Typically, there's enough room for about four player responses after each NPC dialogue node. The main goal is to move the action forward, so at least one or two responses must serve the purpose of information gathering or quest advancement. Because tradition has made the heroic role the standard path through most games, these utilitarian advance-the-plot options are most closely identified with the goody two shoes role; "spar again" or "no thanks." As a result, the dialogue tree real estate reserved for adding color, including mercenary, sarcastic, witty or humorous options, usually falls to personas other than the basic good guy.

What also confines humor to the less heroic roleplaying personas goes deeper than simple logistics: It springs from the fundamental connection that exists between humor and malice. Though most of us tend to think of humor as a genial quality, this rosy perspective is relatively modern. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but for thousands of years, philosophers have identified malice as its bloody beating heart.

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Plato and Aristotle didn't distinguish between "laughing with" and "laughing at." They considered all humor to be rooted in schadenfreude, aggression and contempt. Two thousand years later, when Thomas Hobbes described the natural human condition as "nasty, brutish and short," he saw humor as part of the problem, not the solution. Laughter, in his opinion, was an expression of the "sudden glory" that comes from perceiving someone else's inferiority.

The nastier dialogue options from Jade Empire take the Platonic route: Both jokes are founded on scorn for the opponent's inferior fighting skills. What's more, because the responses are text-based, the malice at the core of each joke is utterly exposed. While in normal conversation, the humorous choices could come across as friendly quips, the text alone doesn't provide enough context to make them viable options for a thoroughgoing hero. Without the aid of body language - or at least a reassuring emoticon - sarcasm and irony can often come across as hostile.

This humor-malice connection is a two-way street. If villainous personas have an inherent capacity to be funny, a healthy sense of irony can also inspire a player to behave villainously. After all, how better to mock social values or clich├ęd narrative conventions than by flouting or reversing them?

Sometimes this kind of ironic evil is inherent in the design of a game. Overlord, for example, is wholly devoted to a tongue-in-cheek inversion of traditional, Tolkienesque fantasy values. Casting the player in the titular evil role opens up countless opportunities for making fun of various staples of fantasy. Villagers refer to the local halflings as "sneaky little wossnames," and the Overlord's subordinate laments that he "cannot be a bastion of evil these days without wretched heroes lining up to prove themselves."

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