Comedy writing in games

I don’t really have a specific question or concern here, just some thoughts that I hope will lead to other, more interesting thoughts.

It’s funny how “horror movies” and “comedy movies” and “horror games” are all established terms, but “comedy games” as a genre aren’t talked about much. There is no Wikipedia article for the latter, it’s “comedy IN video games.”

My interest in comedy games is not really about zany, open-ended mechanics (Gmod, Goat Simulator), nor games in general with jokes in them, but rather games largely built on comedic writing with jokes-per-minute comparable to Dave Barry or any decent sitcom episode. In particular I can think of Sam & Max Hit the Road and Jazzpunk as representative examples, and I’d be interested to hear if people have any more.

It seems like predominantly comedic dialogue works if the mechanics are nonexistent, simple, or at least easy. So this approach to writing makes the most sense for things in the realm of adventure games, walking sims, and of course VNs.

My current game project is in this vein (and I will discuss it here in due course), and it has been interesting for me to learn how comedy writing is not pure God-given talent it is often assumed to be, but a skill that many can develop with practice. It does help to be a strong writer in general.

One resource that has has helped me is How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers, cofounder of The Onion. It is a short, digestible, and very pragmatic book, with an interesting model for how jokes are structured as a combination of “Subtext” (a non-humorous observation) and “Funny Filters” (which convert that observation into humor). Most importantly, the book stresses that comedy writing is a muscle that must be constantly exercised. An example of an assignment in the book is the following punishingly difficult task: “write 10 one-liner jokes with no cliches.”

I am honestly not sure if I am that good of a humor writer, and certainly don’t have any professional aspirations for it, but I attempt comedy writing mainly because I like a challenge. I did a few weeks where I tried to write 5 jokes every day (10 felt like too much), and got some good material out of it. Among games with extensive dialogue, all but the most dead-serious games have some jokes in them, and I think it really pays for writers to learn how to write and refine their jokes even if they aren’t seriously focused on comedy.

i am thinking this conclusion largely comes from a less observable truth that in games the ‘joke setup’ tends to extend beyond the actual written material into the context provided by gameplay itself. so denaturing the game of all it’s distracting mechanics is the best way to have the most authorial control over pacing and delivery. realizing halfway through writing something longer on this that i would just be overexplaining this bit from a great gdc talk. I think at the end of the day with something like four jokes (from the link) the question is why did something like that need to actually be a game? you could even do the ‘fifth joke’ in other ways too, for example hiding a div when you scroll through a webpage, etc.

basically the ‘designer’ in me is saying that yes its certainly effective to find the right format, the possibility space provided by games create their own type of comedy worth pursuing. and the thing is, even within these ‘simpler’ formats there are really good uniquely available things to work with. i think this linked video might be a good example of how players inherently work the mechanics and structure of a game into their ‘subtext’ for jokes in a way that persists through playing the whole time. so part of the fun as a narrative designer is getting to pick and choose opportune moments to tug at those particular strings.

in fact with your VN, one of in my opinion the funnier moments was when the game itself broke character into a minigame, not even because the scenario was that funny but largely because of the knowing effort it took to put something like that together. i think this is largely what ends up being funny about a game like jazzpunk. and to an extent games like the yakuza series are trying to fit that same level of genre-clashing and extraness over a more traditional game structure and format, and that dissonance itself is an intentional way it amplifies the humor.

sometimes games are just funny in spite of themselves, too. for some reason this clip i saw (sound warning) was one of the most impactfully funny moments ive seen in a videogame in a while, but just completely unintentionally. it’s hard to explain but its something about juxtaposing how slapstick a moment it is with the SFX, with how self-serious a lot of nintendo fangame projects seem to be until they just… fall apart in a way that teaches you why they are fangames. games are such an intricate web of interlocking systems even when things aren’t glitches, getting to see cracks in the seams and feel a sort of whiplash of reality seep in can be really funny.

moments like this in shenmue are good because you can tell the game is kind of fighting against itself, like how it only puts in one or two lines then pulls you out of the cutscene, so you have to keep re-interacting with the kid or he starts walking away further - which, in turn, changes the position/angles of the models more and more unnaturally for the conversation. there’s also a lot of repeated clips/lines, which could maybe be argued is a space/memory thing. and if you were to block out something like this on set of a movie it would be taken as a pretty abstract dry humor thing, but it becomes a totally different type of (incidental?) comedy just based on the nature of the format of being a game.

i very specifically feel what scott dikkers says about comedy writing being a “muscle to train” - for the longest time, i hadn’t been writing comedy whatsoever, but instead just these incredibly existentially terrifying stories, even before i made video games.

my comedy muscle had atrophied in that time; but with my current main project BLANKSWORD, i suddenly find myself before a relatively more comedy-heavy piece that i need to maintain a tone for in my writing and in my design.

i am predominantly a narrative designer; i write a lot of dialogue the player interfaces with via choices as a result. some of my comedic ideas, i therefore try to express through what choices a player is given at what point in a story.

an example for this is a conversation with the character of “the prisoner” in BLANKSWORD. after saving him from captivity 4 times, he suddenly brings up if maybe the player character has a crush on him - which directly leads to BLANK, a 5-foot small certified “lil guy”, to compliment the prisoner, a 5-times taller, slender beast, in a romantic matter that is compulsory for the player. you can’t NOT compliment him and start a romantic relationship. its the world’s first ever compulsory homosexuality in a choice-based video game.

the “verbs” you give a player are another thing i feel like can have enormous impact on a game’s humour. i remember the kyratzes’ point-and-click game “the sea will claim everything”, which balances its quite dour story of economic spiralling of a fantastical world with some prime silly comedy. inventory items in that game, you can touch, smell, eat, and give to a mouse for evaluation. thereis also a RIDICULOUS amount of detail in that game, and the ridiculousness of it is played for comedy. every single mushroom in that game has its own unique flavourtext; at one point, you have to check LITERALLY EVERY INDIVIDUAL BOX in a room full of them before you find what you need. BLANKSWORD only has a sword-slash verb that just is contextually funny, i have my word cut out for me, eheh…

that last one reminds me though of a type of comedy that i think has fallen out of favour with gamers in recent years - jokes at the player’s expense. i know there are some recent games that do those (kira’s lunacid, for example), but one example that no longer works (or maybe never really worked) is the ridiculous amount that paper mario: ttyd wastes the player’s time for its own amusement. its one of those jokes that are bent beyond its breaking point. and games, i think, in general, have a tendency to squander their comedic potential very easily (jazzpunk is an huge example of this in my mind, for example. that game was slightly funny on-release, but then just removed all jokes with any bite in a “director’s cut” update).

i dont really have a point here - its definitely an interesting avenue of discussion.

For a brief time in the 1990s, when CD-ROM games were new, what I guess you could call “comedy games” (since they were basically just clicking on jokes) were a minor fad, but they were generally despised and eventually went away.

I don’t particularly make an effort to be funny in my games, but they tend to end up with some dry humor here and there (either written or visual), just because that’s how I tend to write and because it amuses me. What that looks like outside my own brain, though, I have no idea. My games aren’t narrative-heavy, so it’s not something I prioritize getting better at.

Interesting thoughts here. Comedic timing and pacing in the medium of video games is a tricky question that I don’t think I’ll be able to navigate without a lot of trial and error, that is, when my current project advances into more playtesting.

As for the actual mechanics of writing jokes, I would like to share the bit of Dikkers’ book that’s been most useful for me, which is the 11 Funny Filters. The beauty of the Funny Filters is not really that they’re analytical tools, but that they give you a systematic list of ways to turn observations (Subtext) into jokes. Here’s an example of Subtext:

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is a scumbag that nobody should trust.

Here’s my attempt to apply every single Funny Filter one by one:

  • Irony (opposite of what you mean): “It’s good to see the public is turning against Elon Musk and towards a trustworthy and respectable tech leader, Sam Altman.”
  • Character (acting according to a comedy archetype): “Altman named one of the 10 most influential people in the world by ChatGPT.”
  • Shock: “Altman just needs to consults ChatGPT for all his medical needs, and he’s poised to become the next Steve Jobs.”
  • Wordplay: “OPENAI FIRED ALTMAN is an anagram for IMPALED A OAF INTERN”
  • Reference: “Altman is like, what if a breathless Medium poster guy got a shit ton of money?”
  • Hyperbole: “Altman owns a doomsday bunker where he can shelter permanently in case there’s a homeless person in SF.”
  • Madcap (slapstick, absurdity): “If you smash open one of his Worldcoin orb things that scan your retinas, you can drink Juicero out of it. Carrot Zing flavor.”
  • Parody: “i loved my time at openai. thank you to my wonderful colleagues. it was a transformative time for my ego and my net worth. 1/6”
  • Analogy: “Cultural appropriation of marginalized communities is live and well — Altman tweets in all lowercase.”
  • Misplaced Focus (something very significant is overlooked): “Altman Calls for ‘Responsible’ Use of AI in Criminal Psychology”
  • Metahumor: “Altman: ‘ChatGPT is the funniest guy I know. Seriously, you gotta meet this guy. He’s an absolute madman.’”

None of them are great, feel free to wince as appropriate. Still, this little exercise squeezed 11 one-line jokes out of me that I wouldn’t have written otherwise.

This approach is aptly named “Filtering.” Other approaches for joke-writing are Finessing (reworking an existing joke by changing around the Subtext) and Divining (starting with a blank page and working through the filters alone to see if any jokes shake out).

Even some of the worse jokes I’ve written here have elements that I may be able to salvage and rework into other jokes. As Dikkers writes, quantity is the key to quality: develop a garden of jokes that you can continually add to, rework, and discard. The amount of time spent in that garden is obviously a matter of how seriously you take your humor. And to be clear, I’m sharing all this from a place of enthusiasm but certainly not expertise.