Video games have been making us laugh for as long as we can remember. Yet often it's by accident rather than design; a result of the player's involvement spoiling the designer's intent.
"You can have this totally serious, heart-wrenching cutscene and the next moment, the player will ruin the mood by falling into a pit or something," Spelunky creator Derek Yu says. "That's why I actually think it's way harder to make a serious game than a comedic game."
Indeed, a game's seriousness can make it all the more amusing when it falls apart: if you've spent any time on the Internet lately, you'll surely have seen the Ghost Of Tsushima clip where protagonist Jin leaps into enemy territory and his body is repeatedly struck by arrows mid-jump, each hit keeping him airborne.
For a better example of a developer clearly understanding the comedic potential of its game, how about the succession of 30-second videos from The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild that spread across social media, where players found ever more inventively brutal ways of dispatching members of the Yiga Clan? This kind of systemic comedy has become much more prevalent in recent years. And with more games actively using scripted humour as a selling point, it feels as if we're not far away from a new golden age of video game comedy.
Comedy of errors
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Indeed, it's hard to think of a recent triple-A game that has comedy as a central pillar. Both Marshall and Neil refer to Valve's Portal and its sequel as among the funniest games they can remember from that space, but in the latter case that's going back nine years.
"They were amazing and they were big hits," Neil says, exasperatedly. "Why didn't our industry kind of twig from that that they should do more of this stuff?"
There seems to be a misguided belief in some quarters of the industry that seriousness equates to maturity; Yu suggests blockbuster games' obsession with cinema is part of the problem. "A lot of people who don't play games feel like games can't really be art until one can make them cry, and a lot of game designers have taken that to heart."
For Neil, part of the problem is structural – and possibly intractable in some genres. She admits to skipping cutscenes when she plays a lot of modern games, partly because their mechanics are rarely conducive to humour; comedy during cinematics, for example, relies on a player's attention when it's often elsewhere.
"We need mechanics that encourage you to focus on the elements that are core to comedy, like character and shit," she begins. "To notice things in the environment, to notice things about the characters… an audience needs to do a bit of work watching comedy in order to earn the payoff. In a sitcom, you need to see the escalating situation and then you get the punchline in the end, and you've earned that by paying attention. And in action-focused games you're just not paying attention. Games are not very good at that, these long setups and payoffs."
Marshall, who has scripted the majority of his games with writing partner Ben Ward, suggests that part of the reason is simply too many cooks; bigger-budget games are much more likely to have a larger team, where jokes are effectively designed by committee.
"I always think about writers' rooms on The Simpsons for like, season 30 or whatever, and how it must just be this hellish environment to get anything approved. With one or two writers, it's probably going to work out a lot better, even if it won't appeal to everyone."
But surely that's preferable to the alternative? "Yeah, I think it's worth the gamble of writing something specific from one or two people, as opposed to all these mediocre jokes that have been approved by everyone where everything gets watered down and filtered down over time."
Nelson Jr attributes it to "confidence and agency", suggesting that "99% of comedy is confidence". He says "you need to believe that its structure, its form and your delivery works. If you don't have that, it doesn't work for anyone. So if you're in a triple-A environment in which your actions are deeply constrained, second guessed or otherwise not enabled to exist with confidence and with autonomy, then you can't expect comedy to thrive in that environment."
All of which, he says, has made him more appreciative when he does play triple-A games that make him laugh. "That means, hopefully, that behind the scenes for that project, someone was allowed to be funny."
Meanwhile, for Yu, even the biggest of budgets doesn't necessarily leave room for nuanced facial expressions – we haven't forgotten LA Noire's gurning 'suspicious' faces, as yet another example of accidental comedy. "As realistic as characters look in triple-A games now, they still aren't realistic enough to tell a really funny, scripted punchline. And if you have a triple-A budget, why spend it on cartoon graphics, even if it might be funnier that way? When people pay 60 dollars, they want that extra realism. So part of it is just the pressure of being at that level, at that budget."
But at a lower-budget level, things are changing. As one of the most prolific freelance writers in the industry at present, Nelson Jr has noticed that he and his peers are increasingly being more involved at an earlier stage of a game's production, giving him the kind of tools he needs to deliver better, funnier jokes. He has plenty of experience of projects where that wasn't the case, however.
"I've been in positions alongside other creators where we had to be very funny, but we could not affect who was speaking, what order they were speaking in, when they spoke or the expression that they made when they spoke," he says.
"And our task was to rewrite the entire game because the previous script wasn't funny and was problematic. And the new script needed to be funny, and not a PR nightmare. According to the reviews, at least, we were funny, but as a narrative professional it can be desperately difficult to be funny in circumstances like that, right? Where there's a punchline that would work 1,000 times better if you simply had another option, another capability, if your work was enabled in some way by the team you were working with."
Game development, he adds, involves a lot of moving parts – and that's where much of the challenge of creating comedy in video games lies. A deep level of collaboration from the start is vital to ensuring that jokes fit the narrative and land as the writer hopes.
"If you don't have the tools to tell a joke, the joke can't be told. If there's not a script in the game that allows me to dramatically zoom in on a character's face, I can't do any joke that involves that. So in many ways, the capability for comedy in a game on any level – systemic or narrative – relies on that capability being supported by the rest of the team in some capacity."
And the reason that happens more in indie games? A broader recognition that with constrained resources, close collaboration is key – even for narrative professionals who write a game's script alone and remotely.
"Having a lot of contact with the team and access to the context in which your words will live… the idea that your work is reliant on that has improved exponentially in the past few years, because there was an age of game writing where you would be given a spreadsheet and that would be it. You wouldn't know if the game was third-person or first-person, if those words would end up in a cutscene or shouted as a bark. You just didn't know."
Mining for laughs
Comedy is also a relatively cost-effective way to "sex up" a low-budget game, Neil says – and as a former sound designer, she's used to finding cheaper ways to get bang for your buck than graphics. "I think the same thing goes for something like adding humour – it's certainly cheaper than triple-A [games] throwing loads of money at something and then the people in your fine industry rave about framerates or complain about them," she says with a wry smile. "Whatever arms race is going on now… we've got to find a way to compete, right? So it's a cheaper way to make the game appeal."
An effective one, too, Nelson Jr believes, especially in the indie space. In recent years, he's received praise for his words in games that were otherwise poorly reviewed. While he says the potential for truly transcendent interactive comedy remains largely untapped, it is still possible to create games that make players laugh, even if their mechanics are not necessarily tuned for humour.
"You can have a comedy game that's deeply unfunny, but very satisfying on a gameplay level, or deeply unsatisfying on a gameplay level, but actually very funny," he says. "There is a sense of freedom in narrative, at least, where unlike selling the dramatic beat of a character's death when the rest of the game doesn't support that, if I want to make someone laugh due to my specialties, I basically can."
That's part of the reason, he says, that we're seeing much more comedy in indie games these days. "If it can be an isolated piece that can be polished, suddenly you have a forum in which really talented creators and talented narrative professionals can pull something together while working with limited resources that triple-A might not even recognise as being a need in the first place."
Scripted humour is one approach. But what about those games where the punchline is halfway between deliberate and accidental? "What I think is ace about video games is that humour can come from so many different places," Marshall says. "Dialogue is an obvious way for things to be funny. But then there's something like Fall Guys – I haven't played it yet, but I've been watching a lot of videos of it, and it looks fucking hilarious. And it's not funny because someone's written something funny. There's no jokes in it, as far as I can tell. It's funny for an entirely different reason."
As discussed elsewhere in this issue, Fall Guys was built with physical comedy in mind. Inspired by Takeshi's Castle, this candy-coloured battle royale game is played primarily for laughs – some of them cruel ones, as griefers gleefully push would-be qualifiers out of contention. But the rise of procedural generation has also played a key role in the increasing number of funny games. Marshall says his 2015 stealth-action game The Swindle threw up so many surprise combinations during playtesting that he couldn't contain himself while trying to road-test his own game.
"Spelunky will do it – when completely unexpected stuff just happens. And the world contrives against you. And when you shoot a bazooka in Worms, and it hits a mine and the mine goes dink-dink-dink-dink-dink and lands at your feet and blows up. That's funny, as well. TV can't do that, and films can't do that, and books can't do that. But games can. The humour can come from absolutely anywhere, and I think that's really exciting."
Marshall and Nelson Jr both cite Yu's Spelunky as one of the great comedy games because it provides the two things that good comedy needs: surprise and delight. As anyone who has played it will attest, Spelunky is an inherently funny game, its systems frequently colliding in unpredictable ways that naturally lead to moments of unscripted comedy.
There are always happy accidents like these in games with procedural elements, and Yu says he has consciously tried to lean into these during development. "That's a great way to put it, because it's not about planning too much or too far ahead," he says.
"For me, it's better to start by making the individual interactions feel dynamic and let the funny combinations come by themselves. Comedy isn't really the end goal – it's just a product of the world being more deeply interactive. So that's what I focus on."
In making Spelunky 2's world more reactive and alive, he has found new ways and old to boost its comedic potential. "I looked at the first game and thought about which interactions were the most fertile and worth expanding upon," he says. "For example, the tiki man could pick up boomerangs and throw them and that led to some really funny, unexpected situations. Is there more we can do with enemies picking up items? That kind of thing. So in that sense, I did play up the comedy, but in an indirect yet intentional way."
Is it fair to class systemic comedy alongside scripted comedy? When both provoke laughter, surely there's the answer. Though Neil believes the latter is arguably a harder sell these days.
"We're still sort of living with the tyranny of screenshots," Neil says. "It used to be that if you couldn't produce good screenshots of your game, then you're doomed. But now it's videos, animated GIFs and stuff. Anything that's not art has a real disadvantage."
Marshall, who has pivoted from a dialogue-heavy game to one that's more immediately "GIF-able", in which a playable dinosaur tosses around the humans trying to hunt it – agrees.
"It was like getting blood from a stone getting anyone to pay attention to Clockwork God, and I think that's partly because it's not an internet-friendly or social media-friendly type of game. In a game like that, even with a line of dialogue that's technically funny, it's only really funny because of a wealth of stuff that comes before it."
That's why, he says, the game's trailer didn't have any dialogue. "Taken out of context and just banged in a trailer, everything felt really try-hard and forced and fake and false. But when you're playing it and you're like an hour deep, it's funny. You've got all these pillars in-game, and the writing part is such a wobbly pillar. You and I could look at it and think, 'That is a fucking funny pillar,' and then someone at a slightly different angle sees it wildly differently, and it all comes crumbling down. But that's the nature of the beast."
Nelson Jr, however, thinks that no type of comedy is more successful or inherently accessible then another, citing the Yakuza games as an example.
"Its localisation team rightly gets some of the greatest kudos in games, because they have written around the capabilities of a dialogue box," he says. "Most of the time, their audience is looking at that dialogue box and they're taking pictures of that and they're sharing it on social media – in or out of context it's funny. On the other hand, you've got things like Fall Guys where the chaos is organic, and compelling from an image. It's comedy either way."
While things are clearly improving, Neil thinks games have a way to go before a large audience approaches the medium actively looking for something to make them laugh. "The biggest thing for me is really the low expectations. If you're looking for a comedy experience, you say, 'I feel like watching a funny movie', or 'I feel like watching some TV,' you know? 'Or I'm going to go out and see some standup.' I'm not going to go looking for that kind of experience [in games] because I don't expect it."
Nelson Jr thinks the situation may become easier as more commercially successful comedy games are released. As a writer, he says, it encourages him to suggest more comedic ideas whenever the opportunity arises.
"It gives you an argument inside the room to say, 'Hey, everybody loved that sassy android in Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Can I make this android sassy?'" Yet he wouldn't say there's an increased appetite for comedy games these days, simply that there are now more ways to fulfil the need to laugh. "We're just seeing more and more avenues for that desire to be satisfied, because that desire is inherently human."
But can video games do that and still be mechanically satisfying? The funniest games often have very straightforward systems, for one simple reason. If the secret to good comedy is timing, then it's hard to achieve that when agency is ceded to the player, when they have control over the delivery of a joke.
Necrophone Games' first-person spy adventure Jazzpunk strove to subvert player expectations at every turn, ensuring similar interactions always had different, unlikely outcomes. It remains one of the funniest games Edge has played, yet few have followed its lead. Developers like Amanita Design, meanwhile, have had success mimicking the point-and-click formula, but making their games wordless, while introducing elements of vaudeville and surrealism. The unexpected responses to your actions in the likes of Chuchel and Pilgrims, for example, provide the moments of surprise that make them funny. Even if, ultimately, your only involvement is to click on a person, object or sentient jelly. It's something Neil has been thinking about lately.
"A player wants agency," she says. "And if they can have agency in the creation of comedy, I think that's definitely like a good thing to aim for. You know, when people are playing with The Sims and then locking their Sims in houses and then burning them to death – I don't know why I brought that example up – but at that sort of meta level, right? I think we actually make the mistake in games of working at this micro level of saying, 'Oh, and now I'm going to give the player three options for the punchline,' and for me that's not how comedy works. It's about pacing and surprise, and I think we're going to always be limited in games if we take current mechanics like a conversation tree, and just inject comedy."
Instead, she says, games should start with comedy and then find mechanics that flow from that. Only then can we start thinking about comedy becoming its own genre in games, rather than merely an added bonus.
"We're at a stage of technology where we've done the whole jerk off to graphics thing, we've done wanking over the physics stuff, people talk about AI and procedural content generation, but I think now we're at a time where we've got the tools to actually start realising the potential of interactive comedy."
"There's Double Fine, there's Crows Crows Crows, there are indie studios – but why can't I name more big studios that are great at comedy? I mean, for god's sake, we have specialist racing game studios! Why is this not a massive genre in games? The time is right and the time is now."