Given Saturday Night Live’s unique place as TV’s sketch-comedy standard-bearer, it’s in the show’s best interest to cater to the broadest possible audience. As a result, almost every scene relies more on the premise than the substance, because who wants to leave comedy to chance (i.e., leave it to the writing)? Take one of the most popular sketch themes in recent SNL history: Sarah Palin’s ill-fated run for vice president, as portrayed by Tina Fey. The impersonation itself became the joke. Fey perfected the folksy cadence of Palin, condensing the Alaskan governor’s whimsical asides into concise quotables like, “I can see Russia from my house!” Saturday Night Live wasn’t adding new or incisive ideas to the Sarah Palin mockery, only remixing a few touchstones into soundbites. And the crowd went nuts.
Jazzpunk wades in the same shallow pool. It’s a swarm of video game tropes and pop culture references aimed at people who grew up in the 1990s—more often than not leaning on the reference for laughs. As the mysterious Polyblank, enlisted by the government to investigate a vague global conspiracy, you traipse through enemy headquarters and dark alleyways in search of clues. Only there aren’t many. Jazzpunk is a spoof of first-person adventure games, where players are required to scrutinize practically everything in sight to figure out what the hell is going on. So there you are in Jazzpunk, confronted by a turtle. You smack it. And it spits out pizza and a pair of sai, because he is apparently a turtle of the Teenage Mutant Ninja variety. Thus concludes the interaction with an item of no importance.
A playthrough of Jazzpunk is like an introduction to sketch comedy but nothing more. It often satisfies the most basic rule of sketch: Every good comedy scene needs a gimmick. Jazzpunk’s favorite gimmick is “Remember this thing?” When searching the beach uncovers “Public Domain Man In Carbonite,” there’s not much more to do than to recall Return Of The Jedi and take in the toothless meta-commentary about reappropriating copyrighted properties in games. But beyond the gimmick, the next step for any good comedy scene is to raise the stakes, and stakes are all but missing from Jazzpunk.
The game’s publisher is Adult Swim—a brand that’s not necessarily associated with high stakes dramas like Deadwood or Killer Karaoke. The shows that air on Adult Swim run mostly along the lines of joke vehicles like Childrens Hospital, which first and foremost is a celebratory skewering of self-important medical shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy. Still, there are stakes on Childrens Hospital. In fact, part of the joke is that the stakes are extremely high for every possible mundane occurrence, like a hospital-wide talent show.
The developers at Necrophone Games take the opposite tack with Jazzpunk. Absolutely nothing is important. The worlds of Jazzpunk are only sparingly populated, as if you bought a Lego town but neglected to spring for the corresponding set pieces and figurines. In sketch-show terms, Jazzpunk got rid of the ensemble cast and focuses on the featured players. One man you come across, a fancy-lad billionaire lounging by the pool in a resort town, wants nothing more in the world than for you to spray his mouth with Easy Cheese. So you do, and your success allows you to move on to…finding more of these non-sequiturs. Jazzpunk sticks a few cryptic scenes between missions that tease at a method to the game’s madness, but they are brushed away in favor of more visual gags. It’s hard to laugh in the absence of context.
Another paramount rule of comedy is “Leave them wanting more.” There are steep diminishing returns if a show or sketch goes on too long, so it’s best to err on the side of brevity. This is not a credo Jazzpunk takes to heart. Jokes fly at the player like angry hornets from the hive, hinging on intimate knowledge of games like Warcraft II or Quake, and the references swarm and sting. There are more than enough punchlines, but there’s too little setup.
Developer: Necrophone Games
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Platform: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac