The Ongoing Struggle for Humour in Video Games

Once upon a time – and for a very brief moment in history – the creation of a video game was viewed as an entirely separate ballgame to the creation of, say, a work of literature, cinema, or art.

The basic premises of Pac-Man and Space Invaders was inarguably up to the task of reeling that first wave of gamers into the arcade halls and computer cafes of the 70s and 80s, but it was no doubt the compelling nature of the video game that kept players investing their quarters into the machine, and not the admittedly thin narratives on which these games were based.

Very quickly, however, the gaming industry began to find the feet on which it would walk for the next few decades – and to this day. Games, even those with relatively basic premises and mechanics, were grounded within carefully wrought and thoughtful storylines. The plot gave way to the narrative, and narrative gave way to lore, and now the industry is filled with titles that hold more than a passing significance in the lives of their players.

In essence, developers have managed to forge emotional connections between 3D renderings and human players, and invoking such a tangible reaction would only be possible with strong writing, and the ability to transform words into something more resonant still.

But, despite this remarkable propensity for playing with our emotions, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that game creators are still struggling to master the tricky subject of humor within their titles. But, why? And how can they overcome it?


Where Would Humour Fit?

Now, obviously, a significant part of the output from the gaming industry is neither designed to be nor received as, a profoundly plot-driven piece.

These titles can place a greater emphasis on the player’s use of tactics and skill, and they can make waves within their own pocket of the gaming world. The site GGPoker offers a perfect example – a digital destination that has so clearly marked, defined, and honed the parameters of its offerings that it now offers one of the highest-traffic poker destinations within the digital realm.

Then there are those games that, while plot-driven, exist in the benign middle ground between tragedy, comedy, and drama. They are cartoonish, uncomplicated, and maybe even a little cynical; they do not test the player emotionally, and the player is not changed in any profound way simply underplaying them. Consider endlessly repayable online arenas, such as the Call of Duty Battle Royale.

While there are very few, if no, similarities between these two examples, they remain united by the fact that they exist in the same sprawling portion of the gaming world. There is no room for daring attempts at humor in this arena, and so its absence is not felt. The same cannot be said, however, for the more plot-driven titles that blur action with drama and plot with narrative.


Where is the Struggle?

There are, of course, plenty of instances where video game writers attempt and succeed with humor in their work. Of course, this begins to unravel when the player hears the same joke 100+ times – consider an endless supply of NPCs, all following the same single page of the script. And, even when it is done well and gamers spare more than a few laughs, the title is rarely – if never – billed as a humorous piece. It is immeasurably rare to see a title advertised as a comedy in the same way as a funny movie.

There are, arguably, several factors preventing video games from being seen as a medium for the art of a good laugh.

For one thing, there is an extra dimension through which writers would have to consistently break to get every laugh. In a movie theatre, the audience is immersed within the action in an entirely different way to how a player, who controls (at least) one player and much on the on-screen action. The player’s attention is utilized in a more immediate, involved way – and that concentration on a list of digital, though no less real, tasks and priorities are much harder to break.

For another, just one of the many challenges of creating a video game is building it upon a mind-boggling network of possible scripts, plotlines, and tangents. Few games are entirely linear these days, and that means a mammoth increase in the workloads of those creators. They have to write equally convincing and compelling scripts for every eventuality, and injecting comedy into each one would be all the more challenging.

Finally – and perhaps most important of all – there is little call for it. We often enjoy comedy in movies because it breaks the tension, but that delicately woven tension is viewed entirely differently by the gamer, for whom it makes the experience all the more profound, real, and immediate.



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