So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been experimenting with these shorter-form essays, 300-500 words, and for the most part I’m really digging the results. 500 words is the perfect length, I think, to capture an idea, and usually that’s what I want to do here, is to share some of the ideas in my head with you in the hopes that they will be entertaining and thought provoking.
However, this methodology seems to cause a few problems.
In particular, the problem I’ve been having with these essays, and the reason that this one is a day late, is that I have generally been feeling shitty– and due to the more impromptu short-form style of recent essays this has been more or less a direct brain-dump of however shitty I feel onto you, the readers.
The last three essays have been pretty dark, and I wrote up a fourth one yesterday which was also pretty dark and I thought: No. No matter how much of a shitty shitty crap crap crap I feel like, I don’t want to feed on that and make this blog just my personal venting space. Problem Machine is a place for ruminating on interesting problems and ideas, primarily in the field of game design and other art forms, and so far these essays have been tied into that concept but have become more and more about myself. With each successive post, each article becomes more diary than essay. And I suppose that would be fine if all I wanted to do was write expressively about my personal problems and maybe draw the occasional parallel between them and video games, but I don’t, so this shit has got to be controlled, here and now.
So: I’ve been wanting to do another funny essay, after the preceding wave of serious ones, and I’ve been having trouble thinking of anything particularly funny to talk about. I’ve discovered, as I’m sure is common knowledge now among those whose jobs it is to be funny, that it’s very hard, when pressed, to think of something funny. It’s much easier to think of something that isn’t especially funny and then make jokes about that, because invariably in discussing something, anything, weird turns of phrases or strange situations will come up, and a witty mind can easily build jokes out of those.
Good. That means I don’t need to think of anything funny. My job just got easier. So, what’s not funny? What’s not funny is that I’ve set out several times now to write something funny and just ended up making myself feel depressed. Wait, that actually is kind of funny. Shit.
Okay let’s go with that then. Failure is funny. Accidentally bouncing a rock off a wall and hitting yourself in the face and falling into a pool of ravenous piranhas in Spelunky: Funny. Cloaked spy walking in front of a sniper just as he accidentally takes a shot which drills through both the spy and his intended target: Also funny. Watching your mutilated body parts dance across the level powered by explosions and angry robots in N+: Very funny indeed.
It seems, generally speaking, that there’s two kinds of humor in games: narrative-driven and systems-driven.
The classic example of narrative-driven humor is in the Monkey Island games and other LucasArts adventures: Basically, jokes written into the game. People sometimes bemoan the lack of games based around this kind of humor, but I don’t think there needs to be that many games focusing on it– in fact, I think the bigger issue is that most of the games that don’t feature this kind of humor as a prominent selling point are completely humorless. Thus, we have the current rather unpleasant climate of most games being rather juvenile and, at the same time, incredibly self-serious. As dramatic movies and television series like American Beauty and like Deadwood show us, you can tell a serious story and still have some downright hilarious scenes. A good example of this in games is Prince of Persia: Sands of Time which, despite a somewhat bare-bones plot, consistently charmed with its dialogue.
Systems-driven humor can be found, as far as I can tell, in any game with a robust system. As I mentioned, failure is funny, and the same thing that makes games effective teaching tools also makes them funny: You can instantly see how and why something fails. Humor is, in large part, the art of establishing an expectation and then subverting it. Unexpected results are funny, but only when we can see why they happened instead of the result we expected– without this aspect, you just end up with a bunch of ‘random’ non-sequiters masquerading as jokes (see: Family Guy. Better yet, don’t). In a mechanically deterministic game both of those cases occur frequently, and so they are ripe for procedurally generated humor.
This form of humor tends to be particularly entertaining when the systems directly interact with characters. It’s mildly amusing when your machine in Fantastic Contraption collapses in on itself catastrophically; but, hypothetically, it might be far funnier if, in doing so, it spiked a human pilot into the ground so hard his carcass spontaneously evaporated leaving nothing but a smear of blood on the ground, only for his disembodied head to fall back on screen 15 seconds later. Or, if you didn’t want a(n explicitly) violent game, simply having him flung flailing from the vehicle into a wall because of a miscalculation is also inherently funny. A good example of this would–
Wait a minute, why am I writing about how to make something funny now? I was trying to write a funny essay and I ended up writing an essay about humor. What the actual fuck is wrong with me? It’s 900 words already! I was doing short essays!
Why is this essay getting meta all of a sudden? Isn’t that the exact kind of self-indulgence I was trying to avoid here? Maybe my brain is subconsciously sabotaging my efforts to write a funny essay about how failure is funny because it thinks it’s funny! That’s not funny!
Wait. Maybe it is.
(This one ended up being 1,000 words just because I kept writing. Next week is 500 word essays again. Probably)