Exploring what it takes to make a funny game

Why is comedy in games so rare -- and so hard to get right? Developer Zoe Quinn took the stage at GDC today to explore the topic and offer fellow developers a few potential ways to make funny games.

How do you make 'em laugh?

Creators across every medium have grappled with the challenge, but game developer Zoe Quinn points out that video games are one of the few places where comedy goes unrecognized.

“In every other medium comedy is an entire genre in and of itself,” said Quinn. “But in games we still classify games by how they’re played.”

Quinn points out that we typically see comedy sprinkled into game design like a flavor enhancer, but rarely is it served up as the main course. As part of a GDC talk on comedic game design she took the stage today to explore a handful of ways in which developers might lighten up their work, adapt traditional game development processes to make comedy games and tap into a trove of cultural canon relatively untouched by comedians in other genres.

“We have twenty years of design convention that doesn’t make sense,” said Quinn. “Like, if you see a body of water in a game, you’re probably going to be terrified it will kill you," and that's blatantly ridiculous.

It's all about the timing

Quinn’s perspective on comedy game design is intriguing because, in addition to her work as a developer on games like Jeff Goldblum Staring Contest and Win RL Stine's Money, she's spent some time performing stand-up comedy.

To hear Quinn tell it, game developers can learn a few things from the way comics design their stand-up sets.

“The comedian’s persona, their tone of voice, their gesture…there’s a reason why one person can tell a joke that falls flat, and someone else can make it hilarious,” said Quinn.

Stand-up comedians relentlessly analyze the delivery of each joke -- the face you make when you tell it, how much time you spend between each narrative beat -- in a process that's much akin to the prototyping and QA processes many developers use to iron out design issues.

Quinn pointed out that the challenge of perfecting comedic timing — of making sure that you don’t wait too long or too little before you deliver the punchline to a joke — can often be confronted as a level design problem when you’re making comedy games.

A good example of this, says Quinn, is Necrophone Games’ Jazzpunk (pictured) -- a first-person game with levels tuned to ensure that players encounter the right jokes, at the right time, in the right order to maximize hilarity.

But what if they don't get the joke?

Quinn posits that comedy games are at least as reliant on traditional QA to work, if not more so; if a tester walks past a joke without looking at it, you have to move things around or otherwise figure out a way to make it work.

"Testing is a nightmare," says Quinn. You can only test a joke once, so “you have to test early and test often with totally new people" to fine-tune a comedy game's timing. 

Quinn suggests the Too Many Cooks video as a prime example of how you can keep a piece of comedy fresh over long stretches of time by constantly shifting tone and peppering in fresh jokes about topics that complement the main joke. 

“You have the overarching structure that’s easy to navigate, and then all these little bits of humor sprinkled throughout,” said Quinn. “If you have all these little bits of humor that reflect upon themselves, you can keep things fresh and interesting."

At the same time, comedic games are perhaps best when they don't overstay their welcome.

“Consider making shorter games,” said Quinn. “Not all games need to be 60 hours.”

She suggests game jams are an ideal environment for trying your hand at comedic game development, and notes that the challenges you'll face in doing so are strikingly similar to what developers of horror games face.

“Doing comedy in games, doing horror in games, we face almost the exact same challenges,” said Quinn. “Horror and surprise, it’s the exact same challenge: to get that jump."

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