The Bad Jokes Games Rely on Are Worse Than No Humor at All


#1

I always knew a tabletop RPG session was heading off the rails when people started doing gags and bits within it. Especially if that person was me. The same dynamic seemed to hold true for other game masters: The minute something unjustifiably silly happened, the minute people started acting absurdly for absurdity’s sake, you just knew the session was headed for an iceberg. The fun might last a while longer, but eventually the gags would burn themselves out, and then we’d realize that we’d lost the plot and it was time to call it a night. Or a campaign.

Video games are jam-packed with examples of this, to the point where I’m almost desensitized to how bad and jarring such asides can be. But lately I’ve found myself less patient with it, more attuned the discordant notes of weak humor being wedged into a setting that’s left no space for it.

Last weekend I started playing The Division again in a frantic attempt to finish the game before the sequel comes out, and I realized that in every single neighborhood, the local quest-giver has some overdone shtick. So as you’re listening to desperate last phone calls between people watching the world go to hell, or studying tableaus of mass-murder, you’ve also got a an “aspiring actor” in your ear whose bit is that he treats you like an agent or a producer. He’ll say stuff like, “Great job defending those supply caches, love your approach to the craft. Let’s do lunch!”

Because your character never answers, nobody ever engages with the weirdness of this character. Has he completely fallen apart during this crisis and is returning to what’s familiar? Is he really just so self-absorbed that he can’t actually interact with the beyond his experiences? Does he just have a life philosophy of always hustling, always networking, context be damned? None of these options precludes the character being the butt of a joke, but what exactly is the joke here? How does this character inhabit the same world as taciturn agent Faye Lau or the viciously aggrieved Joe Ferro?

I blame Rockstar for a lot of this. Their broad satires have always tried to balance prestige drama ambitions with the juvenile fancies of teenagers. Red Dead Redemption might feature a criminal with a dark past being pulled back into a life of murder and corruption against his will… but it also features a drunken stereotype of an Irish character (literally named “Irish”) that you have to help through an interminable series of comic misadventures and capers. As much as Rockstar likes to make games about the weight of the past, and the sins characters carry from it, their games are equally populated by characters who wouldn’t be out of place in an amateur improv skit. “Hey guys, it’s The Godfather but Clemenza can’t stop farting and the horse’s head can talk!”

Games have always had random goofy shit tossed into the mix. A lot of great adventures games will give you emotional whiplash as they veered between slapstick and suspense. But as games have grown more realistic, as their ambitions have encompassed wanting players to invest and believe in their worlds, the spitballing humor they employ has grown clumsier.

One reason this stuff always tends to fall so flat, or at least breaks my sincere engagement with a world or story, is that it’s generally tossed into a sequence at random, without any connection to the stuff that pre- or proceeds it. The humor has no organic connection with the setting or the characters, it’s just a desperate wink at the fourth wall in the hopes of drawing a laugh. The trouble is, comedy at its best requires an established premise and characters. Too often in games the premise is “it’s a video game” and the characters are “some quirky goofballs.”

Here’s a counter-example (there are a lot to draw from, but this is one I think about a lot). It’s the drinking sequence in The Witcher 2, where Geralt can throw down with the Blue Stripes commandos and try to be “one of the gang” for a night.

It’s a comedic interlude in a pretty grim game (even by the standards of the Witcher universe). And if you know where that story ends, the night becomes deeply bittersweet. But all that’s in the future: For about ten minutes or so, you get to see the withdrawn, prickly Geralt letting his guard down and winning over an equally closed-off, tight-knit group of medieval special forces soldiers. And as the night turns to ever more over-the-top contests and bonding rituals, someone eventually has the idea of getting Geralt a tattoo like all the commandos have. He wakes up the next morning with the most ghastly, trashy neck tattoo you could get in the five minutes between deciding to get a tattoo and blacking out… and for the rest of the game (or even series) you get to watch characters react to the tattoo and Geralt attempt to downplay it. It’s a great running gag, but it’s one that pays off as it reverberates through his different relationships.

And maybe that’s the problem with a lot of the way humor is deployed in modern games: It’s almost always devoid of relationship. Most open world games are oddly solipsistic affairs: Your character journeys through a world of strangers who appear briefly and then vanish, often within the space of minutes if not hours. Your character is frequently a cypher, silent or so non-committal that they may as well be. And so we are left with a brand of humor that is of necessity divorced from time, place, people, and consequence.

I don’t mind levity, but I always find something deeply sad about this kind of gag in a video game. Hours of evocative landscapes, interesting questlines, and environmental storytelling are routinely interrupted with a “wakka wakka wakka!” and expectant look at the camera. Because each time that kind of joke is deployed, it says to the players, “This doesn’t really mean anything. Pay no attention to what’s said. We’re just here to have fun.”

Am I alone on this one? What kind of humor in video games tends to land for you? What are some of your favorite comedic bits in games, and (on the other hand) what are some that have completely taken you out of a setting?

Let me know in today’s open thread!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/vbqkzj/the-bad-jokes-games-rely-on-are-worse-than-no-humor-at-all

#2

“jokes” : video games :: skits : late 90s/early-2000s rap albums


#3

Oh my God this is perfect


#4

The only humor I really enjoy are the sorts of things that come about systemically (think physics or weird situations in Grand strategy games) or because I’m doing some story building of my own and the way it all comes together is funny. I’m always laughing while playing XCOM because of how my headcannon and what’s happening in the game intersects. But most of the time when a game tried to push humor on you it’s overbearing.

Edit: I do agree that the Tattoo gag in the Witcher 2 (and 3 for me) was executed very well!


#5

Not in a game, but I will never forget this one specific joke tacked confusingly onto the end of a pivotal scene in one of the Ravenor* novels.

It’s been about 10 years since I read it, so most of these details are probably wrong in some way or another. But basically…

Summary

Ravenor’s crew gets betrayed by a another group of Inquisitors (I think?) and the ship is hijacked. One of the hijackers plants a psi-blocking device on Ravenor’s hover-chair/life-support to keep him out of action while this whole thing is going down. Eventually, one of Ravenor’s companions manage to break free, retake the ship, and disable the blocker. Ravenor, furious about this betrayal and able to use his psychic powers again, picks up and crushes one of the surviving hijackers against a wall with his mind. For context, Ravenor has been fairly calm and reserved up until this point, so everyone is pretty shocked at this display of over-the-top brutality. He’s killed people with his powers before, but usually it was just “the person falls over dead”. He’s certainly never flattened someone, splattering them across the entirety of a cargo bay wall before. The most fucked up thing is that after he does it, Ravenor goes right back to being cold and collected, and everyone is kind of freaked out by that.

I mention all that context because after that whole scene takes place, one character turns to another and says “Wow, it looks like someone had a real bad chair day.

*A series of Warhammer 40,000 books, spun-off from the Eisenhorn novels


#6

One thing about an overabundance of bad humor in games is that, in my experience, it robs players of the chance to find their own humor in games.

A friend and I often play “bad” co-op games together because, hey, it’s fun to dunk on games. I can say from personal experience, when a game is overly serious, like RE5 or 6, it can be a fuckin riot. But when a game is just chocked full of humor that doesn’t land, like the Borderlands Presequel, it just sucks the fun out of the room with each bad punchline.


#7

I haven’t gotten to the point you did Rob with that stuff, but I generally agree that the type of humor video games play into doesn’t hit with me as much, especially when the humor is a lot of pop culture references and non-sequitur humor. Monster Prom is a recent example where the humor of that thing killed it for me, especially when it just comes out nowhere.


#8

Agree with the article. Game humor often works best when it’s created by gameplay, rather than by jokes created by the writers.

One of the funniest games around is Hitman, and you can argue that the amount of jokes it actually has is zero.


#9

Yakuza 0 ostensibly is a serious crime story, but it’s filled with goofy and hilarious side stories. They are one-off jokes that are never brought back up again. You’d think that the silly side quests would feel jarring against a serious and sometimes very melodramatic main story, and yet they don’t? And it’s not like the side quest jokes are amazing or anything - Yakuza leans heavily into the absurd for their laughs. But it seems to work, at least for me.

Also, it’s been a while since I played Mass Effect games, but I seem to recall their jokes landing as well. The main story and the character stories are very tragic and dramatic, but the jokes always got a laugh out of me I think. Like some of Shepard’s renegade options were quite funny, Mordin was always a hoot etc. I think it just very much depends on the game and if the jokes are actually any good. I wouldn’t condemn “bad jokes” in games outright - they have their purpose. I can’t imagine Vinny Caravella without his bad puns.


#10

Humor in video games often feels like the game reacting to its own inability to balance its tone, like a tacit acknowledgement of a game design hurdle they couldn’t clear. It’s self-aware in a way that undermines whatever work has been put into the game to say or mean something, often turning the work itself into a farce.

Rockstar games are a perfect example. In terms of structure, they are a series of short quests that ultimately move you towards the finish line. If Rockstar games were lean in a way that benefited the storytelling, they would be 10 hours long at most. But they’re huge, and they necessarily take you across every inch of their enormous maps, and there’s no way that Marsden or Nico would be foolish enough to spend time in the middle of the desert or under bridges looking for those who wronged them.

So, in order to justify the player’s guided exploration of these regions, they put wacky weirdos out there and force the protagonist (and player) to suffer their awful personalities and pointless desires in order to get the next step in their treasure hunt towards the denouement. They’re always horrible, despicable shitheads who the protagonist (usually also a bad person) would absolutely tell to shut the fuck up or simply shoot in the face, but they don’t. They say “well okay, whatever you say” for 20 hours while these poorly-tooled game design vices yap their heads off as they walk/drive you out to a cool shootout or whatever.

Random_bypasser mentions the Yakuza series, and from what I’ve seen, while Yakuza essentially follows the same structural formula and employs comedic interludes in similar ways, it embraces its soap-operatic, heightened tone in a way that Rockstar utterly fails to. First and most notably, Yakuza’s weirdos are basically likeable, and I’ve made it pretty clear I hate the misanthropes in Rockstar games. This is largely emblematic of Rockstar’s unrelenting cynicism, and sharply contrasts with Yakuza’s joyful verve. Additionally, Rockstar protagonists are always a boring, unbelievable “straight man” in their absurd comedy scenes, whereas the Yakuza protag is a fuckin fool. That’s tight, Rockstar’s method is bad


#11

God the tabletop thing is so true and it makes me feel like such an unfun person sometimes (not that I ever slap the table and go “guys stop laughing”) but you can absolutely feel when the session is going off the rails. And some playgroups are like that, that’s what you’re there for! But I’ve been a part of games that cared more about character and storytelling as well and then sometimes that slide just happens…


#12

Agreed! This is complicated to me because I like to encourage my groups to think outside of the box and encourage them to find ways to subvert things in clever ways so sometimes situations get silly in ways I didn’t fully think through and it makes me really proud of my players. Some of them also have a habit of asking me for names of NPC’s I hadn’t prepared yet, and while usually keep a list around, sometimes this is how you get a headmaster named “Beast” or the like. And while I love all of this, I can feel when a session is getting too silly to the point where it isn’t fun for someone, and in those cases I generally stop the session a bit early and pull out a board game or something.


#13

I was convinced to play destiny 2 after missing the first one, and I’d been into it when I started leveling, but two of the questgivers managed to take me out of the world every time they spoke. It was the broken AI and the uptight researcher, both of who have interesting backstories but are reduced to one infinitely repeating joke every time they bark at you over communications. Both of them took away any sense of haste or tension whenever they entered the story.


#15

Oh man, this is a great topic. The only non sequitur joke that stuck in my memory and that I really love was from the Mad Max game:

NPC: “I see the smoky pillars of pillage. All camps aflame. And you, with bloodied knuckles and deathly stare – surely this is your work?”
Chumbucket: “It is, and don’t call him Shirley.”

I just had to set down the controller for a moment because I burst into such startled laughter. It worked for me because Chumbucket was silly and punctured the melodrama really well, and for all that Max himself is a grim stoic straightman character, the world itself is also pretty zany and ridiculous. (And just, what an unexpected Airplane reference!)

But I think previous commenters have nailed it – it’s not that humour in games is inherently bad, so it really just comes down to quality of writing. Lucasarts/Double Fine games have had me in stitches, as has Bioware – e.g. similar to the Geralt tattoo, your DA:I party gambling with cards & Cullen losing all his clothes is hysterical. Or more indie, some of Gunpoint’s dialogue choices are really funny, as is its ludonarrative dissonance trophy.

So humour can definitely work really well, but I think it works better in games that are already tongue-in-cheek, or when it’s part of a genuinely witty, well-written conversation/scene – rather than a single tryhard one-liner delivered out-of-context, where its only goal is to make you chuckle/groan.


#16

What surprises me in Hitman is how a lot of the systems seem to be designed in ways that are intentionally designed to generate the most ridiculous scenarios combined with the most ridiculous unforeseen user-created nightmares (ie. calling for room service and endlessly murdering butlers).


#17

The writing quality is definitely the main part holding back video games from landing with their humour, usually poor execution and / or lack of restraint, either that or they fall back to offensive stereotypes or substitute jokes with saying fuck a lot.

Hitman is a great example of a game being funny just by the absurdity of its premise, here’s the most badass killer in the world, he’s silent, deadly, immensely stoic, and somehow blends in seamlessly as hotel staff, masseur, celebrities, chefs, chicken mascots, an oil sheik and effortlessly performs even the most absurd disguises like walking the catwalk or playing the drums in the target’s band. I think it works because its absurd, and It doesn’t point fingers at its comedy, it just performs. (Not to mention the NPCs often have a lot of fun reactions to the ridiculous things you do, the little “what the…” before your victim gets a hammer in the face is really effective)

I’ll also echo Yakuza as a series that has really effective comedy in them (a lot of props to the translation team as well on that one). It’s occasionally juvenile, and can certainly lean on some awful tropes and make jokes at the expense of lgbtq and foreign people, but most of it lands, and lands very well; a lot of which is helped by the good hearted naivete of Kiryu, an unbeatable brick wall who seems alien to the world around him, and can never say no to a ridiculous premise.

I don’t know why most comedy in games falls flat on me, it seems like most if not all tech and video game writers specialise in the dark and sombre (and trite) instead of well timed wit and flavour, and the ones that tout their humour often come off as trying way too hard or end up leaning on years old memes.


#18

When your video game jokes read like something Dennis Miller would’ve written you know you’ve screwed up. aCtOrS bE aCtIn’ lmao m i rite?

edit: It’s why yakuza and saints row games land better. They take the references that other games end at and say, “okay, now what kind of wild shit can these fools get up to”. That’s a fundamentally funnier, more creative and less mean approach to the exact same subject matter.


#19

Hey now, I won’t have anyone speak poorly of the humor in Saints Row.


#20

yeah my b, i would never. i’ve finally gotten some free time from work and was coming out swinging with the poorly nuanced takes


#21

I can’t think of a better place for Poorly Nuanced Takes than an internet forum for video games