Turning from horror to laughter might be a big step, but when talking about the lack of games the step is not that big. Really funny games, with parts or scenes that makes you laugh, is very hard to find. I guess comical is a more appropriate word than funny in this case. With comical games I mean games that by themselves can make you laugh and feel the game is ludicrous. [I exclude games you play with friends, since that cause another type of “amusement”]. Why are these games so hard to come by?
As with all emotions, it is dependent on the player if you think something is funny, but since there is a genre called comedy for movies, (and books?), there must be some common factors in these that most people at least find a bit funny and can laugh at. The big question is then why is it so hard to make games “laughable”? One reason might be that a lot of funny situations, in real life and in fiction, come when something goes wrong or is said or done in a special (funny) way; with some mystical timing involved. If you tell a joke, but forget a small part or tell it with a lackluster voice, you will stand there and wonder why no one is laughing. Translate this to games and the difficulties become clear. If you, as a game designer / story writer, want the player to really feel that some part is funny or even make them laugh, you have to time and control many details in the game; which can make the player feel like he/she loses control of the character and the progress in the game. This can be tolerated if it is done in a nice and subtle way, but it is a thin line; if I feel that I am being pushed by the game instead of making me own choices too often, I lose the feeling that I am playing the game.
One of the few really “laughable” games I can recollect is Day of the Tentacle (DOTT), and that is almost entirely because it has a witty dialogue and funny characters, set up like a funny movie. The game put you in the role of three characters (or stereotypes), one “nerd”, one “hysterical” girl and one “rocker”. They need to stop the evil plans of a mutated tentacle, by traveling in time and stop it from mutating. The story itself is outrageously funny and most of the actions you perform with the characters are either against normal problem solving or just too absurd to not be laughed at.
There are some other old adventure games, just like DOTT, that rely heavily on goofy characters and comical quest solving. Among the most notable series or games are the Monkey Island series, Sam & Max, and the Simon the Sorcerer series. It is quite likely that I have missed some of your personal favorites, but hey, you know which game I am referring to. It might be argued though, that these games were quite one-way-games with not too many options; at least they were extremely funny. The rise of 3D graphics in games and the extreme focus on action games unfortunately killed the market for these adventure games, since they relied on 2D graphics, subtle and hard-to-understand stories and jokes and foremost, you needed to have patience to try many solutions before being able to progress. But it was all worth it. There is a very high grade of satisfaction when you finally understand that you need to enter the grandfather clock to continue!
When moving on to a little more open games, the selection of comical ones become even scarcer. Even though it is not so open and may not be deemed “comical” by most, I still have to mention Lemmings. In my eyes this game was revolutionary when it came. The game puts the lives and mercy of the lemmings in your hands, that plus the fact that you had to kill some of them to save others and that you were doomed to fail over and over again made the game very funny; mostly just to see all the mishaps that could happen to the small characters. A series with a bit different approach but almost similarly “stupid” characters were Goblins. These games were not funny all-through, some puzzles were quite tough, but a few scenes were so funny I remember laughing out loud when they happened.
One of the few recent games I have played, that I consider comical by itself, mostly because of its own absurdness and crazy presentation, is Beautiful Katamari. Your main objective is to roll around a round object called katamari and make other objects get stuck to the katamari, making it grow in size and by doing so solve different quests. The game has Japanese origins, and that might play a role, since it is not based on the “cultural ingredients” I am used to (not sure if it is very “Japanese” though, haven’t heard any Japanese talk about the game). This game’s basic plot is absurd, and the way you are meant to solve the problems is even more absurd; the eventual goal is to make the katamari big enough to plug up a black hole. Add some fitting music and strange characters and you have a game that will probably make you laugh (or turn it off very quickly).
Another recent game series that have its funny moments is the Lego games, for example Lego Batman or Lego Star Wars. A lot of the funny parts in these come from the cut-scenes that most of the times retells the story from the books, movies or comics; but in a very funny way, like a parody. Some playable parts are also quite funny by themselves; you can perform crazy moves or combine objects to solve puzzles in absurd and weird ways.
I have probably forgotten some funny games, but if I check the recent flood of games, I do not see many that are directly comical/laughable. Maybe it is the difficulty to implement the timing needed to create funny situations or the market’s lust for all-out-action that has almost stopped the game studios of today to even try to make us laugh. If you remove the games that have funny cut-scenes or characters that are funny by themselves, there will hardly be any funny games left, where the total feeling and atmosphere of the game is comical.
Turning to the world of literature again, I refer to The Hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy, Three men in a boat or the best of the Discworld books, when I try to explain what I miss in games. Since it seems very hard to implement “comical timing” in games, I’m at least hoping for more funny cut-scenes, wacky stories and goofy characters; the games of today, at least the games topping the lists, are too streamlined and almost without any humor. I beg of you, developers: Please make me laugh!
Stay tuned for the next part in this series of articles about why games are lacking some emotions.