I’ve laughed with a lot of games lately. It makes me realize how high the writing bar for games has risen over the past few years. Whereas I’m seeing a lot of indie titles and smaller games play with fourth-wall meta-humor, at the other end of the spectrum I’m seeing a lot of high-production-value AA and AAA titles really focus on the quality of their writing, and branch out in different directions. One of the directions I’ve been most impressed by is humor. I actually had to step away from Tales of Zestiria today because I was laughing so hard at a particular scene.
Something I’m seeing a lot more of is topical, in-world humor. There are, broadly, two ways to get a laugh in a game. You can set up a joke that’s funny for the player but isn’t actually a joke in the context of the game, and you can set up a joke that’s funny in the context of the game and makes the player laugh, too. The second one is much, much more difficult to write, yet I’m starting to see it more in games.
As an example, KOTOR’s HK-47 is an example of the first kind of humor. HK-47’s thinly veiled menace and explicit, utter vehemence can be pretty funny, for you as the player. As the character standing right next to HK-47, he’s concerning at best and outright horrifying at worst; there’s no laughing along with his lines without being an utter psychopath. HK-47 separates you from the game world, and nods to you as the player while ignoring the character representing you in the world. In a similar vein, pop-culture references and other, similar in-jokes are another example– funny to you as the player but meaningless or tasteless for the character. Both are a LOT easier to write than jokes that are funny in-context.
In-context jokes are the kind of thing that would legitimately make a character in the game world laugh if they heard them. A lot of times these are one-liners, but you can get a more deliberate setup. They’re a lot more difficult to write because you have to have spent a lot of time setting up the game world’s environment and character personalities and, in general, laying down the ‘rules’ for how the world works and what social mores exist before the joke makes sense. Even then, it can fall flat if the player isn’t invested in the setting, or if you get the timing wrong and have an NPC laugh just a bit too early, or the wrong way, or deliver a line anything less than perfectly. It’s pretty rare that you laugh alongside an NPC in a game, because getting that timing down is not easy.
Mostly, this is the result of witty banter between characters, but sometimes it’s even subtler than that. Recently, I played a game where the characters ran across a landmark and, while looking at it, one of my party members made an absolutely awful pun which was followed by another character firing off a snappy quip, which made me chuckle. What got me was having yet another character, randomly while walking a little bit later, pipe up with “OH! I just got it!”, sparking another snappy quip that I (alongside some other party members) laughed at. A little bit later, that character pipes up AGAIN, having just gotten the original snappy comeback, and I found myself waiting for the other (third?) shoe to drop as we caught up to the last joke made at her expense. Just as I’d nearly forgotten about it (this is minutes later, as I wander through a dungeon), the character making the quips checks in: “Did you… not get that last joke?” as other party members (and I) snicker. The game actually waited until I was in combat, fighting for my life, to have the character go “OH! THAT WAS THE JOKE!” in response to the boss saying something vaguely reminescent of a previous quip.
Put another way, any time you “had to be there” for a joke to work, it’s probably an in-context joke. They’re a LOT harder to pull off, yet I’ve seen them in a bunch of games lately.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a bunch of credit not only to Tales of Zestiria for making me laugh, but also Knights of the Fallen Empire, the new SWTOR expansion. The writing team really nailed the humor in that expansion pack, and it really works through a lot of the content. It manages to balance serious characters who I legitimately look forward to bringing down with moments that crack me up or just make me happy in general. Pacing is really important, and having some laughs throughout the experience really helps.
It’s something I really notice when I go back and play older games. The writing quality just isn’t there, most of the time, and the sense of timing and pacing is much, much poorer, when it exists at all. I suspect a lot of it has to do with modern games’ shift towards voice acting, which helps deliver comedy a lot, but it isn’t just that. We’ve gotten better at writing, for the most part, and so when writing isn’t quite as good it’s really noticeable. I do a lot more laughing *at* older games than laughing *with* older games.
All of that having been said, I’m glad to be laughing as I play games. Delivering depressing sadness and yanking at heartstrings in all of my game releases has gotten a bit old; I can see the setups coming a mile away at this point, and I’m getting numb to them. A good laugh, though, catches me by surprise. It’s great.