July 28, 2010 12:00 PM |
[Abbott's Habit is a monthly GameSetWatch column by writer and Brainy Gamer blog author Michael Abbott. This month, he looks at DeathSpank and the evolving role of comedy in games.]
All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl. --Charlie Chaplin
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different. --Kurt Vonnegut
Hothead and Ron Gilbert's DeathSpank has me thinking about humor in games and the challenge of creating an integrated design for comedy. As I've noted previously on my blog, fully-realized comedy is a system. It can't be delivered on a separate channel or stirred into a recipe to add spice. Comedy is a self-contained unified aesthetic. A game that wants to be a comedy must be a game directed through a comic vision that defines the whole project.
As a comedic game, DeathSpank advances the ball down the field in some creative ways, and I'll discuss those in a moment. But I also think DeathSpank exemplifies the conundrum faced by video games that try to be funny. We can illustrate that tension with two apparently contradictory claims:
Claim 1: Video games are well-suited to making us laugh. Like a well-crafted game, a successful comedy is highly technical, based on a set of clearly-defined rules, and carefully engineered to trigger a calculated response. It relies on the precise execution of a final build, fine-tuned through iteration and feedback.
Comedy, as Henri Bergson observes in his seminal "Theory of Laughter," is "something mechanical encrusted on the living." One could easily apply the same phrase to describe games. Game developers understand how to build complex systems for interactive communication, and that's exactly what a successful comedy is. Comedy is aimed at the intellect, and gamers are smart. We can do this!
Claim 2: Video games are hopeless vehicles for comedy. They may manage to deliver wordplay and 'wackiness,' but desperately trying to 'be funny' usually results in an outmoded brand of one-liner comedy that died with the Borscht Belt. Furthermore, player agency in an interactive world (a defining feature of modern games) is mostly antithetical to comedy.
When choice, pace, and timing are handed off to the player, the potential for comedy dissipates. We may play an interactive role watching a live stand-up comic, but we don't write the punchlines; nor do we decide when to deliver them. In the same Bergson essay referenced above, he describes comedy as a "social gesture." Nearly all the 'funny' games we've seen are single-player affairs, lacking the spontaneous group-mind formed when we experience comedy in other media. We're out of our league!
DeathSpank makes good on the promise of the first claim and goes some way toward refuting the inevitability of the second.
At first glance, DeathSpank appears to be Hothead Games' and Rob Gilbert's attempt to update the old LucasArts dial-a-joke adventure game formula, with lite-RPG and hack-and-slash mechanics stirred into the mix. First glances can be deceiving, however, and DeathSpank brings far more cleverness and ingenuity to the table than "Diablo meets Monkey Island" (despite Gilbert's fondness for describing his new game as exactly that).
DeathSpank extends its comedy through the player's experience, from its menu screens to its voice acting; from its art style to its quest-giving system; from its character animations to its wacky-answer puzzles. Nearly everything in DeathSpank is funny, and the comedy operates on two simultaneous levels. Characters such as Freen the Felt Salesman and Eubrick the Retired (formally known as Eubrick the Bitter, Eubrick the Undefeated, Eubrick the Bastard of Hillhaven, Sally the Stable Girl, and Eubrick the Bed Wetter) are funny creations regardless of how many games you've played.
But if you happen to be a video game veteran, DeathSpank operates as an inspired parody, sending up RPG and adventure game chestnuts left and right. Even the game's UI has a comedic personality, behaving with a mind all its own. One of my favorite DeathSpank moments accompanies a trivial event: the sudden appearance of a quest window.
A little orphan girl has been running DeathSpank ragged, insisting he fetch her one thing after another. Finally, she demands "I want a pony!" and the game offers me a range of possible responses. Hoping to deny her request, I choose one and listen to a snippet of dialogue...then BANG, a quest window appears with a clank, as if to say, "Sorry pal. Can't help ya. Get her the pony!"
DeathSpank's writing is consistently clever, with a wonderful spirit of self-mockery and a refreshing absence of mean-spiritedness. DeathSpank himself is a vainglorious idiot (voiced by Michael Dobson), a digital braggart soldier worthy of Plautus. The remaining gallery of oddballs is expertly voiced by actors who fuel the game's parody, affecting not-quite-right 'game character' dialects and generally elevating Gilbert's script. By the way, the two ex-World of Warcraft orcs in Lord Von Prong's vanity museum make a visit there an absolute necessity...that, and the quest item you'll need to finish the game.
DeathSpank revels in silliness. The demon witch's name is "Ms. Heybenstance." She lives in the ramshackle house with candy cane pillars. Tina the Taco Vender, earning money for college, runs the Pluckmuckel Taqueria located across from Bong the Potioneer, who makes really good brownies. Each time DeathSpank teleports to another area (via an outhouse), just before handing control to the player, DeathSpank defiantly hitches up his codpiece. That is, I assumed it was a codpiece. The game clears up that mystery near the end.
The Diablo-style combat has you battling legions of menacing goofball enemies, including little gingerbread men that attack you in hordes, dead-certain they can deal damage. These wee men die, pathetically, with a single swat. You collect chicken lips. You hurl poop at your enemies. On the outskirts of town, a wise cow awaits you with philosophical ruminations.
Visually and sonically, DeathSpank has far more up its sleeves than you may expect. Its score blends Morricone-esque guitar strums and whistles with a pastiche of mod-60s Our Man Flint action music, ala Jerry Goldsmith.
Its art design is a colorful blend of 2D objects in 3D environments, bearing an unmistakable Hanna-Barbera vibe (fused with Animal Crossing's rolling orb), but with far more texture, movement, and whimsical detail. Do yourself a favor and visit the lake in the north-central part of world. The stylized water and fluid waves artfully integrate with DeathSpank's lush comic visuals. How can a lake be funny? I'm not sure, but this one definitely belongs where it is.
Game designers who want to create a unified comedic world face a task that can't be answered with humorous dialogue or cutscenes: how do you make the gameplay funny? DeathSpank doesn't fully answer this question, but it takes a few promising stabs at it. For one thing, the frenetic pacing of a hack-and-slash game is more conducive to comedy than a point-and-click adventure. DeathSpank slows when it's time for conversation, encouraging the player to gradually prune each dialogue tree to get all the jokes. But in general the fast pace of play in DeathSpank enables the game to gather and sustain its comic momentum.
A fine line separates 'fun' from 'funny,' and DeathSpank attempts to deliver both in its active play elements. Killing unicorns (in itself an absurdity) is a stiff challenge in DeathSpank, and from a purely ludic perspective, the game makes it fun. DeathSpank delivers enough useful loot, incentivizes leveling up, and offers combat sufficiently addictive that it strikes the Diablo-fun chord its creators clearly wanted.
But...you're killing rabid unicorns in a whack-job wonderland of pastels and storybook visuals (and those pathetic gingerbread men I mentioned). Clearly, these add a demented comedic dimension to the challenging combat. So is DeathSpank's gameplay comedic? I say yes, most of the time; though I realize nothing is more subjective than humor.
After a couple of hours of continuous play, DeathSpank's steady stream of jokes can begin to feel numbing, which may put DeathSpank's writing, best enjoyed in limited spurts, at odds with its gameplay, designed to lure the player into long sessions of Diablo-style marauding. DeathSpank's UI is a bit cumbersome, requiring frequent menu visits; and I wish the game helped me better manage my inventory and make optimal equipment choices. These are fairly inconsequential niggles.
Where DeathSpank falls down hardest as a game - but especially as a comedy - is in its simplistic dungeons, devoid of the comedic flair and imagination evident throughout the rest of the game. I can't help but see these areas as a series of missed opportunities for Hothead and Gilbert. What if DeathSpank had adopted a playful take on navigating the dungeons (unreliable maps maybe?) or implemented some comedic obstacles that challenged the player to progress or escape?
I can imagine more self-reflexive content might have been fun too - like creating a fake save file you're forced to load, and then finding yourself plunged into a hyper-cheery Farmville-like dungeon that requires you to befriend five hyper-cheery NPCs. Later, another quest makes you go back and slaughter them. I'm just brainstorming here. The consistently high level of cleverness displayed throughout the rest of the game suggest Hothead may simply have run out of time designing DeathSpank's dungeons.
As a comedy DeathSpank does a lot of things well. It's smart and funny, a well constructed parody of other games, game genres, and game culture. It's a gift to longtime fans of Gilbert's previous work and proof that he can still produce a game full of warmth, wit, and tons of laughs.
Some may see that accomplishment as grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Playing with genres and having fun with familiar game tropes - it's the easiest comedy for games to do, right? I'm not so sure.
How telling is it that Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer, who arrived on the scene together over 20 years ago, remain the only two designers most gamers can think of when it comes to comedic games? It's a worn-out cliche, but it remains true: comedy is hard - hard work; hard to produce; and hard to perform. A million things can go wrong and sink the ship. If you want to see what that looks like, play The Return of Matt Hazard.
I've spent my career writing and directing plays for the theater, and I can tell you unequivocally that building a production from scratch designed to make an audience laugh for two hours is a herculean task. A game that can sustain itself comedically for a dozen hours? It boggles my mind.
The autonomy and deep interactivity inherent in recent games argues against the notion of a master jester at the authorial helm, penning quips and stringing together gags. If the player assumes an authorial role in a narrative game, what sort of comedy can emerge? We've seen the sparks of satire emerge from Fallout 3's Museum of Technology and Bioshock 2's Journey to the Surface Ride, both of which deliver their humor situationally when the player chooses to explore a place. The Sims 3 provides a game-world engine for humor based on the player's interactions with the AI and the unpredictable outcomes that can emerge. WarioWare D.I.Y. encourages players to create their own comedic minigames.
At GDC last March, several designers including Tim Schafer conducted a panel discussion of comedy in games. Telltale's Sean Vanaman cautioned against making games strictly to provoke laughs. "If you set out to make a comedy game you're just going to keep telling fart jokes, or keep going back to the same comedy well. If you say 'We're going to be funny,' it'll come off as insincere."
"Unless you're funny," quipped Schafer.
Indeed. Unifying all the elements of a design is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and DeathSpank achieves it to a greater degree than it's been credited for. But I'm not convinced seamless ludo-narrative hyper-convergence would have made this game any funnier or more fun. DeathSpank misses some opportunities, but sometimes tapping a mother lode of well-crafted jokes for the sake of laughter is reason enough to do it. Battling unicorns is icing on the cake.
Categories: Column: Abbott's Habit