Comedy in Games (about designing them, some philosophy, and examples)

It’s been on my mind a lot lately to finally write about designing comedy games, or just humorous interactions for an interactive format.
Comedy, and satire, was my first love when building things like this. There have always been a few things about it that fascinated me. Primarily for how easy it is to turn it into “bizarre” rather than a “comedy game”.
It’s interesting how translating basic skits can easily become surreal instead of funny. I think the fact that something is made interactive makes whatever people experience much stronger than in passive mediums, so some work needs to be done to “tone down” your messages. It helps to be very specific in what you are doing.
Like, Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs was supposed to be a skit. Just silly, but the reactions were often more along the lines of it being surrealist, rather than comedy.
The participatory factor, and dropping a person in the middle of a setting, makes for a lot of confusion. This comes through strongest when you’re making comedy games.

Another interesting observation is that (in my opinion) this also gets more complicated when you try making meaningful messages with your comedy.
Things like queer stories, or communicating personal life stories, can become more difficult to convey in an interactive environment.
Especially when you don’t have a lot of control over how people interact with it when they’re in it… Not having a linear experience can often miscommunicate.
How a person plays it changes the message. The way the person participates in it also forms the story, so how do you encourage people to play positively? How do you discourage abuse?
…For example, youtube bros playing Robert Yang’s games in order to ridicule, or shame, the gay messages. It turns into them asserting their power, rather than engaging with gay culture.
What the game is supposed to be portraying positively, or with a level of dignity, gets changed by that interaction. In some ways I think that player interactions do change the intention of the piece.

In my last post I talked a bit about how YouTuber’s yelling standard let’s play commentary at my work could hurt people watching because the messages are meant to be taken with a level of sincerity (here’s the quote). For example, if you play something about sexual assault, while yelling insults at it, it doesn’t help people watching, and in a way the message gets reappropriated to be invalidating rather than empowering.

So, the overall struggle here is; how do you even design interactions so that they aren’t harmful to these messages?

I make mention of this because comedy can also be very harmful. Humor can be used to assert the privilege of those in power, and put down others. I think South Park (both the games, and show) is probably the biggest example of this. Even excusing it by saying “well it makes fun of everyone” you ignore the fact that not everyone stands at an equal cultural level or position of power.
Making a joke about the darker the color of the skin of the character you customize, the harder the game will be, will be played out very differently from the varying people engaging with it. That interaction can be used to be harmful and invalidating.

So I think there is some responsibility to be had here in terms of how you build your interactions, and what you say.
I think about this a lot because there was a time when I would “own” hate directed at me. I internalized that, and made fun of myself so other’s wouldn’t. Later in life this translated into my work.

Personal story: when my family moved to America the first time, I was sent to high school here. Before moving here I was absolutely nonbinary, without knowing what that was. I preferred dressing in “guy clothes”. It’s something I just was. My mom encouraged it (as in, if I was comfortable doing it yes do it), and it wasn’t ever brought into question until I went to school here.
In highschool I was bullied a lot for looking like a boy. I was called “boy girl” a lot. Kids would follow me around discussing if “is that a boy or a girl?” Often it ended up with me being called an “it”.
So I pushed back by completely owning that I was a “freak”. I would be scary so that they would leave me alone. I made a persona for myself in which I referred to myself as “it” and I was the “monster” that haunted the school. It was a very cool and fashionably pronounced goth phase that made all the popular girls afraid of me. At the time doing this seemed funny to me. It gave me some reprieve. I didn’t know what nonbinary was, and I’m sure if I had access to that things would have been different.
So the idea of “owning” hate and pushing back that way is something that I don’t think really works too often. Maybe hateful things shouldn’t be “owned” in creative and humorous ways because that easily gets internalized. It has had negative effects on how I view myself, and unfortunately some of that did make its way into my work.

A brilliant work of standup that I think literally everyone should watch is Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. It’s available on Netflix. You should watch it. It’s quality food for thought, especially for designing comedy.
It will give you a lot to think about.

One particular thing that struck me was how she talked about being tired of “putting herself down” in her jokes in order to speak and earn permission to speak…
I think what’s to take away from all this is that this is something you really cannot do when designing comedy in a game, or anything interactive.
If you come from that point of being a minority, with these life experiences, and you put yourself down, whatever you say will be so much more pronounced in an interactive format.
Depending on the player, the game can be especially harmful to people from that minority (it can become hate speech because of the interaction and the person interacting with it).

So is there a right way of doing it?
What is funny about these experiences?
Why do we need to laugh at them?
What are we laughing at when we make a joke about them? Are we laughing at ourselves rather than the people that hold that power over us?
Who is the joke directed at?
Comedy can be extremely liberating.
To me, it’s how I have survived. It’s the one way were you CAN talk about these really horrible, difficult, often dehumanizing things, and use it as a means to rise above it. Satire is power when you’re disempowered. Laughing at something strips the power it holds over you… That’s what it is to me personally. This is what “Everything is going to be OK” was intended to be.
If you can’t laugh at what you’ve been through, then what’s the point? Without sugar coating in some way or another you’ll only hurt people by talking about it. If you can’t talk about it, or make art from it, then this is like bottling up cancer.

I think you really have to fiercely approach what you are making, and saying, from the point of pride.
Even when discussing difficult topics. There’s a “false shame” about what you are, what you’ve been through, and your right to speak on it, that you have to overcome.
This pride about who you are is something that you take into your work, and it might even encourage others.
Either way, these are just my opinions. I’m still searching. None of this is definitive.


Right, ok, so that was a lot of opening philosophy. I’m here to talk about actually designing comedy in games, and some that I’ve enjoyed playing

I think there is something to be said about playful interactions with friends that you have in games, and how well that translates into comedy.
Some of it just seems to come naturally to the format.

Looking back at many early Half Life 1 mods, it was SO HARD not to end up in the middle of what seems like a perfect skit as you’re goofing around with your friends.
Even if the game you were in was “serious” (the story, or mood it was trying to set), running counter to what the game wants often came so naturally.
I think in a lot of ways comedy in games is easiest when you’re playing with others. It’s a bit harder if you’re building single player experiences.
It’s VERY EASY to laugh with an audience.

There’s one game in particular that I feel like broke a lot of ground in terms of (multiplayer) game comedy. It’s a Half Life mod called “Rocket Crowbar”.

Rocket Crowbar was basically a weapons mod. I remember there being more mods and maps done surrounding it.
Highlights were for how just changing the weapons to these goofy things made a huge difference.
The shotgun shot scientists that screamed as they where being hurdled through the air, and exploded as they hit something.
The gun shot bloody body parts, so you were essentially shooting people with people.
The crowbar had a rocket attached to it (hence the name).
There where tiny soldiers that you could let go (the grenades, if I remember right), and they had high pitched voices and ran after you, and exploded if they reached you…
Playing it became a ridiculous mess of laughter. You just couldn’t take anything serious anymore. The fact that it was so lowbrow about what it was, and offered no excuse or context for why it was that, made it amazing.

To me, I think Rocket Crowbar is iconic. It’s just brilliant.
It’s the first time that I played a game that totally let itself go.
It didn’t even care about trying to justify why it was silly.
Many earlier comedy games, even today, used a story to contextualize the jokes. MDK had a lengthy story surrounded by silly scenarios. The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble had a punky cartoony mood that delivered offbeat humor. Space Quest still cared about beginning middle and end.
Even smaller freeware titles like Chickens 2 (which is really wonderful, you need to play it) seemed to necessitated a “story” to justify it existing.

Rocket Crowbar was different. The jokes didn’t need context. It didn’t need an excuse for what it was. It just embraced the inherent meaninglessness of video games. It didn’t fight it.
After all, the amount of suspension of disbelief needed to really immerse yourself in “the seriousness of the format”, and overlook physics glitches, visual glitches… can be ridiculous. Silly gifs of skating glitches from Tony Hawk games comes to mind.
Games want you to take them seriously, but sometimes looking past all that gets so hard. Why try?

I think that games that embrace this end up doing really well. There’s something to be said of things that don’t fight the flaws of the format. Newer Unity games that basically build a game around a goofy bug, or broken physics are great examples. Gang Beasts is SO HARD to control, and embraces that. Cricket Through the Ages comes off as someone finding a physics bug really funny and building a game around that. Regular Human Basketball seems the same, but a little more coordinated. Mosh Pit Simulator is also worth mentioning… The list goes on…

In general, I think games that let themselves go are a wonderful thing. Rocket Crowbar was my first introduction to something that totally did that, in context of multiplayer.

Like I mentioned, it offered no story or excuse for being what it was. The player provided that context. The interactions you have are story enough. The lack of “background” for why you’re here, or why you’re doing what you’re doing didn’t get in the way of you playing with your friends and making these scenarios yourself. It’s nice to have a space where you can write the jokes yourself, with your friends. All you need are the props.
Rocket Crowbar gave you plenty of props.

The goofiness here outweighed any professionalism. I think that’s often why I find comedy games appealing. They are lowbrow by nature. There’s no way that they can be sophisticated or “high art”. The fact that they don’t want you to take them serious is why they are so likeable. The less serious they are about themselves, the funnier.

There were plenty of other goofy mods, with interesting premises. Science & Industry comes to mind, but I think that Rocket Crowbar worked so well because it didn’t give you a clear purpose. It let you explore the weird context that you were placed in, with your friends.

So, as illustrated in the game’s mentioned above, multiplayer experiences yield themselves well to comedy. It’s almost like cheating… maybe it is. If you provide the right context, and the right type of interaction that is open enough to be as ridiculous as possible, it’s not hard to make something hilarious when played with friends.

Worth also mentioning is another multiplayer game that I think was really interesting for its time: Jump n’ Bump.

It’s a very simple game, and there’s not much to it. You play a cute bunny. Your friend plays another cute bunny. What’s impactful is the first impression this game leaves you with. You jump on your friend, and the cute bunny explodes into a meaningless pile of gore. It had this “oh my god, what??” effect that made engaging with it really funny.

I think working with the tendency of games to be meaninglessly violent, pointless, and their often easy inclination to be “over the top” ridiculous, is something unique to making comedy games. It’s hilarious to watch a Gang Beats tournament because there are so many ridiculous “oh my god, what??” moments.

Overall, I think the nature of video games is meaningless. Yes, I get how pretentiously artsy that sounds, but look at any Multibowl match. It’s funny because of how random, ridiculous, and pointless these old titles can be when just thrown together out of context. I don’t think games (in general) age well.
They get old, they just get ridiculous. Despite the artistic intentions of the creator.
It’s obvious that many games used in Multibowl are serious. They want to be taken serious, but just placing them in another context bastardizes whatever they are about.
It’s easy to make fun of a format that is so naturally buggy, often visually clumsy, and restrained by technical limitations.

So I think it’s wonderful when you have games that don’t take themselves seriously. It’s almost self-commentary.

A collection of games that I think is iconic to this is work by Cheesy Software:
Thankfully they are still available on that site. They are a gem.
Most notably is Megapede.

At the time this was amazing because it really didn’t even try.
Bad “bleaugh!” sounds played as you shot the megapede. Silly sound bites from movies played, seemingly at random. Even the logo and title screen sounds are ridiculous.
The shooting sound is so repetitive, obnoxious, and loud, that it gets annoying, and after a while even that starts being funny.
If you die a small animation of, supposedly the creator, laughing at you plays.
What I also loved about it was the complete disregard for copyright. You want to make a game? Fuck it! Just take whatever you want, throw it together, and share it.
The disregard for self-respect, quality, or consistency is amazing when it’s in a game.

I really loved shareware like this for the feeling of “why am I playing this??” it gave you. You have no idea why you’re playing this, what it is that you are even playing, or to what end you are playing it, and that lack of control made things so wonderfully funny.

Cheesy Software was probably one of the biggest inspirations behind Tetrageddon Games. I tried to keep the dream alive there.

So I think ridiculous aesthetic, that is kind of a satire of the format, works really well.
For example, this is why I think Grace Bruxner’s work is so disarmingly funny.
There’s something to be said about experiences that are aware of the shortcomings of the format that they are in.

Embraced amateurism, and especially amateur aesthetic, goes a long way in interaction because it’s automatically disarming. The pretense of quality is gone, and it’s easy to laugh at that. It’s not intimidating, or trying to be artistic, it’s asking you to laugh at it as much as with it.

(pictures lazily taken from this jayisgames article)

So this takes me to the final game that I want to talk about; Kingdom of Loathing.
KoL holds a special place in my heart.
It’s a browser based multiplayer game. I think it’s something of a relic from the “old web” and Web 1.0 humor.
It’s not reliant on memes to make jokes. Despite of how it looks on the surface, it’s not “cheep” that way. It’s not derogatory, or putting anyone down in order to make a joke. It’s just a hub of something wonderfully silly to have stumbled across and get sucked into.

KoL shines for so many reasons that I could write another post about just that. For one, it’s the writing. It’s wonderful for how “self aware” of the format it is, and that makes it something of a satire as much as it does straight up comedy.
I think games that try to do satire of games often end up being somewhat eye-rolling, because the humor is way too “insider”. First time I encountered that was with the very last Space Quest, which made fun of other games that took place around that time, and I don’t think it really worked (I forget which Space Quest specifically, but it was the last one).
Stuff like that doesn’t age well. Jokes grow out of style.
KoL is still relevant because it broadly made fun of itself (in charming, sweet ways).
Aside from the writing, what I loved most about it was the art… Or lack thereof.
The overall first impression it gave you was this wonderful feeling of “omg what is this? haha, what?” The lack of pretentiousness really drew you in. It was disarming. I think in terms of comedy games, embracing the platform, and placement, this is among the ones that did so much right.

Their latest West of Loathing is still funny, and uses a lot of the same tried and tested jokes that the first started. I’m mostly referring to the stick figures.
I think in terms of West of Loathing, that aesthetic still works because there’s so much space between KoL and West of Loathing that not everyone has seen that joke. It’s still a good silly disarming first impression… but I make a point to mention this because visual style, and art, is as important of a joke as any other aspect of the game.
It’s not only context, framing, and writing, but also art that is used to make a joke.
Jokes can get old.
Not to miscommunicate this, and amateur aesthetic is a hill that I have chosen to die on and will always defend, but if you choose amateur aesthetic how you frame that maters. You can’t make certain styles too much of a habit, otherwise they get old.
Not to make a bigger deal than needs to of talking about “stick figures as aesthetic”, but ok, I’ll do just that… Thank you for still reading.
West of Loathing still kind of works as a visual joke, but I think if they released another game that was stick figures it would stop being funny and it would start being “just something they do”.

Example is the old cartoon joke of “shhhh, let’s sneak!” and the cartoon characters do this very exaggerated sneaking walk. At one point it was funny. It started being repeated so often that it stopped being funny, and just became a cartoon thing.
I’m not sure how I feel about jokes that become habits, it seems lazy.
I think amateur aesthetic is important, especially with cartoons, comedy, or anything lighthearted, because it invents new ways of communicating something.
Comedy is something that can easily get old. Jokes go out of style.
If you keep with a visual style that is very unique, and changes enough, I think it stays funny. Glittermitten Grove is a good example of a game that visually switches things up often enough to keep your interest.
Using a visual style that is aware of the format, and is a commentary on itself, is fun. Art is an important part of building a joke.
The writing in West of Loathing is phenomenal. It’s absolutely across the board intelligently funny. I think if something slightly more visually unique where chosen, other than stick figures, it would be a groundbreaking comedy piece.
For example, Adventure Time has a very disarming aesthetic. The illustration style comes from an illustration trend that I’m really in love with. Kind of merging totally amateur art with “I know what I’m doing”. You can look at it and laugh without knowing what’s going on.

Random but relevant example: the visual style of Aeon Flux makes it timeless.

A lot of newer cartoons have developed that as a concept, as animators broke out of the “that’s just how we do it” animation traditions. I “studied” animation at Disney (was “mentored”, is probably a better way to put it), and spent a lot of time there when I was a student. With some of the older folks there you got a strong sense that there’s this tradition. You have to respect the format, and there are certain things you just don’t do.
Tradition is great. That can be good, but it’s also wonderful to rebel against. Older MTV cartoons, such as Beavis and Butt-Head, or Daria, played (in my opinion) a profound role in establishing that unique visual styles (often amateurish) in cartoons are valid. However you feel about them (I wouldn’t praise Beavis and Butt-Head to much of an extent), things like this do mater for how they rejected established quality and went out and did their own thing. Things like this stay relevant for how unique they are.

When you build an art style for a comedy game, or any game, exploring your own way of visually communicating is really important.
Humor is more than just a punchline. Humor is visual too.
It’s what will make your game last.


So, ok. I think this is getting long, and I’ve said enough for one post.

To summarize…

* Comedy is performative (player interaction with the environment, and eachother)
* Comedy is visual, especially in a game (art style is part of the joke)
* Comedy should be designed inclusively & considerate (the interactive element — with what they interact, or how they are allowed to interact)

Hopefully this has been good food for thought. These are some things that have been on my mind as I’ve built my own comedy games. Most notably this one, and this one.

Thanks for reading!