Actually, his whole family is hilarious: his brother actually works for Pixar.

I'm actually working on some personal projects right now that center completely on comedy. However, I've found that you are completely correct, if you want a project to be funny, you have to design the entire thing around the comedy, constantly considering how it all gels together. I started out with a few little jokes in mind and thought I'd just splatter those in... Once I had it all written down and planned, it was apparent that such an approach simply would not work. The challenge of "interactive comedy" is much more complicated than a few scattered one-liners.

But I'm just an amateur. My first few attempts are bound to be less than stellar. Thus is the process of learning!

Posted by DuncanC on Nov 12, 2004 five to eleven am

I love Conker's Bad Fur Day, I think the humour is well integrated in that. Protracted movie pastiches, good dialogue, and an unashamedly British slant (there's a lot of obvious influence from Viz magazine, especially in the cheat codes). People probably think it went on with the juvenile, disgusting stuff too much; I'd kind of agree, but to me it felt necessarily and justifiably over the top, like the Uncle Fucker song in the South Park film. Also, it has an anti-ending second only to Monkey Island 2. Man, I have to play it again now...

Posted by bacon on Nov 14, 2004 quarter past ten am

that ending was great. broke the fourth wall in a big, interesting way, and was sort of depressing. perfect.

Posted by Roody on Nov 12, 2004 ten past two pm

Not that my world will be crushed if people have different opinions, but I'd hope that Tom Hall is in the list of very funny game designers.  Anachronox, while largely comprised of one-liners, sort of sets itself apart since each short conversation with random characters adds to the entire atmosphere of the game, sort of like wading through all the BBSs in Neuromancer back in C64 days.

I'd recommend it to anyone who can find a bargain bin copy somewhere.  Be sure to check the net for patches, though.

Posted by PumpyJack on Nov 13, 2004 twenty five to nine am

Dave Grossman = Funny

Posted by Someone on Nov 13, 2004 twenty to nine am

Shouldn't it be:

Dave Grossman == Funny

Or are you setting Dave Grossman to be funny?

Posted by PumpyJack on Nov 13, 2004 ten to nine am


Posted by Nerd on Nov 13, 2004 quarter past eleven am

Not if you're using ML, Pascal, etc.

Posted by PumpyJack on Nov 13, 2004 ten to nine am

And of course, let's not forget our gracious host.

Ron, you might not actually write all the dialog, but you as  the designer end up creating the scenarios that lead to the humor.

Which actually leads me to a point:  a team's leadership and the team itself must understand what is funny, otherwise the funniest writer in the world will not have the raw material to work with, or the best bits will end up on the "cutting room floor."  This includes the scripters who deal with dialog timing, the animators and artists doing the visuals, the programmers spending the extra time to make sure the scene gels as a whole.  And it requires a management team that sees the value in spending those extra hours adding easter eggs, tweaking the timing, spotting opportunities for additional stuff, etc.

Posted by Someone on Nov 14, 2004 twenty five to nine pm

Knights of Xentar, dammit!

Posted by Roy on Nov 14, 2004 twenty past nine pm

Playing MI 1 & 2 I died of laugh ! :))

Posted by Aldo on Nov 15, 2004 twenty past one am

just wanted to say that not all people laugh at actual comedies that are out there either. Films or sitcoms can be as flat as a game.
Comedy can sometimes be provided by a sidekick character, the best example i can think of is the mort, the talking skull in the suberb Planescape torment. Now that was a comic character that was well intergarated in the plot, commenting the action and offering clues.

Posted by eloj on Nov 15, 2004 ten past ten am

mort*e*, unless you played some abomination of a translation, which is another relevant topic on comedy in games.

Posted by Russian Geek on Dec 25, 2004 quarter past seven am

And, of course, not "THE mort". It's a name, after all.

Posted by Gods_Thunderbolt on Nov 15, 2004 twenty to five pm

your all such tomtatoes, really.
i mean , just watch yourself in the mirror with a banana up your but.
this should give you some YUKKS!
i think the Secrect of Monkey Island is that YOU are really the monkeys!
Did i spoil something here? The horrible secret is OUT!

Posted by Jeff on Nov 15, 2004 five to eleven pm

Tricking the AI in action games is a lot of fun, and can be funny.

Anyone remember how the monsters in the original Doom would get into fights?

In Midtown Madness, it was funny to learn how to make the cops run into the buildings.  Then you could do it everytime, just like in a cheap action movie.

Posted by Iain on Nov 16, 2004 twenty five past two am

In fairness its easy to criticise games for not being funny - and it does feel like humour and eccentricty are dying out in games...

But by way of comparison - how much good comedy vs how much formuliac tripe is there on the TV or in the Cinema  - perhaps its a problem that is not isolated to just computer games?

Posted by Someone on Nov 16, 2004 five past three am

There are still at least a couple of great series and movies coming out every year, but if you tried to work out what the funniest game of each year the last few years was...

Posted by AdamW on Nov 16, 2004 twenty five to two pm

jeff: The monster infighting in Doom was an accident, IIRC, or at least started out as one - they noticed it happened without being intentionally written in, and thought it was cool, so they refined it in as an intentional feature. Lots of games have used it since, though.

Posted by Utopian Fallacy on Nov 17, 2004 ten to noon

"One-liners are great filler, but real comedy it's built in slow layers, and even the one-liners need to be set-up in advance.  The "funny" one-liners you hear in a lot of action games aren't set-up in the game, but rather in some movie you saw three years ago."

Yeah, pretty lame.  I can't believe some people have built a career out of ripping off one-liners from movies.

Posted by Huyderman on Nov 19, 2004 ten past one pm

Worms! Many a fun hour have been spent blasting my comrades into tiny bits, and almost falling of the chair laughing when you manage to blow your self to smitherins a million times over by a botched shot. Classic. grin

Posted by spyn on Nov 22, 2004 midnight

I'm still looking that that chainsaw.

Posted by Chris on Dec 14, 2004 quarter past eight am

I only thought the Bard's Tale was mildly amusing.  Maybe because I'm a woman, I am unable to fully appreciate boobie jokes.

No one has played Shadow Hearts: Covenant?  While it isn't all funny (there are serious and sad moments, too), some of the scenes are absolutely hilarious.  In many instances, the game makes fun of the entire genre (RPGs), but in a more subtle way than the Bard's Tale for the PS2.  I mean, who couldn't love the He-Manesqe Joachim, the pro-wrestling vampire and champion of truth and justice?  Almost every scene with Joachim is funny, especially when he takes new weapons from the landscape (mail box, frozen tuna).  Or Lenny, the dim witted evil henchman who gets tricked into revealing the location of a kidnapped friend with the "you can't tell me because you don't know where he is!" trick.  Patronizing conversations with the Ring Soul.  Gepetto the dirty old puppeteer and only male character that can wear cotton panties (similar to Cloud in FFT, the only male who can wear the woman's only ribbon).  Even the text for yes or no questions is amusing at times.  However, a few of the subtle jokes in the game only make sense if you've played the original game (Shadow Hearts), such as meeting Joachim, acquiring a pedometer, and rescuing Roger Bacon.

Posted by :emaN on Dec 28, 2004 twenty to one pm

Some things is some games have humoured me.  Some have made me smile.  Few, very few even made me lol.  The first third of Sam'n'Max was funny.  The first fifth or so of Under A (The?) Steel Sky was too.  The Peasant's Quest is ok too.  That's one of them "Internet games", you know with Flash or Java or whatever you play under the browser.  They're sometimes funny.  Big gametitles seldom are very interesting, you all know that.

But the old shoot-em-ups by Jeff "YaK" Minter (published through his own Llamasoft) have made me giggle childishly so many times.  I've played them on Commodore 64s some housemates have had, and no other games have given that kind of feeling of joy, euphoria even, inside my chest.  They're totally wacky and the language is good (he's not american, and that's always something fresh), the graphics are really manic, as are the sounds.  He's really got this very heart of computer games very well, and his got his very own style. Tongue in cheek and kind of serious (in a serious tongue in cheek way) at the same time.  Absurd, surreal, and the games are seriously kicking my arse.  My overloaded brain just doesn't keep up, and i notice my hands are controlled by lower level  instincts.

It's not unlike how i've experienced hardcore noise music.

But then again, Llamasoft is cult material, and thus better.

I've come to loathe oneliners and yet end this comment with one, baby.

Posted by Joshi on Dec 29, 2004 ten to seven pm

One big problem comes when it turns out there are hundreds of different types of funny. There's witty, sarcastic, and then just plain annoying. These are of course character traits. Then you get different situations which can be annoying, funny or just weird. Throw in a few sight gags and you'd think you're onto a winner. Only problem being there's a hell of a lot more and plus there's the fact that you can't put everything in and think it's got to be perfect because then it's just overwhelming and we're back to annoying. There's no secret recipe for making a funny game because different types of games can be made in humour. The Monkey Island series had a totally differen't comedic style to say, the Space Quest series (if anyone remembers that). Both very funny, but both very different and now both very 'in the past' because frankly, we don't see that in games anymore. I'm a firm believer that these five or six genuinely funny game designers aren't the only ones capable of doing funny stuff, they're just the only ones that have actually put the thought into making a game funny. It is possibly for anyone to achieve the comedic genius of Monkey Island without them actually being Ron Gilbert, or Tim Schafer (despite what most think, they actually aren't gods... no really), it just takes them a while, Ron didn't just wake up one day and think "Hey! A totally new outlook on comedy! That's Odd!".

This is usually time for the funny one liner to end the long post, but it's 3 in the morning and and think I've accidentally turned into a computer geek at some point in that last hour and a half.

Posted by Nico on Aug 1, 2005 twenty five to noon

I think its very difficult for a game to be built with humour as a selling point, but there is no reason why it cant have intentioally funny bits. I loved the way the vampire bloodlines engineered humerous conversations with the NPCs the best being the choice of whether to tell a barmaid your terrible secret and being given the choice of :

1 i'm a vampire
2 I killed a man tonight
3 I once voted republican

or the deluded woman on the beach who says "in the game of life, whether you win or lose is not important, its whether or not you bought it"

Posted by space ace on Aug 14, 2005 twenty five to noon

the horde

Posted by Greg on Aug 23, 2005 twenty to two am

hideo jokima (aka, guy who did metal gear solid series) in my mind is the only funny video game writer, beside the prestegious Ron

Posted by Cat Scandal on Feb 23, 2006 ten to four pm

I think Ron's right.  There's no inherent problem with humour in games.  The problem is that funny people make funny games, and developers just aren't funny people that often.  When they happen to be, as with the Monkey Island team, or Schafer's new company Double Fine (who put out Psychonauts, easily the funniest game in the past year or two), the result is hilarious.  But those are genuinely funny people who can make you laugh talking about anything (as demonstrated from interviews, blogs, etc), not game designers who try to put jokes in to relieve the monotony of shooting people.

Another problem is that so few modern games make dialogue central to gameplay.  With adventure games, the dialogue was nearly all you had, along with the puzzles.  Some RPGs have been able to be quite amusing (Okage: Shadow King, for example) because they are again mostly dialogue-centric.  Psychonauts, a platformer, was mainly able to pull it off because it used SCUMM-style dialogue trees (although it DID have some brilliantly intergrated humour through the main character's commentary on what you were doing, again in adventure style).  But the moment you make a game without a focus on the dialogue, you can't build jokes the right way, or develop characters well enough to make jokes based on their personalities.  Jokes don't come from nowhere, they need set up, the right characters to bounce around between, and ridiculous scenarios to make them spontaneously burst out.

So, in my ever-so-humble opinion as a non-contributing nonentity is that humour in games requires firstly a team of funny people, and secondly the right kind of game (one with plenty of dialogue and interesting characters.  they needn't even be dynamic, just well-constructed (see Stan in Monkey Island or Dogen in Psychonauts)).  And if a game is missing the focus on dialogue, it needs an excess of funny in the developers (see Katamari Damacy, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee), in which case the humour won't much integrate into the game, and the gameplay has to be able to carry the weight between funnies, which is a dangerous plan (which nevertheless worked well in the games I named).

I've played enough games in my time to know that they're funny, but, as is always the case, the mainstream gamer will likely never know, because mainstream developers aren't funny, and if they were, EA would probably chain them to a desk and eat their souls so they weren't any more.

Posted by Kroms on Feb 25, 2006 ten to eight am

Ronald, are you praising a certain Monkey Island creator?


Posted by yo on May 3, 2006 five past seven am


Posted by Chirpy on Aug 24, 2006 ten to eight am

So, Ron, who exactly are these few people you say are funny?

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