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GDC 2015: Zoe Quinn on Comedy in Video games

Games come in many flavours. Action, adventure, simulation, strategy, puzzle, sports.

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Jazzpunk

Games come in many flavours. Action, adventure, simulation, strategy, puzzle, sports…

Whatever the genre they tend to have a dramatic thrust, a story of conflict, competition or high stakes.

But few games whole-heartedly embrace comedy. Some have humorous concepts or funny dialogue. Some offer satire or make statements on the world we live in. But very few are just out and out comedic experiences.

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At GDC last week Zoe Quinn, developer of Depression Quest, talked about the challenges of making comedy interactive, and how humour can be used in games.

“You don’t really see many games stand as a pure comedy game,” said Quinn. “Normally it’s a game that had some funny elements to it.”

Quinn outlined the comedic elements we do see in games; Pop-culture references, satire, absurdity, parody and even poop gags. Comedy does exist in games but it’s not usually core to the experience.

“In every other medium it’s an entire genre in and of itself. But in games we still classify things pretty much exclusively by the content of the gameplay,” she said.

Examples of purely comedic titles are not common, but they do exist. Quinn points to JazzPunk as one title that is soaked in comedic intent, from its story through to the tiniest details and mini-games.

“We have a few games that kind of do this already. From JazzPunk, which is completely top to bottom a comedy game, to Goat Simulator which is absurd and awesome from the get go, to something that is more satirical and smart with comedy like The Stanley Parable. And these are all fantastic but we should try and think about how to do more of these.”

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The mechanics of comedy are often the problem with regards to games. Quinn examined this, starting with the structure of comedy and jokes.

“At its core comedy is about surprise and subversion of expectations. The joke is an actual mechanic. You have two basic parts of it, you have the set-up and the punchline. The set-up creates a certain expectation and the punchline subverts, or somehow builds on that expectation. This can be extrapolated and pulled out in a number of different ways, whether it’s one-liners, long anecdotes or straight up absurdity. But at its core comedy is about surprise,” said Quinn.

Quinn suggests that the challenges of using comedy in games can be put into three areas. Timing, delivery and subjectivity.

“Timing is something that is intrinsic to when you tell a joke, how you tell a joke, how much of a wait before a line, things like that,” says Quinn. “You can totally butcher a good joke by telling it poorly. And you can totally elevate a crappy joke by just really selling it.”

And herein lies the problem. In terms of timing and delivery, traditional comedy relies on the authorial control. Video games take that control and hand it to the player.

“With games we have this whole other party that you will never be able to talk to but is participatory in it, and we have something as controlled and specific as comedy accounting for that other variable, which can be quite nerve-wracking,” Quinn explained.

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And then there is taste. Humour is subjective is a way that drama tends not to be. A situation of peril can be understood by anyone. You may not appreciate or enjoy a particular dramatic scene or premise, but the stakes will be clear nonetheless. Comedy is different. Appreciation of humour is deeply personal.

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Comedy also suffers through repetition. A joke can get boring, quickly. A concept can out stay its welcome. A catchphrase can be heard so many times that it loses the ability to make you laugh.

“It’s a weakness of repetition that after a certain point you commit the worst comedy sin ever by retelling the joke,” said Quinn.

Looking at how comedic-burnout can be avoided Quinn used the example of Adult Swim’s Too Many Cooks. Its overlapping structure plays with the tropes of a specific target and then with its own self-referential beats. This offers a potential model for using comedy in games.

“You have the overarching structure that is easy to navigate, whether it’s a plot line or a certain kind of mechanic and then all these little bits of humour that are a variation on whatever specific theme, whatever joke you are trying to tell overall,” said Quinn.

There’s also no harm in shorter games either. Not every game has to be 60 hours plus, and comedy is perhaps better suited to smaller, more spontaneous experiences.

“You see it all the time in game jams. So many game jam games are perfect for this short awesome experience,” she said.

Quinn points to the example of another film and game genre that uses many of the same structural conceits as comedy.

“We can also learn from other games that have done long-form, surprise-based things well. Horror is that genre,” said Quinn. “Keeping the player interested and not being predictable, keeping them on their toes, keeping the material fresh.”

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Game designers are experts using this structure. They are experts at controlling a player, influencing them to make seemingly natural decisions. Games always offer a guiding hand, and maybe it’s time to subvert expectations, forgo routine and toy with the player a little more.

Quinn cites the example of Rambo: Last Blood, a game developed at MolyJam. It starts with the obvious gun-toting Rambo premise before pulling the rug from beneath the player and taking a journey into absurdity.

Rambo: Last Blood

Throughout Quinn’s talk it is evident that creating comedy is hard. It’s hard in literature, television and film, never mind in games. Comedy requires talent, timing, a sense of structure and a willingness to be daring and to fail.

Perhaps for comedy to work in a game it needs to be ever-present, sewn into the fabric of a game itself, from the UI and menus, to graphics, sound and story. Every element of a game is ripe for exploitation. Every element offers an opportunity to make a player laugh.

And as Quinn points out, this can start, right from the get go, with the name of the game itself.

Goat Simulator you know is a joke. Immediately. The first joke of the game is in the title,” she said.

More games need to take that risk. More games need to make us laugh. And then, perhaps, we will stop taking the games industry quite so seriously too.

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Thumbsticks editor and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Paper Mario: The Origami King, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Pikmin 3 Deluxe.

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