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That’s Not Funny

February 6th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Design

“When it comes to humor, I’m very anti ‘jokes’ in games. Most designers try too hard to tell a joke, and it just doesn’t work.”

So says Bethesda’s Todd Howard in the new Escapist.

Humor is, obviously, very subjective. I was at a job interview last week and one of the students asked me who my favorite movie comedian was. I stumbled a bit, since I doubt old-style Woody Allen would have meant anything to her, let alone Groucho Marx or Buster Keaton. I made an off-hand comment about how I thought Adam Sandler was the least funny millionaire in Hollywood (this is assuming Chris Kattan is not a millionaire) and there was an audible gasp.

But Howard puts his money where his mouth is since The Elder Scrolls titles are probably the role playing games most devoid of humor. They are dark, serious and morally ambiguous. The upcoming Shivering Isles expansion for Oblivion has a little more humor, but not in the way of jokes or situational anomalies – it encourages you to laugh at the NPCs, and considering most of the NPCs have some sort of mental failing, this is dark in its own way. (I’ll have more on this when my preview gets printed.)

Last year the big question in the gaming blogosphere was whether games could make you cry. It was always assumed that games could make you laugh, since we’ve all laughed at games. SpaceQuest, Sam and Max, Baldur’s Gate…all were humorous in their own ways and some of them could even tell jokes. I finally dipped my toes into the World of Warcraft ocean last week and found it full of life an humor – as well as some curious social commentary. (Hey, I’m a scholar. I see social commentary everywhere.)

So is Howard wrong? It could be that he’s a hard person to make laugh. Humor is harder to communicate in text than it is vocally, as anyone who post on the internet knows all too well.

I think the real problem, though, is trying to stick humor in a game that is, fundamentally, serious. It’s one thing to have a funny game, or funny moments in something that is light or neutral in tone. (Like Leonard Nimoy going “beep, beep, beep” in Civ IV.) In real life, humor in dark moments is difficult to pull off and most serious literature is devoid of laugh out loud humor. (Note how many complaints about the Lord of the Rings movies center on the weird comic relief of Gimli? Does anyone consider Victor Hugo funny?) A post apocalyptic RPG like Fallout may not be the best place for humor; in fact Fallout 2‘s greater reliance on going for laughs is oft cited as a failure of the sequel.

In strategy games, most of the humor is visual, in spite of futile efforts to make RTS peons “funny” with wacky acknowledgement sound cues. I can think of very few instances of written or spoken humor in strategy games aside from amusing manuals or the occasional text description of a unit. And it aims for smiles more than laughs, since you will see the same “jokes” over and over again.

But I tell you, cyclopes tossing elephants in Age of Mythology never gets old.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan Au

    On the subject of humor in games, I suspect that part of the problem is that some designers substitute “clever” for “good.” On the related topic of whether games can make you cry: *should* games make you cry?

  • Troy

    Don’t ask me, Alan. I think it’s a stupid question, but one that for some reason ate up a lot of blog space last year.

  • steve

    One big issue with in-game humor is what’s funny the first time isn’t so funny the 500th time. Games are all about repetitive tasks; a neutral, “Yes sir” can be filtered out more than that dude that always tells the same joke.

  • Krupo

    Two words for you: Dungeon Keeper

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    I see two possible obstacles for humor in games.

    First, studying a joke kills it, and so the development, programming, and testing process can make what seemed funny at first seem stale and contrived. It can also lead to poor judgement in what will be funny and what won’t sense towards the end, none of it will seem funny.

    Second, as was said earlier, finding the joke the first time is funny. Having to sit through it the 500th time is a cringe-inducing waste of the player’s time. If the joke is going to be repeated often (NPC replies would be a favorite), and requires any kind of delay that a serious response would avoid, it might be a good idea to have both the humorous and serious response and play the humor infrequently.

  • Natus


    it was greaty to see you in Azeroth a few evenings back, and I can’t wait for an entry about the Blizzard social commentary. My own conumdrum is Why Are All the “Evil” Races Now So Good?

    As for humor, I prefer mine dry and not underlined. I love the humor in DoW. I liked the humor in StarCtaft and WoW, but loathed it in WC3. Sacrifice was hilarious while going ahead with the game, but a lot of C&C humor goes a long way with me.

  • Aleck

    One thing that concerns me, of course, is that this is coming from the head of the studio that’s working on the sequel to Fallout. Now, obviously, I’m not going to pass judgement before the game comes out, but it’s hard to imagine a Fallout game without plenty of humor.

    Also, layering humor in with your standard fare works really well. While I agree with steve that it’s less funny the 500th time, who can forget the wonderful responses of the various characters/units in Warcraft 2? Click on ’em a few times, and you’ll get more responses. That’s humor well done in a game; it didn’t interfere with the game mechanics, but it did make the game enjoyable on a whole additional level.