Since the dawn of time our storytelling arts have been split into two genres — tragedy and comedy. It’s the idea behind the two masks used to signify plays and theaters. It’s a dualism that speaks to us for its simplicity. But it’s not accurate.
“Comedy is tragedy — plus time.” — Carol Burnett
Genre is a tricky concept when it comes to the arts. It’s both a means of description, or categorization, as well as a marketing methodology. But these days genres do little to describe a piece of art.
Download the Episode or Subscribe on iTunes
Especially when that artwork flows across genres, or as is the case with video games, has to incorporate both systemic genres and storytelling or artistic genres. Which is why it’s bad to describe anything ever as a comedy. I’m not the first person to say this, the much reference Marc Bernardin has readily said this a dozen times before — comedy isn’t a genre, it’s a device.
A device is a method or tool in storytelling, and art, that aids in getting the creator’s message across. It’s not a genre unto itself, but it can be used as a means of categorization as any commonly occurring idea might be. Similarly, satire and pastiche aren’t genres but tool. And ones usually associated with comedy. Yet comedy is not a requirement of them. Take Animal Farm, by George Orwell, for example. It’s a satire but far from comedic in its tone or telling.
So what’s a genre?
Well, according to Shawn Coyne in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, “A Genre is label that tells the reader/audience what to expect. Genres simply manage audience expectations.”
Expectations are everything. They help us as creators determine what elements to include be they story, art or game mechanics. As an audience they help us find a project we’re interested in playing. It’s why when I hear “walking simulator” I expect story and one well told. But I know that’s pretty broad and could encompass anything from Firewatch to Tacoma to What Remains of Edith Finch. Each of those games, while first person, an often considered genre, have drastically different storytelling genres.
Tacoma is clearly science-fiction or as its sometimes called speculative fiction. Firewatch falls between a mystery and a character drama, while Edith Finch is readily classified as magical realism. All of those terms in no way refer to the gameplay or the systems are work in the games, but the storytelling within. As such they create certain expectations for what we’ll find within them. It comes as no surprise that in Tacoma we’re dealing with spaceships, space stations, zero-G and artificial intelligence. For Firewatch it’s expected that a crime will be solved. And in Edith Finch we know we’ll be pushing the boundaries of our reality.
Gameplay mechanic genres are a tricky thing, as none of the current terms is terribly useful or accurate. Nor are they necessarily inclusive to all the possibilities they present. What is the difference between an action adventure and an adventure game? Other than perspective what do you learn about a game when a game is called “third person shooter” versus “first person shooter”. Comedy faces the same problem — as a description it says we’re meant to laugh. Problem is, humor is highly subjective.
As Alan Yang, co-creator of Master of None, said on The Dave Chang Show, “Not only does comedy not age, it doesn’t travel. So you think Asia gives a fuck about Will Ferrell? They don’t care. Comedy is so specific to a community, to a place and time, and to your identity. It’s all of those things. That’s why comedy is never going to be the highest grossing movie ever made — it’s just not. It’s just too specific, it’s too personal. It’s too cultural. […] Explosions sell. Animation sells. Sci-fi. Look at the top ten movies of all [time]. It’s all, it’s all computer graphics and cool visuals. Because that stuff is universal.”
Of course it’s more than visuals that are universal. It’s the story, the tropes, the ideas, the characters, their feelings that are universal. In a visual medium, inevitably, the visuals help sell those memories. But Alan Yang is right about what comedy is and isn’t. Of course he’s professionally funny and a writer to learn from. His insights stand regardless of whether we’re talking movies or video games — comedy isn’t funny to everyone.
Case in point, think of any literature class you may have had in school. In my case, it was English, which meant we were studying Shakespeare. His work is divided into two genres — the aforementioned tragedies and comedies. Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Except, I don’t find it funny. And I can’t think of any of my classmates that did either. Of course maybe with time that’s changed, but by and large it doesn’t elicit a laugh. Some of that may be from how it was taught, after all a play is meant to be performed and not read, but my point stands.
Comedy as a genre is a misnomer, especially in games. With the fact that you’re laying systems on narrative, or as some game devs do, narrative on systems, at no point in that process is comedy the defining point of what’s makes the game. Especially with how repetitive games are. Some comedians argue that if something is funny the third, fifth and seventh time it’s done or said then it’ll always be funny. The problem with that idea is how it ignores what may be problematic about the joke, who the joke is about, or whether it’s culturally relevant.
Seth Meyers, for example, makes a lot of jokes about the Trump administration and rightly so, however what I find off putting about a lot of them is how centered on the appearance of various individuals they are. Sure they’re old white men, most of the time, in positions of power and privilege doing horrible things to the world. But that doesn’t mean they should be targeted for their appearance. Doing so distracts and ultimately undervalues the purpose of the joke — which is to point out the flaws in their actions, the absurdity of the situation, the sheer what-the-fuckery of it all.
Humor is a release valve. It’s why even in the darkest drama or tensest thriller there are often moments of levity. Times when one character or another makes a joke, cracks wise, or otherwise comments about their situation and how screwed up it is in a humorous manner. Humor as a tool is used similar to the try/fail cycle in resetting the amount of tension so it can be amped up again and again over the course of a story. Tension and odds aren’t necessarily the same, but as additional complications or failure occur upping the odds then generally the tension is increased as well.
The problem as Will Schoder pointed out in his video essay, “David Foster Wallace — The Problem With Irony” is that the reliance of humor in every scene to comment ironically on the present situation ultimately undermines its purpose — in terms of character building, pressure relief, and humor. If that’s the type of humor used throughout a piece of art then can it really be called humorous or a comedy? What there is, rather than laughs, is an air of disdain and misery. This is me not dismissing irony, it has its place, but within constraints.
Irony relies on a the viewer or player to be in on the joke and aware of the absurdity of the situation. Otherwise it comes across as an empty comment. A game like The Stanley Parable makes use of irony. It’s playing on the tropes of video games and what’s expected from players. But it’s not the only form of comedy used. The writers made use of other techniques, some of which we’ll explore in a bit.
Irony or not well written characters seek to effect change, not just writhe around complaining about it since any attempts at comedy aren’t about affecting anything but pointing to the obvious. In games this becomes tiresome extremely quickly because of the swiftness that the “jokes” are repeated. So what can be done to avoid the numerous pitfalls of making a game that’s “funny”. Funny in this instance implies humorous or comedic but of course that’s not a given.
The first step
Avoid irony. Not entirely, but as a crutch. If every joke is on the basis of a character cracking wise about the situation or making reference to the fact they’re in a game then the player will quickly tire of the character’s jabbering.
Jazzpunk makes use of irony in limited amounts. Similar to the aforementioned The Stanley Parable. Jazzpunk dots its world with only small comments on games and game mechanics. But never at the expense of everything else going on.
The second step
Diversify the humor. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, identified six dimensions of humor. By combining those dimensions he’s able to continually create new comic strips and develop jokes, as well as cross cultural boundaries and generations. Weirdly, before I’d ever had a job I read an odd amount of Dilbert.
The six dimensions of humor are — Naughty, Clever, Cute, Bizarre, Mean, and Recognizable. Mixing two, three or more of the dimensions will result in jokes that appeal to more than one person and may last longer. Of course there’s no guarantee. For more on the six dimensions of humor check the show notes, or simply search for “Scott Adams dimensions of humor”.
The problem with diversifying humor is how poorly that ties in with game mechanics. Which by the nature are meant to be repetitive and easy to scale. Repetition is the antithesis to good humor, just think of any time someone’s repeated a joke you’ve told right after you’ve told it. It’s not funny, in either sense of the word.
The third step
Review and edit. Comedians know you have to hone your craft. Few people are inherently funny, and to get their jokes to land during a set takes practice. That includes learning when to cut a joke, or tighten up a punchline.
Games writing so often doesn’t include time for editing. But if the game is meant to be funny then there’s an even greater need for editing. Especially for games that have to be localized. I’ve proofread the scripts for some games being localized and I could readily identify issues with the humor that weren’t going to be translatable or funny for others.
Firewatch wasn’t one and done when it came to the number of drafts of its script. Sean Vanaman was constantly rewriting and honing the story, the lines, the encounters to create a better game. And that applied to the humor as well. Of course Vanaman couldn’t know how each scene would ultimately land with individual players, but he had an intent. Through rewriting, testing with players, and running the script by the rest of the Campo Santo team they were able to refine all the elements of the game, even the comedy.
Games given they’re a confluence of other arts inevitably have to consider more when attempting comedy. There’s timing of animations not just dialogue, sound effects, the art style and animations, the aforementioned localization, etc. And worst of all, a joke may never be seen. It’s why Easter eggs tend to be so self-indulgent. The creators don’t know if player will find them, and like irony require a certain level of cultural knowledge to be relevant. Otherwise they’re just something that breaks immersion.
The fourth step
Don’t break immersion. This harkens back to the previous step, but it deserves mentioning again. If a joke takes a player out of the game then it’s entirely unnecessary.
It’s the equivalent of a first person shooter adding the ability to plant flowers. Conceptually I can think of a reason for adding it, if the story is about a hitman who plants them as their signature. But if you’re playing Halo, Call of Duty, or Fortnite the ability to plant something doesn’t add to the narrative or your lethality. It probably detracts from them.
There are jokes that I ad-lib in this series that inevitably fall flat for any number of reasons. Most of them get cut. For the ones that don’t… I’m sorry? But if you didn’t find any of those jokes funny or you think I should stop trying to be funny then take that as a lesson when it comes to your own writing. You’re not as funny as you think you are. So strive to do better.
The fifth and final step
Figure out your story genres first. Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, describes all stories as having two genres. An external and an internal.
External genres are, “what we think when we hear the word Genre — action, horror, crime, western, thriller, war, love etc.” They’re a combination of setting and story, and will inevitably have some determination over the plot as they create expectations in the player, or as Shawn Coyne calls them “obligatory scenes.” But more on those in a future episode.
Internal genres are not as immediately clear but are defined as, “Worldview: A Change in Perception of Life Experience; Morality: A Change in a Character’s Inner Moral Compass; and Status: A Change in Social Position.” Each of these have sub-varieties that will see characters through a different character arc. But not all internal genres work well with the external. For more on that I really suggest you give The Story Grid a read, but we’ll address it in a future episode. For now, for your game take a look at the genres you’re using and then determine if comedy is a tool that would help tell that story.