Why Are Games So Unfunny?

In recent previews, High on Life painted a target on its back then commented on the target on its back repeatedly until players either laughed or picked up a dart. Given that developer Squanch Games is headed up by Justin Roiland, co-creator of Rick & Morty, and that many of the characters are voiced by Roiland, the game will definitely have a built-in audience. But, a gameplay trailer shown at Gamescom Opening Night Live and a clip shared by IGN have revealed that High on Life, like many games, just doesn't know when to stop joking.

Roiland’s shooter is just the latest game to attempt to strike a zany fourth wall breaking tone. Advertising for the Borderlands games has often boasted about the series' "billions of guns," but each game has just as many subpar zingers. Characters like Claptrap, Handsome Jack, and Tiny Tina talk and talk and talk in the hopes that something will make players laugh. Rage 2, the Far Cry series, Grand Theft Auto 5, and the Saints Row games all take a similar approach, throwing a pot of joke spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Why are games so bad at comedy? I have a few theories.

Chief among them is the issue that comedy is a medium that tends to thrive on brevity. Though Judd Apatow's supersized and slow-paced slacker comedies are an exception, most great comedies clock in around 90 minutes. Though Doctor Strangelove, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Spaceballs, Legally Blonde, Rushmore, The Naked Gun, and A Night at the Opera don't have much in common, they do share a commitment to getting audiences in and out in roughly the time it takes to wash and dry a load of laundry. In TV, too, comedies are almost universally shorter than dramas, historically clocking in at around 21 minutes, plus ads.

Triple-A games, on the other hand, are never short. Titanfall 2, one of the briefest triple-A games I've played in the last decade, is still around six hours long. That's three times the length of an Apatow comedy, and roughly 17 times longer than an episode of Seinfeld. And that's a very short game. The Borderlands games, on the other hand, typically take at least 20 hours to finish.

I wrote earlier this month about Carter, a recent Netflix movie from director Jung Byung-gil that presents all of its action in one jerkily assembled pseudo-long take. I complained that, while that movie had me excited for the first 30-45 minutes, its constant action and refusal to rest quickly left me numb. When it's all high-octane all the time, soon nothing registers. The same is true of comedy. When a game throws quips at you every few seconds for a dozen odd hours, it's easy to reach a point where the jokes don't even feel like jokes anymore.

Additionally, games have never been a writer's medium. Though there are plenty of well-written games — Night in the Woods, Grim Fandango, The Last of Us, and Kentucky Route Zero come to mind — the medium has traditionally elevated gameplay over storytelling. Doom designer John Carmack famously compared games to porn in that, in both, story is expected, but unimportant. That widespread attitude has often led to the role of the writer and narrative designer being undervalued and underappreciated. Everyone has to write at some point in their life which means that everyone thinks that they can write. Dedicated writers and writing departments are much more common now than they used to be, but for a long time, writing was often a task relegated to a member of the team to do on top of their primary job.

Writing a game’s worth of funny quips would be a challenging task even for a team of professional comedy writers (as evidenced by the frosty early response to High on Life). But, professional comedy writers aren’t writing most games. If games are going to continue to attempt to make players laugh, developers and publishers need to heavily invest in hiring writers who understand both comedy and design. That isn’t easy. But a game’s tone is just as important as its graphical style or game feel, and irritating dialogue puts extra weight on those other aspects. If I don’t want to hear your characters talk, the game will need to be firing on all cylinders in every other area. You wouldn’t keep watching a show if all the characters annoyed you. Why would you do the same for a game?

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