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”.


This wasn’t always the case. Overtly comedic games used to be common. Common enough that you would never see a game like Book of Unwritten Tales that seems to be so proud of itself for figuring out that comedy is a thing, to the point that it doesn’t need to come up with an original plot or characters that aren’t mere embodiments of tropes and references. Whereas back in the day you’d have games like Monkey Island, Earthworm Jim or Armed and Dangerous that had plot and characters of their own as well as being comedy games.

But these days if there’s comedy to be found in triple-A releases it’s usually either lowest common denominator garbage like the aforesaid DNF or the increasingly tiresome ‘ironically over-the-top’ approach to be found in games like Bayonetta and Suda51’s more recent titles like Lollipop Chainsaw. I suppose what I’m asking for is a bit of wit, and all of this sort of thing is pretty deliberately witless.

Yes, there’s Team Fortress 2, and the latter Saint’s Row games, which are indeed funny, but they’re not exactly subtle, are they. I can only think of one example of an overtly, consistently comedic game in the current generation that actually relies on wit to be funny, rather than over-the-top action and performances, and that’s the Portal series. And two shorter-than-average games is not good representation, people.

Specifically, what I personally think the world sorely lacks at present is a fully comedic role-playing game in the Bioware style, with a sit-commy approach to the writing along the lines of, say, Blackadder. I can’t remember the last time I played a dialogue-heavy triple-A game in which I didn’t start skim-reading the subtitles and skipping past the line deliveries. Because dialogue only seems to exist as dry exposition for the plot and characters and there’s no time to have funny asides or clash two opposing personalities together or anything else that might make people want to listen to it.

No, everything is all so violent and realistic in triple-A games these days and the plots all have to deal with ridiculously heavy, wide-reaching issues like saving the entire human race from killer monsters, so protagonists are all incredibly serious, angsty, morally questionable assholes who I imagine would be incredibly boring company if you invited them over to hang out and watch a film. They’d spend the whole time intensely grilling you about every single conversation piece in your living room while refusing to break eye contact. Could you possibly imagine Commander Shepard sitting around the Christmas dinner table, wearing a paper crown and reading his cracker joke aloud? Not in official continuity you couldn’t. Not unless you called it a sidequest and gave him 5000 credits and some Medi-Gel as a reward.

Maybe this has been on my mind because at time of writing I’m trying to get through Darksiders 2, and it often occurs to me that if there was a single character in that universe who knew how to not take things so bloody seriously all the time then they would instantly become the most memorable character in the game. Maybe a guy who releases all that angry tension by asking Death to speak up ‘cos it’s difficult to hear him when he keeps growling through that mask he’s got on.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is

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