Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
It's All In Good Humor

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 28 Aug 2012 12:00
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Perhaps I was a little harsh on Book of Unwritten Tales last week. It's not like it's harming anyone. It's just trying to be a fun little point and click adventure that doesn't take itself too seriously, two things that are still something of a rarity these days. There was just a lot about it that irked me. I watched one of its trailers before I downloaded it and that might have soured me to the game, 'cos from its tone it seemed to think it was the first game that had ever thought of doing a fantasy game that wasn't an RPG. And the first to do so in an irreverent parody sort of tone.

That's the main thing that niggled at me about the game, because I'm in the business of comedy writing, and there's very little that I find more painful than seeing attempts at humor fall flat. Dwelling on it is the common mistake; ideally you should deliver the joke and run, ending it and moving on at the point when it's at its funniest, you don't drop it in the middle of the room and talk about it for half an hour. I guess that's an inherent problem with comedy adventure games in that so much time is spent dawdling around the same locations examining and re-examining everything you can find.

Another inferior source of humor is referencing, which to my mind has officially supplanted sarcasm as the lowest form of wit and is the kind of thing films like Meet the Spartans are based around. This comes into Book of Unwritten Tales when it makes direct references to World of Warcraft and other fantasy properties, or when Duke Nukem Forever puts Master Chief's armor on a shelf and points at it, giggling. This is not the same thing as parody, or satire, because referential humor is 100% meaningless and unfunny to anyone who isn't familiar with the property it's referencing. You can't laugh at the Gears of War 2 reference in Duke Nukem Forever if you haven't played Gears of War 2, but you can still laugh at the film Airplane! even if you've never watched any of the films it satirises (such as Zero Hour). And don't even get me started on self-referential humor. If you're going to roll your eyes and sarcastically criticise your own fetch quests, then why don't we just stop playing you if you've got so little faith in yourself?

I suppose I bring all this up because the video game industry at present doesn't really embrace comedy as a genre, and that's something I find disappointing. There are of course plenty of funny bits in games. Like that one bit in Mass Effect 1 where a computer starts talking like a Microsoft Word helper, or those two lads from Half Life 2: Episode 2 who have an Abbott and Costello bit going on, or indeed 99% of the background details of Grand Theft Auto IV. But there are so few triple-A games that embrace an effective comedic tone throughout. The sheer weight of silliness in games like GTA4 and the Fable series seems all the more bafflingly out of place when the overall storyline and atmosphere can be kinda gritty and tragic. I've always felt that any work that awkwardly clashes a comedic tone with a dramatic one suffers for it. It reminds me of that peculiar failing of especially American sitcoms to descend into mawkish "Very Special Episodes".

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