Let’s get this out of the way: There are funny games out there on the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Playstation 3. Maybe not many, but games like Portal, Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction and Super Paper Mario deserve some credit for making gamers chuckle. But they’re not edgy.
Most of the humor in games is a light-hearted affair and for good reason. Games that go for “edgy” don’t fare well at retail. Take, for example, the recently released game Fat Princess, which rode a wave of blogger controversy into the gamer consciousness and then promptly receded from it a few months later. Then there’s MadWorld. The director, Shigenori Nishikawa, piled the bloody slapstick violence of impalings and chainsawing into his game hoping to get lots of laughs from the players. The ratings board in Germany didn’t think it was funny, so they banned the game. Watchdog groups in the U.S. and U.K. tried to do the same..
But while darker comedy may not have much of a home on consoles, it’s flourishing on the web, and one of the browser game hubs gaining a lot of ground is AdultSwim.com. Here you can play some of the most unusual characters in the videogame universe, such as the spy who also happens to be a gigolo in the point-and-click adventure game Gigolo Assassin. In Meowcenaries, you blow up kitties with grenades and rockets. A suicidal office employee called Stan is the tragic “hero” in Five Minutes To Kill (Yourself). He can’t stand the thought of sitting through another boring meeting, so the entire game is dedicated to finding ways to kill himself (via staplers, scissors, microwaves, etc.) before five minutes or else the game is over.
You can even play as the most powerful character in the universe, God himself, in Bible Fight. On paper you would expect the Almighty to decimate his foes the way some people like to step on ants, but in Bible Fight he’s just another game character with a few special moves, just like his counterparts: Moses, Eve and Satan. As they duke it out in familiar biblical settings, Eve can call on Adam to deliver an uppercut to her opponent, while Moses can bring down a plague of frogs from the sky. You even get to play as Jesus, who can fling a crown of thorns at his opponents and smash them with a giant cross.
Peter Evan Ginsberg, a game designer at THUP Games, says the opportunity to make HRmageddon, a turned-based action game on Adult Swim about two teams of employees bashing each other for control of a cubicle farm, happened when the TV network was looking for a developer to make a game about office warfare. “Adult Swim got in touch with us based on a previous game we had made, Campaign Game, a game we created connected with the 2008 election,” he says. “In that game, we had the candidates fighting for control of the country using campaign funds for their attacks.”
According to Ginsberg, other gaming portals can bring a mixed bag of games that range from great to awful because of the “free-for-alls populated by user uploads.” He says, “Digging around through those sites, you’ll get a real random assortment of games with wildly varying quality. With Adult Swim, all their games are hand selected, and so the experience is way more consistent.”
“There are a lot of places you can find game content on the web, but Adult Swim does not seem to be content with putting up a running list of flavor-of-the-month-clones,” says Jim Nichols, the art designer at THUP Games. He’s right; many of Adult Swim’s games have solid production values, with appropriate music, well drawn characters and deep gameplay that keep them from being just another collection of one-off jokes.
While people who enjoy watching the shows on Adult Swim will probably “get” the games on their website, they seem to be more directly aimed at a gamer-specific audience, especially the games that take jabs at familiar titles. Take Amateur Surgeon, for example, a dark and sinister parody on Nintendo Wii’s Trauma Center. Here, you will always hear your patients scream when you accidentally puncture their skin with a sharp tool or pull out an object too fast. The game stars Alan Probe, a pizza delivery boy turned surgeon who, unlike the doctors in Trauma Center, doesn’t rely on actual medical instruments. Instead, his medical kit consists of everyday tools like a pizza cutter for making incisions, a stapler for closing wounds, kitchen tongs for pulling out pieces of glass and a car battery that doubles as a defibrillator.
But animated blood and cartoon violence isn’t all Adult Swim has to offer. There’s also sex. Dungeons and Dungeons is a platformer in the same vein as Castlevania, but instead of being a whip-wielding hero, the game’s two main characters are S&M enthusiasts who must make their way through six dungeons, fighting scantily-clad enemies, pleasure-bots and naked ladies who like to bend over to taunt you. Some of the more memorable weapons include a vibrator that can be tossed at foes, a nine-tailed whip for long-range attacks and a candle power up that enables your sidekick, a gimp named Max, to shoot balls of fire from his rear end.
Characters like Leon S. Kennedy and the four citizens in Left 4 Dead are perfect heroes for “serious” zombie games, but you won’t be playing a hero in Zombie Hooker Nightmare. Instead, you play as a hooker and no, you’re not saving the world. The enemies are fellow undead streetwalkers, and it’s your job to hit them hard and fast with shotguns, flamethrowers and other weapons while on the lookout for johns to take back to your trailer. At the end of each level, you and the johns take care of “business” so you can earn enough cash to go on to the next level. For zombie fans, it’s a unique experience.
And then there’s the aforementioned HRmageddon, which is like a videogame version of the movie, Glengarry Glenn Ross, only in the game the office employees are trying to kill each other. HRmageddon is a cartoonish, silly and funny game where you can fire staples at your opponents, stab them in the eye with a golden pen and smash them over the head with a giant presentation board. In order to win, each team must either must kill every member from the opposing side or take over a certain amount of cubicles. As the game’s tagline says, “These layoffs are permanent.” Coffee provides energy for special moves, pay raises provide healing and enraged managers provide motivational stat buffs, granting employees movement bonuses and damage increases.
Ginsberg thinks the humor of HRmageddon is ultimately rooted in the character art and animation, while Nichols is proud of “how the different types of humor mesh.” “The overall conceit is a dry, satirical take on the underlying viciousness found in the daily grind of corporate cubicle farms,” he says.
Games like HRmageddon and Amateur Surgeon are hard to find on store shelves, but on the web, where indie developers have the freedom to be unconventional, personal and original, AdultSwim.com is giving game developers the opportunity to take themselves – and their games – less seriously. While the content and graphics in these flash games are certainly not as deep or high tech as those on the Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3, their developers may have pulled off an even harder technical challenge: resurrecting the spirit of fun.
Veng Xiong is a freelance writer who plays Team Fortress 2 under the username Flip Flop Favre. He can be reached at veng[dot]xiong[at]gmail[dot]com.