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So I’m gonna do what Jon Stewart did last Monday night with respect to the Virginia Tech shooting. Acknowledge that it was horrible and fucked up. Pause. And try to continue to function.

And bring the comedy. Or, more specifically, some analysis of the structure of comedy in games.

Wow, ok, I hope this is more interesting than that sounds. Fingers crossed, folks.

So there’s a general meme in the game industry that games “can’t do” or “suck at” comedy. Which, like most of the game industry’s collected wisdom, is horribly, horribly wrong. (Thankfully, there are some others that also disagree.)

The most common argument against it usually goes along structural lines. It’s not easy to set up a simple joke like you can in text or film. The player has control of the pacing, so you can’t dole out the funny. Comedy is timing, they say. But comedy has many forms/structures, some of which don’t require such rigid pacing – so this is a disproof by counter-example.

(I’m not talking about the simplest attempts at comedy some games make – a funny sidekick, some funny dialogue in cutscenes, maybe a running gag here or there. That’s like the one-liners in an action movie. They may be funny enough, but they’re not the focus.)

One particular form of comedy has some interesting application – the situation comedy. Because the humor is (at least in part) meant to derive from the humorous situations characters get themselves in. They are typically small contained worlds, a small number of characters, and there’s a limited set of rules those characters follow. What could that have in common with games? Huh.

Specifically, two examples stand out as being even more relevant – Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (uncoincidentally, David was one of the co-creators of Seinfeld). They rely on ironic juxtaposition of the situations the characters experience. What does that mean? Well, at the simplest level, this sort of thing goes on: Event A happens, then seemingly unrelated event B happens, then event C happens, which connects both A and B in an ironic light, as a sort of punchline.

For example, there’s a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (which I can’t find a plot synopsis for online, so this is from memory) where Larry David is being chastised by his wife for admiring another woman’s ass. As these things go for him, he’s supposedly not guilty and she’s just caught him at an inopportune moment – he argues he’s not an ass-man, after all. Meanwhile, he’s trying to fight a speeding ticket that’s been assigned to him by one of those cameras on the highway, and automatically mailed to his home – but it’s not actually his car. Then at the end of the episode, he’s driving a female acquaintance somewhere, she drops something in the back, having to lean over and search for it, ass in the window, with him looking at the lady wondering what the heck she’s doing, as he passes another speeding camera – capturing the moment and thus “proving” his wife’s point.

Now, both shows’ plotlines are often incredibly more complex than this. They usually involve 3-4 different interwoven plotlines per episode, different character arcs, etc. But the A, B, C example illustrates my point.

What’s interesting about that? Well, A and B have no implied linearity. They’re otherwise unconnected events. If this was a game, the player could experience them in whatever order they should choose to. Then you throw event C at them as the punchline, as a gated event. And tada, funny.

Now, there’s obviously a lot of work actually coming up with the funny events in those plotlines, but from a structural perspective, it’s certainly applicable. It’s pretty common structure to sprinkle events to be experienced by the player throughout the world, and gate other events based on which combination of events the player has already experienced…

So who wants to play Seinfeld: A Game about Nothing?

(Ah, but Borut, you ask, if you’re trying to argue for games that have more meaningful things to say about the world around us, why are you talking about comedy in games? Because the highest form of comedy is satire, and as I was just saying, it’s one way of promoting social change. So there.)

One Response to On the lighter side of things

  • Patrick says:

    I had a very similar idea to this some time ago. I think you’re on point, but also (perhaps unintentionally) alluding to the philosophy of Real-time Manifesto author Micheal Samyn, who designed Drama Princess around the notion that player inference is one of the most powerful forces we have. Its all about playing with contexts rather than content.