Fools are my theme, let satire be my song.
– Lord Byron
Videogames have a complicated history with ruder forms of comedy. In the earlier days of home consoles and PCs, some developers worked at proving the different ways that play could function as a viable art form, while many others sought more immediate thrills. Just as explicit violence came to the medium’s forefront in releases like Mortal Kombat or Doom , the vast majority of humor games also went for the jugular in order to engage an audience that was assumed to be composed of fairly unsophisticated young boys. Titles like Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Toejam & Earl’s gags made us laugh at boogers, sophomoric sex jokes and a bit of the old ultraviolence, highlighting a simpler style of comedy that seemed perfectly fitted to the relatively basic gameplay mechanics of the time.
When we look at Duke Nukem Forever, we see just how far our expectations for videogame comedy have come.
In this light, it’s easy to see why so many critics thought that games were a medium that would never reach greater heights. With provocative, gross-out and gore-obsessed humor dominating the landscape and typifying funny videogames, the 1990s didn’t give players who desired the kind of laughs that comes from snappy dialog and character-based jokes much to look forward to. The videogame landscape at the time was, for better or for worse, dominated by a pretty specific approach to comedy.
Think of the Babe as a Flag with Boobs
Duke Nukem Forever, a game with a prehistoric attitude towards gender, violence and bodily functions, is notable for the fact that it reflects on both past and present design philosophy. Forever’s infamous 12- year development cycle makes it a strange hybrid of dated and modern development ethos, and this carries over to its sense of humor as well.
When we look at Duke Nukem Forever, though, we see just how far our expectations for videogame comedy have come. Just like its predecessor Duke Nukem 3D, Forever features a protagonist that revels in being politically incorrect. The single player portion of the title opens with Duke living in a mansion with twin school girls – twins who only take time out from engaging in vapid giggles in order to provide their boyfriend (friend? master?) with sexual favors. The multiplayer’s attempts at humor don’t get much better. Game mode Capture the Babe (a Capture the Flag variant) sees opposing teams stealing a woman from their opponents and spanking her into submission when she wriggles in protest. Duke Nukem 3D was a landmark game that won favor from fans and critics alike when it was released in 1996. Its sequel was largely panned.
What changed in the meantime? Videogame humor or audience expectations?
Sometimes a Cigar Isn’t Just a Cigar
Shadows of the Damned, another ostensibly offensive game released shortly after Duke Nukem Forever, trades in much of the same style of humor but manages to achieve a vastly different outcome. This is a game that features a sidekick character named Johnson – a character capable of transforming into weapons like The Big Boner – and a plot that centers around a manly character rescuing his lingerie-wearing girlfriend from the clutches of a lecherous demon.
Despite the fact that Shadows of the Damned, by all rights, should come off as an entirely immature affair, it doesn’t.
Despite the fact that Shadows, by all rights, should come off as an entirely immature affair, it doesn’t. This is mostly due to the creative efforts of the game’s Executive Director, Goichi “Suda 51” Suda, the oddball mastermind behind cult hits like No More Heroes, and Creative Director Shinji Mikami, a developer responsible for similarly quirky releases such as God Hand and Vanquish.
Both Suda 51 and Mikami are well known for their unorthodox approaches to narrative and design but, more importantly, a crass sense of humor as well. No More Heroes comes replete with (motion controlled) masturbatory light-sword recharging and a manically oversexed protagonist, while God Hand features combos that dish out extra damage to male enemies attacked in the crotch. On the surface it would appear that the crude humor of Duke Nukem matches that of Mikami and Suda 51. But it doesn’t, not really.
Where Duke Nukem Forever plays its vulgarity straight, Shadows of the Damned doesn’t. The jokes in Shadows are as much aimed at satirizing the long history of videogame crudity as they are at provoking tasteless giggles (something that also made Suda 51 and Mikami’s past titles palatable despite their surface trappings). At its most basic, Shadows of the Damned’s humor belongs to the more thoughtful tradition of satire, whereas Duke would rather we laugh just because we’re being shown something inappropriate. Epic Games’ Bulletstorm , a wilfully offensive send-up of arcade-style violence and military fetishism, follows in the same tongue-in-cheek vein, decorating gory kills with glowing points tallies and underlying hyper-macho attitudes with a homoerotic subtext.
The new guard, simply enough, is only ready to accept crass material if said material has enough self-awareness to satirize the type of game that Duke Nukem Forever still wants to be.
A Plumber, a Gorilla and a Princess Walk Into a Bar…
Videogames are a medium in, if not infancy, at least adolescence. Until relatively recently, very few adults felt comfortable owning up to their hobby, let alone talking about it as if (God forbid!) it was an intellectually stimulating way to spend their free time. The industry’s rapid commercial and critical growth hints at bigger things to come and, in this way, we can see the current trend toward satire and “intelligent” humor as a transition marking a shifting audience. Gamers, by and large, aren’t as willing to laugh at something simple just for the sake of laughing anymore. We need our M-rated humor games to talk on a higher level, even if they still want to take place within a framework of boobs, butts and blood spray.
By looking to the history of comedic style as developed in literature, film and stand-up, certain games have been able to tap into broader forms of jokes.
But is satirizing dumb videogame tropes the best we can hope for from funny titles? No, of course not. The LucasArts approach to character and plot-focused humor, for one, still continues onward through the efforts of clever lead writers like Double Fine Productions’ Tim Schafer, Valve’s Eric Wolpaw and Rockstar Games’ Dan and Sam Houser.
These writers (and, of course, their teams) are working from a tradition that encompasses media beyond just videogames themselves. By looking to the history of comedic style as developed in literature, film and stand-up, certain games have been able to tap into broader forms of jokes, taking cues from sources as varied as the black comedy (as seen in Portal’s GLaDOS and Cave Johnson) and military comedy (M.A.S.H.and Catch 22 are really only a few steps away from the gags of Battlefield: Bad Company and its sequel). Even the comedy horror of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein or Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series has found its way into games like the Medieval series or, once again, Shadows of the Damned..
And audiences are ready for it. Games like Red Dead Redemption and the Portal series have clearly demonstrated that great laughs are possible without always having to shoot for the cheap seats. Videogames, as mentioned before, are no longer a medium appreciated only by the young. With the growth of the industry, players have become accustomed to expecting greater sophistication in all aspects of their hobby. High-def graphics and sound, able to create a sense of grander, cinematic presentation, are only one part of the equation. Narrative and character development have to be given an equal level of importance. As developers and audiences focus more on storytelling, games are also becoming more concerned with the finer points of style and tone – something that is immediately reflected in humor titles.
Our expectations, represented by both sales and reviews, dictate the kind of games we can expect to play in the future. Considering the maturation that’s beginning to spread through funny titles now, the wider sort of variety a modern audience wants may be just around the corner.
Reid McCarter is a freelance writer and editor living and working in Toronto, Canada. He occasionally updates the literature and music blog Sasquatch Radio, writes for magazines like C&G Monthly, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and thinks everything is funny until someone loses an eye.