Writing comedic games the West of Loathing way

“Taking about comedy is one of the least funny things,” said West of Loathing game dev Zach Johnson as he opened his talk at GDC 2018 today about the art of writing good comedy games.

Indie dev Asymmetric Publications has carved out a little niche for itself with Kingdom of Loathing, the comedic browser-based stick figure RPG that's been running in some form for roughly 15 years.

But last summer the studio earned critical acclaim for West of Loathing, a Wild West-themed "comedy adventure" game released on Steam and soon, the Nintendo Switch.

Developer and Asymmetric chief Zach Johnson hopped onstage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today to try and talk about how, exactly, you write and design a comedy game. He opened with an apology.

“Taking about comedy is one of the least funny things,” said Johnson, ruefully. “In February I got lucky, because Tim Schafer accidentally wrote my entire talk for me in this tweet.”

According to Johnson, the key decision was choosing to purposefully make West of Loathing a comedy game, as opposed to a game with a bunch of jokes in it. Thus, comedy was considered throughout the game development process:

“This is nothing super-novel,” said Johnson. “The narrator is me and [co-writer] Riff talking to the player, but what’s cool about that is that it allows us to treat the narrator as a character...having the spoken text be direct dialogue between us and the player has a lot of advantages”

For example, "literally every piece of text becomes an opportunity for us to at least try to be funny,” said Johnson. This is, admittedly, a “quantity over quality approach”, but if your game has hundreds of jokes if it is, at some core level, an excuse to tell the player jokes then there’s a good chance a good number will land.

According to Johnson, having a narrator that’s also a character has a bunch of advantages: you can play against this consistent voice the player comes to know, setting up jokes throughout the game. You can be self-deprecating, and people tend to appreciate that especially if the voice of the narrator is also the voice of the game developer.

You can also use the narrator to goof on players in a way that guides their progress through the game, jokingly pushing them away from paths you don’t think they’ll enjoy. Though, according to Johnson, this use of narrator as comedic foil can sometimes fail to keep players from making bad decisions if the goofs are too good.

While demoing the game at an event, Johnson recalls he was surprised to see players grinning while playing down a path of the game (a “bad morality” choice) that the dev team tried to earnestly warn players against.

“Every time somebody went through that, they did it with this huge grin on their face the entire time,” said Johnson. “I thought we were gonna remove this because it is not funny it's trying to warn you that what you’re trying to do is not in keeping with the tone of the game, but...people just loved it.”

He admits that it’s also hard to tell when you need to stop doing this because it’s annoying. On the bright side, Johnson says building a game around being funny gives you as the developer a lot of opportunities to have some fun with seemingly mundane tasks.

“It is nice that everything we do is, at worst, a puzzle we need to solve to make some boring thing funny,” said Johnson. “Like, how do you make graphics options funny? That was a simple thing that didn’t take long to do, and some people loved it.”

Don't let the game get in the way of the jokes

“We wanted the game to not be particularly challenging,” says Johnson. “We needed to stick to the core: this game is made of jokes, so we didn’t want to do adventure game-style puzzles.”

In fact, none of the team set out to make an adventure game “it just gradually dawned on us that we were making an adventure game,” recounts Johnson. Here, too, was an opportunity to goof; the team didn’t want to put in any needle in a haystack puzzles, so Johnson says they just put a needle in every haystack.

Unfortunately, it was trickier to make the game’s turn-based combat feel great.

“We just ran out of time and we ran out of money, so we ended up with combat not in fantastic shape,” says Johnson. “We don’t have time to make it really funny or super-satisfying, so let’s just make it really easy.”

In hindsight, Johnson says he feels pretty good about this -- the core idea of a “comedy game” doesn’t need or even really seem to benefit from having a combat system.

Avoid repetition

If you want to make a funny game, Johnson is adamant: avoid repetition as much as possible. For the West of Loathing team, the way to do so was just to optimize their pipeline so they could create as much content as possible.

“The tools that we built on the backend, and the engine we built on the frontend, were really optimized to let us cram so much stuff in there as quickly as we could,” says Johnson. “That was really key to helping us avoid repetition, by allowing us to put a ton of stuff in there.”

Johnson says his co-writer Riff wrote most of the game’s NPC dialogue, and he brought a few of “Riff’s tips” to the talk.

First and foremost, if you’re trying to write funny dialogue in the vein of Asymmetric’s work, try to give your characters a unique voice. Their dialogue should “sound” distinct, even if you’re just reading text.

It’s also good to give each NPC or conversation a mood: wary, tired, excited, or the like. Think about what your character looks like (easy for Asymmetric, since they render all characters as stick figures), what they want (and why they don’t have it), and what they’re doing when the player isn’t there talking to them.

“If you have a weird one-off interaction with someone the player doesn’t need to keep interacting with, you can do a weird one-off thing,” says Johnson, suggesting such classics as: weird job, funny voice, odd problem (comically hard of hearing), or the like. Basically, anything that makes your NPC sound “kind of like they’re in a Monty Python sketch.”

Importantly, avoid topical stuff. Johnson put up an image of David S. Pumpkins and pointed out that while it happened during West of Loathing’s development, the team decided against putting it in because A) a lot of players wouldn't get it and B) it would date the game.

Also, don’t repeat jokes from other games 

The cake joke was funny once: when Portal came out.

Think carefully about what jokes you’re making, and take pains not to “punch down” with your humor. Good humor punches up, though Johnson says that with West of Loathing the team really didn’t punch at all.

“We’re making a western, and there are some problems with this genre, and we don’t have anything important to say,” says Johnson. “We were a little worried that we’d catch some heat for whitewashing it, but it turns out that when you make a dumb comedy game nobody cares so much.”

This won’t gel with every dev’s needs or interests, and Johnson acknowledges that. From his perspective, there’s still lots of room for comedy games that don’t necessarily take shots at current events, topical issues, or heads of state.

“We decided in Kingdom of Loathing that we’re not making fun of things people didn’t choose,” says Johnson. “And people (especially young people) kind of don’t always choose their religion, or their politics.”

“That said, this is a very cowardly approach,” says Johnson. “And I just kind of have to own that. Also, that was a very bad choice of where to end this talk.”

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