AGC – Writing Comedy for Games

I’m only now getting the chance to process the notes that I wrote at AGC. Here’s a partial transcript of the “Writing Comedy” session (there’s another, also incomplete report at Gamasutra.) I’ve highlighted in red a few quotes that I found interesting and/or amusing.

Moderator: Rich Bryant, writer for Spin City (the TV show)
Panelists: Matt Soell, writer for Stubbs the Zombie; Tom Abernathy, writer for Destroy All Humans!.

Tom: Over the last 15 years, game humor went from the “one guy in a garage” kind of humor to, for better and worse. more sophisticated humor, as we in games have begun to compare our medium to film and TV. I.e. we’re not just writing fart jokes now, although farting was the basis of an entire design mechanic in Stubbs.

Matt: Tecmo’s Deception was a big inspiration for Stubbs. The meta-game was really funny; our industry is constantly accused of making games that train kids to kill Satan, so here was a game about training kids to kill for Satan! So, for example, you’re in this castle, killing things, and a virtuous husband and wife try to stop you, so they can use the reward money to help their daughter (who is sick), but you kill them, and at the end of the scene, you see their daughter wandering around saying: “mommy, daddy…?”

Rich: In GTA San Andreas, I ran over a couple of pedestrians in my stolen suv and felt badly about it. That said, I got out to pick up their cash. An ambulance pulled up while I was doing that, and one of the paramedics said “OK, I got a wallet here and some keys…” In other words, even the paramedics steal from people dying on the street. I thought that was pretty funny, in a dark sort of way.

Rich: Is there a slippery slope when it comes to comedy? Can you pack “too much comedy” into a game?

Matt: Too much is better than not enough. We’ll cheerfully run down that slippery slope.

Tom: I completely agree. Humor always enriches the experience.

Matt: I think there are too many games where there’s not enough humor. RPGs are over-stuffed with ponderous speeches about “gathering the eight moonstones” or “stopping the evil general who’s deploying the weather machine” — some of it begs for levity.

Rich: There’s a moment where Sam Fisher is in Jerusalem and someone says “this was the birthplace of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” And Fisher says: “so this is where all that peace and love came from.” What a great way to use humor to help establish who this character is.

Rich: It seems to me that because games are interactive, you can have a lot of comedy in a game, but what relation does the humor in the game have with the actual gameplay experience?

Matt: We generally start with the gameplay idea and humor derives from that. With Stubbs, you’re going to be a zombie that can use its body in interesting ways. All the humor flowed out of that idea.

Tom: With Destroy all Humans, the gimmick of being an alien and blowing stuff up in a spectacular fashion was the focus. The humor was this quiet creeping thing that hooked people. For example, in one part of the game, Crypto [the main character] gets turned loose in a cow pasture. Crypto always thinks that every new lifeform he meets is the dominant lifeform of the planet. So he marches up to a cow and says stuff like “take me to your leader”, and reads the cow’s mind — which, as you can imagine, doesn’t reveal much. Crypto finally gets pissed off and starts using his weapons, including the anal probe, on the cows and chickens. I can’t count the number of people and said “I loved that scene where you anally probe cows and chickens!”

Rich: [some question about pitching comedies]

Tom: It’s very difficult in the current environment to convince people at the top of the chain that comedy is so conceptually interesting. Pyschonauts did not sell a jillion copies. Nor did Grim Fandango. It’s difficult to make the case that humor will sell games.

Matt: When we were pitching Stubbs, we heard a lot of people saying: “Do you think people want funny games? because there aren’t a lot of them.” Lots of people thought we should take the game in a “darker direction.” It’s hard to get darker than Stubbs — it’s pretty fucking bleak. One publisher thought you should be a human killing the zombies, instead of vice-versa, because Resident Evil sold so well.

Rich: Will there ever be a “comedy game” section in the store?

Matt: I don’t know. Comedy’s always been the red-headed step-child. There will be a drama category for games before comedy.

Tom: I don’t think it will happen, because gameplay is the central thing; gameplay may never be “comic” in the way we typically define it. Until someone comes up with a way to make gameplay intrinsically comic, I don’t see it happening. Maybe it could happen in Japan; the industry there is so much less limited in terms of the gameplay they’re willing to work with. A country that can come up with Katamari Damacy and Loco Roco might be able to come up with a whole game wrapped around a mechanic that is, in essence, funny. But there’s a lot of repetition in what you do in games, and repetition is hard to make funny.

Audience question: Since comedy is frequently timing-dependent, are there gags you can’t do in games?

Tom: You have to give up control of the most important comedic tools, and the more open the world is, the worse that gets. You give up control over sequence and timing. That makes comedy really tough! I found myself gravitating towards specific kinds of jokes and humor, like one-liners, rather than a back and forth dialogue. We used dialogue in cutscenes, but that isn’t optimal.

Matt: There were countless lines in Stubbs that I had to cut because you might not actually be looking at the right place at the right time, like when a zombie is eating a cop’s brains and someone says something about it.

[PS. I wrote about some of the challenges related to comedy in games back in June.]

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