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How Monkey Island's creator handles the challenges of comedic timing

Creating humor in games has never been easy, but according to Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert, the real trick is to write jokes that take advantage of a game's unpredictable timing.
Creating humor in games has never been easy. Plenty of games try to be funny, but more often than not, their jokes fall flat when a player's at the helm. It takes some real consideration to make comedy in games work, and Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert says it all comes down to timing. In a recent interview with The Gameological Society, Double Fine's Gilbert explained why so many developers struggle to inject humor into their games. The problem, he says, is that game writers can't predict when and how their jokes play out. "Timing is something that comedians or writers in movies or TV shows have complete control over," Gilbert says. "They can set up a joke and pay it off five seconds later at just the right time. With games, we have very little control over timing because we’ve given that control up to the players." With games, writers need to keep in mind that their audience is unpredictable. Without knowing when (or if) a player will see a joke through to the end, developers need to write jokes that work even after an extended stretch of time. "You really need to tell jokes where the punchline can come much, much, much later than the setup," he said. "You can set up a joke, and some people might get the punchline 15 seconds later, but there might be people who don’t get the punchline for 30 minutes, and your jokes have to work with those really long setups." Gilbert said he used that technique way back in 1990, when he created LucasArts' The Secret of Monkey Island. It's a game that was very careful about its comedic timing, and the fact that it's now remembered as one of the funniest games of all time is likely no coincidence. "In Monkey Island, there is a great bit where Guybrush says this one very throwaway line about being able to hold his breath for 10 minutes. He’s just boasting, and that’s his big boast, and that’s kind of funny," Gilbert said. "But then the joke really pays off much later in the game, when you get dumped in water, and he’s trapped, and he can actually hold his breath for 10 minutes. Then he makes fun of that. That’s an example of how you can set something up and then pay it off a little bit later." For more on Gilbert's approach to comedy writing and game design, check out The Gameological Society's full interview.

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