Sunday, March 8, 2009

Is it really that hard to "Bring the Funny?"

Apparently, when it comes to video games, it may very well be. Video game developers have been trying for years to create games that are genuinely funny, while not forgetting about that whole damn gameplay aspect. This has ended with widely varying results. On one end you have older games like the Monkey Island series, the original Space Quest games, Maniac Mansion & its sequel Day of the Tentacle, Duke Nukem series, and (more recently) Portal or the Sam & Max and Penny Arcade episodes. These games take various approaches to humor, whether it's childish jokes like Duke Nukem, ridiculous insanity such as Sam & Max, or more thought-provoking obscure humor such as Portal. And don't forget the Grand Theft Auto games brand of off-color humor, including the radio DJs and commercials. However, games often focus on spoof to generate laughs, such as the recent Bard's Tale or the Simpson's Movie game. Taking nothing away from a spoof, which can be quite good when done well, it is typically seen as the lowest common denominator (as evidenced by the recent rash of " Movie" that the Wayans have milked for years since the mildly interesting original Scary Movie all the way back in 2000...don't even bother seeing one from the last 7 years. You'll thank us.).

On the other hand, just as many games have tried and failed to use humor as a center stage. Take, for example, a game like Bad Mutha Truckers 2: Truck Me Harder (which, consequently is not funny because they decided to actually make a sequel). Two ideas this game should learn from general humor outside the video game world:

1) A play on words is, in truth, not funny 99.9% of the time. In fact, it is probably just annoying to everyone.
2) Anyone who tries really hard to be funny is usually just embarrassing and pathetic. We have all been 'that guy' at sometime in our lives, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Unless for some reason you decide to put that horribly pathetic snapshot of your life and decide to expand it into 6-10 hours of shame and sell it for the whole world to go back to and mock incessantly at will. I would guess you get the point by now.

Another example of failed humor is BMX XXX. First off, see rule one above. Secondly, who actually thought the idea of naked porn stars, pixellated boobies, and BMX riding would be funny?? Am I missing something?

Or remember Topheavy Studios' "The Guy Game?" Where they took the fantastic You Don't Know Jack trivia game, added naked chicks, and removed all the humor? Yeah, you're way better off if you don't. (Another note to self: clearly adding nudity to a genre that doesn't normally work with it doesn't make it wacky and hilarious, just strange and uncomfortable.)

Which brings me to the reason for this post in the first place. You may have heard of a game that just came out for both the 360 and PS3 names "Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard." It chronicles the triumphant return of video game action icon from the 80's and early 90's and blatant Duke Nukem homage, Matt Hazard. Go look up his history at if you don't remember or missed him the first few times around...we'll wait.

Back? Okay, well so far so good. Vicious Cycle Software basically created the character from top to bottom as a spoof of various action video game and movie characters, with kicker being that he knows he's a video game character. They then proceed to mock, not merely spoof, everything you know about video games as a whole. For example, there is a scene right at the start of a level where his mission tasks are being transmitted to him via the top corner of the screen. Instead of one or two tasks, it starts scrolling down the entire screen with ridiculously specific goals, until he finally says, "Ummm...can we just get to the specifics?" The words disappear, and is replaced with a text stating "Kill Everything That Moves," to which he replies, "That's more like it." Or the battle against Altos Tratus, the huge JRPG-style boss that requires Matt to read all his text before clicking a button to advance to the next box, and even going so far as to his frustration with time wasted due to a response via an ellipsis.

I won't pretend that every joke hits. Even if more than half make you chuckle, the game is significantly better than most attempts at humor available. But if you remember back to the second sentence of this blog, you'd know that there was an enttire other half to the comedy game: in fact, it is the gameplay itself. And this is where Matt Hazard falls apart. The humor is evident, but it almost seems as though the designers put all their effort into that at the expense of gameplay. It feels very unpolished, and even broken in some areas, such as overly complicated controls and killboxes to a degree you have never seen before towards the end of the game. You could argue that a funny game with broken gameplay is better than a well-played unfunny attempt at a humorous game, but why should gamers have to settle for both?

Now we come to the end of the blog, where I offer a solution to the problem. Or I would, rather, if I had one. And if I did, wouldn't we be making games instead of doing a halfway funny podcast about them? In the end, "Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard" is a relatively funny mocking of video games that has some poor gameplay attached to it. I recommend you rent or borrow it if you can, if only to see how many of the inside jokes you get and/or laugh at. But you'll have to wait a little longer for that elusive games that somehow finds the right mix of both integral parts of the comedy game.


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