The essence of humor is surprise. Some things are funny because we don’t expect them at all, and others because we expect them but have no idea when, where or how they will happen; the release of tension when it does occur makes us laugh. It is the surprise that makes humor different from typical videogames rewards. But the game experience isn’t simply imposed on players by the writers, programmers and designers; it is created by the interaction of the player and the game. Nothing is more surprising than people, so humor can crop up at any time during gameplay.
While developers work hard to write funny dialog and situations into a game just like novelists or screenwriters, there is a tremendous potential for humor inherent in the very nature of gaming. Players always experiment with games, using them in ways the developer never intended or expected. The ESRB now warns players their “Game Experience May Change During Online Play” for virtually any game with an online multiplayer component, but this caveat is true for every game. And the more choices a game gives the player, the truer this becomes. Emergent humor, whether it be an accident of play or deliberate goofing off, is the funny stuff that happens when you aren’t really expecting it. Just like a coin is not intended to be a screwdriver but does a pretty good job of it in a pinch, so too can Counter-Strike be a comedy goldmine in the right hands.
My first computer ran at 10Mhz, and I thought it was pretty fast. Games of that era did not have much flexibility built into them, but they had enough for that most primitive form of humor: the spectacular failure. Players lose all the time; the anticipation of failure and the struggle to avoid it is the most fundamental dynamic of play. However, while we all know that we can lose, we rarely imagine ourselves losing in the worst possible way. It surprises us when it happens, and the shock makes us laugh. My first experience of this sort in a videogame was while playing a version of Spacewar, a two-player space ship combat game. In Spacewar, two ships with weapons, shields, cloaking devices and a random-drop hyperdrive fight around a planet. I had managed to reduce my opponent’s shields to critical levels; victory was within my grasp! However, in my excitement, I pushed the hyperdrive button instead of firing a weapon. The drive dutifully engaged and teleported me straight into the planet, killing me instantly. My opponent and I both laughed for so long our respawned ships were pulled by gravity into the planet and destroyed again. This was to set the stage for much more laughter at my own misfortune in the years to come.
The original Team Fortress provided many laughs in this way. To be shot while taking a sniper position is disappointing. To hear another player on the LAN exhort you to turn around and look behind you, only to find the entire opposing team with weapons drawn, just waiting for you to notice them, is high comedy. Another way spectacular failure brings about comedy is by exposing the limits or quirks of the game engine. Carmageddon 2: Carpocalypse Now is a combat racing game that features both power-ups and negative item drops that hinder you. Certain combinations of these resulted in car behaviors so far from normal gameplay that they could not help but bring a smile. I discovered the hard way that picking up both the Indestructibility and Bouncy-Bouncy buffs just before racing into an underground tunnel network was a bad idea. A few turns in, another player knocked me down a mineshaft. For the entire duration of the indestructibility power up, my car careened off of the walls, floor and ceiling at ever-increasing speed. On top of that, the game had a crumple modeling system that deformed the car on impact to simulate crash damage, though it clearly wasn’t intended to routinely handle the sort of punishment I was taking. The other players on the LAN left their seats to watch my monitor in wonder as, impact by impact, accompanied by pinball-like sound effects, a high end sports car was reduced to a sea-urchin made of jagged steel. When the ruined mass finally came to a rest, there was a moment of hushed silence, followed by a round of gleeful applause. We would have never witnessed the transformation of a car into art nouveau in the course of normal play, but by figuratively catching a baseball with my face we were all rewarded with a good laugh and a story that has lasted for years.
The foibles and limitations that appear in increasingly complex game engines are certainly amusing to encounter. Yet once discovered, they also gave us the opportunity to be deliberately funny. Rocket jumping, now a well-established tactic among FPS players, was first discovered by accident. Several LAN parties I attended saw deathmatches interrupted by spontaneous rocket-propelled high jumping contests. Later, we made a similar discovery while playing Tribes 2: We noticed how the ragdolls of fallen players coasted downhill along steep slopes. At that LAN, the competition devolved into suicide ski-jumping for at least an hour. We raced downhill to build speed and detonated heavy weapons at our feet to go into “ragdoll mode,” giggling like idiots the whole time. Even more recently in a multiplayer deathmatch of Half-Life 2, all hostilities spontaneously ceased as we all grasped the wondrous possibilities of the gravity gun. Thoughts about where to find the best sniper position or the quickest route to the assault rifle spawn vanished from our heads, replaced with one shining thought: Could we get a wrecked car up the stairwell and onto the roof? The answer was a resounding “no,” but we managed to get it up two flights of stairs and only crushed four people in the process.
In these examples lies a fairly profound truth: Game engines are tools. Like any tool, the creator expects you to use it in certain ways, but once it is in your hands its use is only limited by your creativity and effort. Applied to the entire player base of a popular game, it’s easy to see the stunning potential for innovation. When that sea of minds gets their hands on highly flexible, user-modifiable game engines, the next great potential for emergent comedy arises: mods.
Some mods go beyond merely providing venues for player antics. Modders can deliberately create new maps, monsters or weapons for comedic effect. Even changing a few parameters or function calls can result in bizarre toys like the explosive scientist launcher from the Half-Life mod, “Rocket Crowbar,” or heat-seeking flying dogs in Command and Conquer: Red Alert. The number of YouTube videos created by users of “Garry’s Mod” for Half-Life 2 is the absolute testament to this drive. Team Garry have created a toolset that allows players to fly cars through fourth-story windows or fire headcrab catapults that would make Rube Goldberg proud. At the extreme end of modding, the line between game developer and game player disappears. Total conversion mods, such as Stephan Gagne’s hilarious “Penultima” campaign for Neverwinter Nights, do not have to appeal to a wide commercial audience, so they can take bigger chances and aim for bigger laughs.
In the end, the basic advantage of emergent humor is our old friend replay value. Even the world class humor of Sierra’s Space Quest games or Telltale’s Sam and Max properties gets tired after only a few playthroughs. You’ve heard the jokes; you know the punch lines. The surprise is gone. But as the old saying goes, everyone thinks he’s a comedian. With millions of fellow players across hundreds of online multiplayer games, the odds are pretty solid that on any given day, I’ll round a corner only to be confronted with a bellowing, bloody-axed and wild-eyed berserker named Señor Foo-Foo Petticoat, Esquire, who will politely ask me if I have any Grey Poupon before thrashing me so furiously my remains get stuck to the skybox. And that, friends, is comedy.
John Evans is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.