Dying is easy, comedy is hard
That often heard quote above is attributed to Edmund Kean, a highly respected actor of the 1800s that understood how hard it was to get a laugh. Based just on how many terrible attempts at comedy gamers have seen, I dare say humor is even harder to pull off in that medium than it is in films or TV. For every clever joke, there are a hundred immature goofs like Duke Nukem chortling at some double entendre about boobs.
It gets worse when you mix the immature nature of gamers with the challenge of stretching a funny concept over more than eight hours of gameplay is what makes an over reliance on fart jokes are so very tempting. (FART! See? I couldnt resist.) Thats why I respect the few games that make humor look far easier than it is. They come along so infrequently that its worth celebrating when a release is legitimately funny instead of constantly falling on its face while attempting to craft the perfect fecal pun. And I'm talking about comedic games, not serious titles with comic relief like in Mass Effect or Fallout. You haven't seen funny until you've played...
South Park: The Stick of Truth
There had been a number of South Park games in the years since the first episode aired in 1997, but they were all kind of shitty. Maybe thats because garbage like South Park Rally and Chefs Luv Shack didnt involve South Park masterminds Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The duo was heavily involved in South Park: The Stick of Truth, which shows through in every offensive, shocking, terribly funny moment that appears on screen.
Regulars like Cartman, Butters, and Randy all shine in ways that made them funny in the show--only the jokes have been fashioned to fit the tone and timing of games. Stick of Truth also squeezes a lot of great jokes out of the rules of gaming, like the insightful mocking of character creation and turn-based gameplay. Its basically an entire season of South Park made playable, and the laughs stay strong for the 12 hours or so that it lasts.
Its true that both Portal games are among the funniest ever developed, but for the sake of brevity, I'm only putting Portal 2 on this list. The slow escalation of GLaDOSs insanity in the original made her one of the funniest enemies ever battled, and her outright contempt for you is just as humorous in Portal 2. Additionally, she stays just as funny when she becomes your unwilling ally. And she isnt the only character spouting ludicrously amusing dialogue in Portal 2.
From the moment I met Wheatley I couldnt get enough of the bumbling AI played by Stephen Merchant. Even when he became malevolently evil, he was still the same dopey goof trying his best to pretend he meant to break everything. The world of Portal gets even deeper as you encounter the posthumous recordings of J.K. Simmons Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science. The actors own their roles, wringing every laugh possible out of the very clever script. And even with all the laughs, the plot still found room for genuine drama and pathos to add some balance to the outing.
Telltales Sam & Max seasons
Sam and Max got their start as an underground comic by Steve Purcell, and it was great to see the detectives off-kilter sense of humor thrive when transitioning to games in the LucasArts Sam & Max: Hit The Road. That same quality of humor returned when the dog and hyperkinetic rabbity thing made a comeback in Telltale Games episodic sequels from a few years ago.
Sam & Max mines a number of great jokes out of American institutions like child stars and talk shows, with a sharper wit that you wouldnt expect from the cartoony graphics. And there are also some awesome running jokes, like whenever the game acknowledges that Max became the President of the United States. Telltale is now known for the sorrow of The Walking Dead games, but Sam & Max shows the developers can just as easily make you laugh as soon as cry.
The folks at Double Fine, the Tim Schafer-led developer, make comedy look incredibly easy, particularly when Schafer is writing the script. Schafer has an ear for clever dialogue, but his real strength is characterization. Hes great at creating believable people stuck in unbelievable situations, and his heroes dive in with gusto. Psychonauts is arguably his most successfully comedic game thanks in large part to the basic gameplay of the platformer. Because each stage the hero, Raz, explores is inside the mind of Psychonauts many wacky characters, it makes each level a minefield of great jokes.
Take the conspiracy-obsessed Milkman. He has a twisted view of the world that makes for great conversations, but when you enter his thoughts, the looping, upside-down world is full of the mysterious men that haunt his dreams. In his level (like all the others), you come to understand the already-funny characters on a new level, which further enhances the comedy. Psychonauts is the best example of the unique brand of jest that only Schafer and his team can pull off, and given how difficult crafting just one good joke can be, were not surprised his games are continuously delayed.
The House of the Dead: Overkill
From the outside, House of the Dead: Overkill looks like its a bad game. Theres strange acting, shoddy production, and a liberal use of swears that might turn off the uninitiated. But dig a little deeper, and youll see that its all part of the plan. Sega and Headstrong Games' reboot of the House of the Dead series is a tribute to grindhouse films of the 70s that works wonderfully, thanks to Overkills surprisingly smart sense of humor.
The on-rails shooters heartiest laughs come from the profanity-laden exchanges between leads Agent G and Isaac Washington, one of gamings most underrated duos--but theres more to it than that. There are the intentional continuity errors throughout the story along with some janky character animation thats good for a laugh. In fact, its so good at comedy that even if some areas are unintentionally crappy, they enrich Overkills aesthetic instead of detracting from the fun. If only more titles were this good at being bad.
Hyper-Japanese games will always have a certain humor to them thanks to their exotic style, but at this point Ive been exposed to so much weirdness from the island nation that something has to be really out there to get my attention. Enter Katamari Damacy. The simple gameplay of rolling objects into an ever growing ball was fun enough, but it was the outright strangeness of its world that got us to laugh uncomfortably, something that its many sequels only intensified.
The oddly drawn people, the peculiar poems, and the beautifully random soundtrack set the mood for strange comedy, but the real star is the King of All Cosmos. The foppish dandys selfishness and insanity make him an endless fountain of jokes, constantly destroying things out of vanity or just drunken foolishness. Perhaps my favorite moment with the King is from Touch My Katamari for the PS Vita. Just look at the horror on his face at the end when he hears that a boy likes his school principal equally to the King of All Cosmos. Pure comedy.
Grand Theft Auto 5
Rockstar has proven time and again that it gets American culture. Thanks in part to its outsider perspective, the developer understands the gluttony, the hubris, the contradictory prudishness, the lust for power, the sloth, and all the other reasons we love the Land of the Free. The Grand Theft Auto games skewer those aspects through their unique look at major US cities--and the fifth entry found new ways to dish out such stinging parody with a trio of heroes.
Michael had the humor of a man suffering from a midlife crisis, laughing to avoid crying, while Franklins seriousness is offset by colorful arguments with his opportunistic business partner, Lamar. But Trevor is the real breakout comic actor of GTA 5, because the Canadian wild man makes the open-world gameplay really work, simply by not giving a fuck. Of course, the world outside our three protagonists is riddled with chuckle-worthy Easter eggs, alongside hours of humorous TV shows and radio programing to be found. Though it had its serious moments, GTA 5 went for comedy more often than its predecessor, making the chaotic proceedings that much more endearing.
Most Lego games
The Lego Movie surprised theatergoers by crafting one of the funniest films of 2014 out of a bunch of childrens blocks, but gamers werent caught off guard. Theyd grown accustomed to the cheeky sensibilities of the Lego franchises across games based on Star Wars, Batman, and Rock Band, and even a few originals like Lego City Undercover. The cute brand of comedy has proven versatile enough to work in with just about any franchise.
Though there's a bit of a sticking point with Legos brand of humor. Some traditionalists loved how the Star Wars and Indiana Jones games recreated classic film scenes without the characters ever talking, putting Lego titles at the forefront of the modern silent comedy. Some disliked that more recent titles added voice, but they kept the series style of light parody, and found new ways to incorporate observational humor that they couldnt touch before.
The WarioWare series
Many of the games on this list benefit from witty dialogue or lengthy cutscenes to indulge in comedy, which are straightforward ways of enhancing a games humor. But the WarioWare franchise, starting with the original Mega Microgame$, achieves most of its laughs through gameplay, dropping players into increasingly wacky scenarios. And when most segments of the games last about eight seconds, the jokes rarely have a chance to get old.
The WarioWare series gives Nintendo a chance to laugh at itself through a series of brief, one-button experiences that are rife with random comedy. You shove fingers in noses, bend spoons, sniff up strings of snot, and hold umbrellas over cats in short challenges that leave you giddily anticipating the next oddball diversion. And old-school Nintendo fans get extra chuckles from some very clever retro references in the 9-Volt segments of the franchise. The game may have spawned a series of equally random pretenders, but Marios lovably gross twin is still on top.
Bulletstorm is one of the most creative shooters of the last few years, and that starts with the games profanity. Any game can write a simple Go f*ck yourself, but none have the audacity to hurl insults like dicktits with the frequency of Bulletstorm. The whole script is a buddy cop adventure that ends up working like a parody of Epics more serious Gear of War games.
Bulletstorm also gives players ample opportunity to make their own comedy during combat. You mix and match attacks as creatively as possible, so if you want to shoot an enemy in the butt or fling them crotch-first into a cactus, the action on-screen rewards that curiosity with ridiculously violent results. Bulletstorm doesnt just tell jokes; it lets gamers improvise the gory comedy with them.
Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story
The long history of Mario RPGs is filled with great examples of humor, from the strange minigames Super Mario RPG to the goofball sidekicks in Paper Mario. When it comes to levity, the Mario & Luigi games have been the strongest of the bunch (the humor is definitely there in the recent Dream Team), and Bowsers Inside Story has the series strongest writing, finding fresh humor with the brothers along with some new faces. And the game accomplishes that all while keeping the content as squeaky clean as youd expect from Nintendo.
The games secret is the excellent characterization. Every major character has something uniquely funny about them. That goes for lead characters--like Luigis cowardice and Bowsers prideful obliviousness--along with bit players, like a lazy Goomba on his day off. And then theres Fawful, the marble-mouthed, chortling, vengeful despot who might just be the funniest creation in Nintendo history. The M&L games slightly off interpretation of the Mushroom Kingdom shows Nintendo doesnt take its most famous franchise too seriously, and that it might just be better than anyone else at finding the lighter side of its mascot.
Parappa the Rapper
Gaming has such a long history of weirdness that when Sony introduced the world to a rapping dog, gamers everywhere simply accepted it and rapped along with him. Perhaps they were so quick to embrace the hip-hop canine because his collection of songs were so absurdly funny. The plot was technically about a young man growing up and gaining self confidence, but he did that by rhyming about kung fu and breaking eggs.
The songs were about mundane things like learning to drive or trying to hold in your bodily functions, but the catchy lyrics never failed to make us laugh. Each new weirdo Parappa met had their own special way of teaching him lessons via snappy tunes, and its a testament to the clever writing that players kept coming back to the handful of stages again and again. Parappas world operated under its own weird rules, and the hilarious songwriting made it incredibly easy to accept.
This list could end up being dominated by Tim Schafer-produced titles like Costume Quest and Stacking, so Im limiting myself to his most recent effort, Broken Age. It doesnt have the brain-busting puzzles 90s PC adventures made (in)famous, but the games writing is just as comedically rewarding as classics like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island.
Broken Ages first act is filled with distinctly hilarious goofs to deal with, like a hipster lumberjack, aggressively happy Yarn Pals, and young ladies moping because they werent eaten by a giant monster. Even when an areas puzzles are complete, youll be keep talking to the occupants just to be sure you hear every possible piece of dialogue. Theres a twinge of melancholy to the comedy, but even the briefest of conversations in Broken Age is funnier than most games in their entirety.
The Simpsons Game
The Simpsons is hailed as one of the funniest pieces of fiction ever produced, and its many classic episodes play in repeat in the minds of an entire generation of nerds, but the games based on the sitcom were the usual licensed garbage you've come to expect. It took almost 20 years before the nuclear family got the game it deserved in EAs aptly titled The Simpsons Game. The adventure title had everything it needed for legitimacy: the original voice actors, a script by established Simpsons staff writers, numerous animated cutscenes, and it brought the shows trademark satire to the games industry.
The game not only mocks established genres like WWII shooters and sandbox games (via a digital recreation of Springfield), but it smartly ridiculed Achievements, the hysteria over violent games, and even the Simpsons own history of terrible 8-bit releases. The games most meta moment is likely when the cartoon family battles creator Matt Groening in his money-stuffed mansion. Groening is backed up by a number of Futurama characters that we never expected to see in the game, and thats just one of the many moments where the game surprised us with just how far its comedy could go. Its something the awful Family Guy games shouldve paid attention to.
Saints Row: The Third
As consoles become more powerful, games can support more and more random elements, but weve seen so many games that try to be wacky that instead feel like theyre trying way too hard. That wasnt the case with Saints Row: The Third, where it made excess a natural part of its world. Pro wrestlers battling zombies and cyberpunks just seemed normal when the game opens with a mid air, freefalling battle that sends the player headfirst through an airplane. Everything just escalates from there.
The random nature of the city of Steelport means that sometimes youll drive around with tiger in the passenger seat, or meet a pimp who only speaks via autotune. And the games protagonists quick acceptance of whatever new insanity explodes in front of him makes each scene even funnier and gives players permission to roll with the punches as well. Eventually, when Mayor Burt Reynolds is tasking you with killing the undead hordes that have sprouted up, you take it with the same amount of glee as the protagonist.
Deadpool is Marvels profanely humorous mercenary who cant stop talking to himself as he kills scads of henchmen on murder-for-hire missions. In the comics, his insanity takes the form of believing that all his adventures take place in a comic book (which explains all the winking asides), so when he finally stars in his own game, it needs to be just as self-aware, bloody, and swear-filled. Developer High Moon Studios embraced all of that for Deadpools game, and his running commentary over his first solo game is what makes it so freaking entertaining.
Deadpool has phone conversations with the games director, as well as Deadpool voice actor Nolan North. He picks up props and remarks about how poorly rendered they are. He comments on how lame some of the bosses in his game are. Perhaps the best moments is when he introduces players to his mutant pal Cable via the song Who the f**k is Cable? Its too bad the gameplay doesnt reach the same heights of the humor, but at least Deadpool does a good job of mocking it when it falls flat.
Developer Gearbox had built a reputation for dependable FPS gameplay, but it didnt really get to showcase its sense of humor until the first Borderlands. Players came for the gun porn, but they stayed for all the comedic moments stuffed into the futuristic wasteland, particularly from the titles robotic mascot Claptrap. Claptraps part was bulked up in the sequel, but it was antagonist Handsome Jack that stole the show from the Vault Hunters.
There were numerous other nutcases out in the world, but Handsome Jack tok the case when it came to crazy (and crazy funny) dialog. The game could even mine comedy out of the silent assassin Zer0s emoticon-plastered helmet. Wed grind through the game just to collect the countless weapons, but getting to see the little factoids attached to each new characters introduction or hear Jack describe his admiration for his diamond covered horse, Butt Stallion. Its hard to believe Gearbox could also produce the terribly unfunny Duke Nukem Forever.
Send in the clowns
Did we miss any other games that legitimately made you laugh? Not in the so bad its good way, but through quality comedic timing? Let us know what we missed in the comments. Your thoughts should at least be good for a chuckle.