Video games that try hard to be funny often fail to be funny at all. But that hasn't stopped game designers from trying new ways to use the interactivity of video games to raise a chuckle or two.
Gamasutra recently had the chance to sit down with Dean Evans, creative director of upcoming nostalgia-fueled first-person shooter Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The title, conceived as an expansion to last year's Far Cry 3, was a chance for Evans to "do something unexpected." So that's exactly what he did, creating a loving satire of over-the-top 80s action movies, replete with camped-up celebrity voice talent.
We asked Evans about the humor of the game, and how to do 80s cheese the right way.
"We play a lot of shooter games these days and content-wise it's not that more sophisticated than an 80s action movie anyway," says Evans. "We thought we’d just be as honest as possible about the content of the game and embrace it."
Blood Dragon is about being as authentic to the era of its inspiration as possible. Cutscenes are handled as 16-bit animations. Evans also cites giving his designers a hypothetical $150 budget for character designs, to encourage them to incorporate the sorts of found objects (like toasters and vacuum cleaners) endemic to B-movie sci-fi.
"We had six months to do this," he explains. "We’re not making that 30-plus hour skill-tree-based game with crafting and all of that. We really streamlined that experience to what we felt Blood Dragon is. It’s running around with very big guns and shooting cyborgs in their faces whilst trying to avoid dragons that fire lasers from their eyes. That’s it! That should be the back-of-the-box text there."
"We still approached it with a lot of heart. We wanted to tell a relatively coherent piece of story. ...But we made sure our characters are pretty predictable and one-dimensional. We didn't want to change too much of the industry!" Evans laughs off his own remarks. "What an arsehole I am!" he laments.
Tap into your inner child
Part and parcel with Blood Dragon's honesty is its unabashed love for its own adolescent tastes. "A lot of assets when we were looking at it ...if people were questioning their decisions, one of the things I [said] was: 'Well, transport yourself back to when you were 12 years old. Would you think it was cool?' And if the answer's yes, put it in. Let's see how it feels."
"The majority of our team was born in the 1970s, so this aesthetic just permeates through everyone's veins." This enthusiasm carried over into the cast when Evans brought 80s action star Michael Biehn aboard to voice the game's protagonist. "He really felt like a teenager again."
For developers, Evans says it's important not to use nostalgia for the sake of cheap references, but to transport the player. "Find that core emotion that’s gonna light people’s hearts up," he says. "It’s like the movie Ratatouille, at the end where the food critic tastes that ratatouille and you have that huge crazy shot that sends him back to when he’s a little kid... That’s totally the kind of feel that we wanted to find and ignite in a few people with Blood Dragon."
Think beyond the scope of the video game
"I've never really seen Blood Dragon as just a game," Evans explains. "The philosophy that I wanted to get across to the team was: 'Try and think of it as this action property that's just gone fucking haywire.' ...So when looking at it I wanted people to think we've also got action figures, there's a cartoon, there's a lunchbox. So this huge, huge franchise that's just gone absolutely haywire. The late 80s were really good for that. Things just went a bit weird."
But it's more than just acknowledging some of the rampant market trends of the source material. It's also in tapping into your game's zeitgeist. "1989 was such an amazing year across the globe," Evans reflects. "Thatcher is in power, England sucks, all the yuppies have all the money, we had fuck all to do as kids, all we did was just sit in and watch movies and play Nintendo and SEGA... [But] you got that rave culture coming up. A new style of music. Hedonism coming through for a new generation. Berlin Wall coming down. Entertainment at that time was changing."
"Blood Dragon is really kind of a love letter to that time period."
Let the humor come through the gameplay
"What Far Cry 3 did very, very well is when you’re sneaking up on outposts and you’re getting into position, all of a sudden a tiger jumps out and attacks you," says Evans. He says he noticed his tendency to deploy the melee button to slash an enemy that was already dead - a way of adding insult to injury - and suggested to the Blood Dragon team they swap out the knife animation with one of the player character raising his middle finger.
"I'm a big believer in player expression. [But] with shooter games, the only way you can express yourself is by shooting someone in the face. So at least this is one step forward."
A video walkthrough of Blood Dragon demonstrates how the over-the-top elements of the game meld with the Far Cry 3 engine's propensity for emergent gameplay. One moment has Evans being chased down by the game's titular Blood Dragon enemy. He escapes by throwing a grenade over the dragon's shoulder, and the beast spins around, distracted by the grenade, much like a dog would be by a tennis ball.
Your marketing should come from the same DNA as the game
When Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon was first announced on April Fool's Day, some publications took it for a joke. It went against all conventional wisdom both within and outside video game marketing. For Dean Evans, it was something to cross off the bucket list.
"Announcing on April the 1st [is] something we've been wanting to do for a really long time," he says. "I come from a family of practical jokers, and I guess that's why I turned out like I did. ...When you have a few people at [Ubisoft] who are like, 'No, announcing on April the 1st is a bad business decision! It's not good business practice,' that, for me, makes it good business practice, then. Go against the grain a little."
"I've come from a background of 11 years working in the industry as a brand manager. I thoroughly enjoy PR and marketing. We've had a lot of fun working on this project because, you know, we had no money... So we had to go renegade."
That renegade marketing campaign has in part consisted of an over-the-top website, an animated trailer in the style of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons (with R-rated language), and a live-action trailer that has to be seen to be believed. All of it revels in its own microscopic budget.
"We know what the absolute core DNA is, as it were, of the game, so we pulled our resources from all over the place," says Evans. "I’m super happy with the campaign, I will happily stand up and say that is the best thing that I’ve ever worked on."