Coming right on the heels of Brenda Braithwaite’s talk on Train—a board game about the holocaust that has brought many of its players to tears—John Teti led a hilarious panel on humor in games. Teti moderated a discussion with writer Rhianna Pratchett (of the Overlord series), the legendary designer and writer Tim Schafer (most recently of Brutal Legend), and Sean Vanaman of Telltale’s Tales Of Monkey Island games.
While it’s easy to find games that are violent, fun, dramatic, or gross, games are rarely funny. To kick things off, Teti asked if there should be a genre of comedy games. Tossing it to the panelists, Pratchett and Vanaman said they were uncomfortable with the idea of games that set out strictly to get laughs. Said Vanaman, “If you set out to make a comedy game you’re just going to keep telling fart jokes, or keep going back to the same comedy well.” Arguing that games should start with story, he said, “If you say ‘We’re going to be funny,’ it’ll come off as insincere.”
“Unless you’re funny,” quipped Schafer.
Schafer was clearly the panel elder. His work on the LucasArts adventures of the ’90s, through to his own studio’s Psychonauts and Brutal Legend, are famous for well-developed characters, good plots, top notch writing—and yuks. It all started back when he was at LucasArts. “In the Wild West days, management would say, ‘Ron [Gilbert], what game are you going to do next?’ ‘I’ll tell you when it’s done.’ Management took bets on people instead of ideas. … It just happened to be funny people that were given those chances.”
Scripts can be funny. Cutscenes can be funny (but we’ll still skip them). But how about humor that emerges from the gameplay? Pratchett talked about the minions that follow the protagonist in Overlord, wearing funny hats made out of baby seals or pumpkins. I’ll vouch for Pratchett that while I didn’t get belly laughs during Overlord or Overlord 2, the gags definitely set the tone: the game came off as wicked, but never nasty (which would get old).
Schafer related a story a friend told him about using the camera in Metal Gear Solid to zoom in on a female character’s rear end. After a few seconds, the character busted him: “What are you looking at?” And Pratchett also praised the Sims series for creating situations where humor could emerge. For example: now that she has the Sims pet expansion, when her Sim showers, the cats and dogs come in to watch her. “Maybe they thought I’d slip over and they could eat my feet.”
Speaking of Sims, Pratchett also brought up an experiment in Sims 3 by Robin Burkinshaw, who created a homeless father and daughter and put them in the game to see what would happen. It’s a provocative scenario, but it also sparked funny scenes—for example, when the daughter, who’s clumsy, would get invited into somebody’s home and then stumble around and break all their stuff. It’s a great point. Games can tackle serious subjects—see again: Train—but you have to deal with the fact that putting serious subjects in a game can make them funny, if only for the incongruity.
But getting the jokes right is stressful. Schafer recalled writing what he thought was temporary dialogue and having a blast with it; once Gilbert told them it was going in the game, his first reaction was, “Oh God.” Vanaman agreed: “Fear is a great motivator.”
Tips to make your game funnier: Read them out loud. Have fun to make fun. Be brave. Said Schafer, “That impulse, that fear, ‘That’s too silly, that’s too ridiculous,’ is the enemy of what you do all day long.” And trust the whole team to be funny, from art to sound design to gameplay design. Schafer praised a sight gag in Castle Crashers where a deer in the background hears a boss coming and literally shits itself off the screen. “I laughed so hard at that.”
Before I make fun of Schafer for having the same sense of humor as my four-year-old, let me throw in a quote on what makes humor work in a game: when you weave it in with everything else. “That’s the way life is,” Schafer said, “all of our lives are touched by tragedy and funny things every day. I just think that’s interesting to do in writing.” When we think of Schafer’s funny games, we tend to talk about his writing on the original Monkey Island titles or his DoubleFine titles like Psychonauts or Brutal Legend.
But my favorite Schafer game is Grim Fandango, the story of a grim reaper in an Aztec-meets-Bogart land of the dead. It doesn’t play as a straight-up comedy, because you focus on your affection for the characters and their story. The dialogue is funny in a way that you’ll never grow out of, but the jokes also work because they make you pause to remember how much you love the characters telling them. Reason two: the game’s puzzles can make you smile. The game’s best moment—and I won’t give away the details—comes when you’re grappling with an infuriating, multi-part puzzle, and right when you’re tearing your hair out, you realize that a trivial detail that’s been sitting in front of you the entire time is the key to the entire shebang. It is a boffo punchline.
The crowded room got laughs and takeaways; this was one of the best sessions of my week. And I want to thank John again for having me on board this week. GDC was exhausting, amazing, exhilarating, silly and grueling—but covering it here makes it way more fun.