Laughing in Binary

Video games might not be your first thought when it comes to comedy. Some people doubt whether games can even pull it off. THINK gets in touch with Dr Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone to talk about how comedy works in video games.

Getting a joke isn’t always easy. That’s part of the fun! The principles of comedy might be universal across media, but games are a new interactive medium for laughter. Not only can the player play the game, but the game can play with the player.

The adventure game — a game driven by exploration and puzzle-solving — lends itself particularly well to parody and playful interaction. A recent analysis of the top 100 adventure games by Adventure Gamers showed over half were explicitly humorous, including classics such as Broken Sword, Grim Fandango, and Monkey Island

It’s a Set-Up

A joke’s set-up always contains crucial information that the audience needs to ‘get’. Often (even in games) the joke relies on external information; for example, the jokes in comedian Conan O’Brien’s monologues often rely on the viewers’ knowledge of current events and politics. A game can quickly become dated if it uses such comedic devices. Humour in games can better stand the test of time when it is self-referential, and puzzles in games have similar structures to jokes. 

A game can quickly become dated if it uses such comedic devices. Humour in games can better stand the test of time when it is self-referential, and puzzles in games have similar structures to jokes.

Many adventure games use a structure defined as a ‘fiction puzzle’, a term coined by game researcher Karhulahti. Essentially the puzzle is integrated into the ‘old school’ point-and-click ‘adventure game’, and solving the puzzle leads to ‘getting’ the joke. For example, in the game Monkey Island, the protagonist, Guybrush Threepwood, can pick up all kinds of ridiculous objects (e.g. a burning fire or a monkey) from the screen and add them to their inventory. The items are later used when least expected. At one point, when Guybrush is tied to a heavy idol and thrown in the water, the player needs to solve the puzzle to save Guybrush’s life. Despite the numerous sharp implements around him, the solution lies in simply picking up the idol and placing it in the inventory. The crux of the joke is how ridiculous the inventory system (where everything picked up becomes weightless) really is. Using the mechanics as a type of riddle ensures that the game is self-referential and the joke can be contained within the game. No external knowledge is required to ‘get’ the joke. 

Some scholars argue that adventure games and even videogames are a rebellion against the culture of seriousness — in a new medium. And with new media come new possibilities. 

Dr Krista Rutter Bonello Giappone (Faculty of Arts, University of Malta) uses critical and literary theory to explore comedy in games, from sexual innuendo to political satire. In particular, she highlights the effects of interruption and digression, the connection of the player with the game avatar, and the role of nostalgia. 

Player Interrupted

Breaking immersion, the fourth wall, is a staple of humour in performative art. Whether this is the porter providing a bit of comic relief in Shakespeare’s Macbeth or the class-clown interrupting a lecture with a well- (or ill- ) timed quip, an interruption breaks the flow and offers the opportunity for digression. 

In Monkey Island, the main character, a 17–18th century pirate in the Caribbean, can call the game’s production company — LucasArts — from a phone booth in the middle of the jungle. The interaction offers no useful game information, but does offer a number of self-referential jokes. Unexpectedly tearing the player out of their immersion is important to humour, as Giappone points out. These types of ‘dead ends’ do nothing to further the story or plot. They explore a form of uselessness that provides an opportunity for comic punchlines or parody. This break transforms the player from active story protagonist to audience member. The transformation helps players laugh at the characters without necessarily laughing at themselves.

In Monkey Island, the main character, a 17–18th century pirate in the Caribbean, can call the game’s production company — LucasArts — from a phone booth in the middle of the jungle. The interaction offers no useful game information, but does offer a number of self-referential jokes.

The Joke is on You

Giappone and Veli-Matti Karhulahti explain how ‘the adventure game […] has always relied on players needing to try out every single option and collecting useless objects (‘pathological kleptomania’) that generates constant failures and errors, typically making a fool out of the protagonist.’ 

But no one wants to be made a fool of. Laughing at the misfortunes of others is the underlying assumption of the ‘superiority’ theory of humour, but game developers need to tread more carefully since players are both the protagonist and audience. The player is both the butt of the joke and the person laughing at it. 

In humorous games, it is often important to have a disconnect between player and character. As Giappone observes, the comedy often requires a certain emotional detachment and critical distance. LucasArts even went so far as to institute a policy to never use the word ‘you’ in game design documents, careful to always refer to the character making the action. 

Players can still be mocked by a game. When they are, it is usually for being too familiar with genre conventions, or being ‘too good’ at the game. These games often encourage the character to interact with everything to see if it will open up new storylines or alternate solutions. Ultimately, the genre encourages ‘pixel hunting’, where the player makes sure to click on every pixel to make sure they aren’t missing out. In Thimbleweed Park, the player has a number of tiny specs of dust they can find throughout the game which serve no real purpose, except to earn the tongue-in-cheek ‘Dust Hoarder’ achievement. 

Nostalgia 

There is another layer of distance in classical adventure games played today: nostalgia. Replaying some games is like returning to the magic moment where you thought, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this was possible in the medium.’ In a way, you don’t only go back to a character that isn’t you, you go back to a you that isn’t you anymore either.

Despite knowing what to expect, veteran players can still enjoy a game’s humour through nostalgia. New players find a joke humorous because of surprise, awe, and the way it defies expectations. In some cases, this nostalgic distance can reinforce parodic distance.

New players find a joke humorous because of surprise, awe, and the way it defies expectations. In some cases, this nostalgic distance can reinforce parodic distance.

The Three Windmills 

The rule of three in comedy is how a joke is established, reinforced, then overturned.

Don Quixote was written as a parody of the established romance novel genre, and now it is recognised as a classic in the same genre. Don Quixote was the overturn in the rule of three. As Giappone observes, parody makes us aware that the romance genre it is mocking is now ‘established’.

The recent Telltale offshoots of the adventure game genre are more serious, exploring the interactive nature of horror. Players are often faced with deciding the gruesome fate of the characters. These games create a situation where immersion adds to the emotional weight of the decisions. Design-wise, these games are the polar opposite of humorous games. And yet, their popularity could be because they subvert the genre’s expectations. Analysing and fully understanding the full range of comedic potential will allow designers to find novel ways to play the audience for laughs. 

Technological progress in games offers new possibilities. Surgeon Simulator has paved the way for physics-based comedy games in VR, but there is a whole uncharted (virtual) world of interactive gags waiting to be uncovered by clever game designers. 

In her upcoming book (co-edited with Jaroslav Švelch and Tomasz Z. Majkowski), Giappone is working with a number of leading scholars in the field to provide an overview of the crucial theoretical pieces in the riddle of humour in games. They detail the dual position of the player and character, interactive gags, and puzzle punchlines. The adventure game genre isn’t dead, nor is comedy in games at its end, but rather it may be time to overturn it.

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