Five Things We Learned from the Internet About Video Games and Comedy

By Aaron Matteson in Five Things, Humor, Lists!
Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm
The internet thinks these guys are comedic gold; though we can probably agree this was not Bethesda's original intent.

One point that has been raised in the past concerning video games is that they generally err on the side of being humorless. Luckily, there are notable exceptions -- classic games like the ridiculous Space Quest series come to mind, and recent offerings like the Portal games prove that it's quite possible to produce a gaming experience that is both emotionally satisfying and deliberately funny.

But while it's true that humor is certainly a part of some great games, it's also worth admitting that many games do seem rather devoid of any considerable levity. You, as the player characters of these games, trudge along and accumulate headshots or gather magic crystals or make arrests with nothing in the way of lightheartedness except perhaps the occasional smug joke at a fallen enemy's expense.  So does the prevalence of these types of games mean that gamers are uninterested in humor? That we would rather take ourselves too seriously than have a laugh?

Not necessarily.  There's a compelling case to be made that even the most dramatic games have the potential for uproarious comedy -- that's one of the massive perks of the medium. Heavy Rain can be a chilling meditation on love, control and evil, or, if played in a certain way, it can be a gut-bustingly funny series of skits on people miserably failing to do simple tasks (or doing them comically slowly). A dark tone set by a game requires the gamer's cooperation, because a gamer can turn any game into a farce by finding humorous glitches, awkward gameplay, or simply by playing the game extremely poorly.

YouTube offers ample proof that video games contain some of the weirdest, most unexpected comedy of our generation. And here are five prime examples.

1.) Drama and comedy exist on a circular plane -- at some point, one becomes the other.

Metal Gear Solid is an undeniably serious game. With the exception of quips about how he hid a pack of cigarettes in his rectum or light raillery highlighting his manliness, Snake doesn't like to joke around. And when Snake dies in a mission, it's a very serious matter. So serious, in fact, that Snake's support team screams his name in agony and disbelief whenever he dies (and, depending on any given player's skill, this can be pretty often).

Now, these are pretty good voice actors, and we love the whole epic MGS vibe, but after hearing people shriek "SNAAAAAAKE" for the five quadrillionth time it becomes less an expression of panic and grief and more an expression of how funny it is to hear people moan "SNAAAAAKE" over and over. The convention of pained colleagues melodramatically screeching one's name repeatedly is, thanks to MGS, a bona fide meme online, and it goes to show that something can only be so dramatic before it becomes laughable.

2.) A harsh demeanor can be funnier than a goofy one.

The above video is essentially what happens in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion whenever you violate a law within public view. A guard sprints up and, regardless of the nature, severity or extenuating circumstances of your crime (in Oblivion it is not only possible but extremely easy to commit accidental grand larceny) he borderline shrieks at you that you are "criminal scum" and that you must give him a fine, go to jail, or, as he puts it, "PAY WITH YOUR BLOOD!" The smash close-up that Oblivion goes into when a guard initiates this conversation only adds to the intensity.

It's funny not only because he's overdoing it. Apparently throughout Cyrodiil the coppers follow a pretty uniform script when dealing with all types of criminals. The declarative, somewhat tutorial-feeling nature of the guards' typical prompts are also part of what makes this meme so good.

3.) Highbrow and lowbrow mix to great effect.

The reporter assault scene in Mass Effect 2 has become a hit for some of the same reasons the previous two examples went viral. It's a hilarious overreaction -- one of the joys of games with more interactive freedom in terms of social attitudes is that the player can, depending on his or her mood, make their character react in plausible ways to emerging events or, alternatively, they can make their character act like a fucking nutcase.

But the other funny thing is the oft-quoted pre-punch line to the reporter -- Shepard's stern but awkward, "I'm tired of your disingenuous assertions!" Pairing such a grandly worded challenge with a mega-cheap, wholly unnecessary sucker-punch is wonderfully amusing.

4.) Comedy is in encountering the unexpected.

One of the great things about gamers is that they will constantly push the boundaries of the titles they buy, seeing if their whims have been anticipated by the developers, toying around with the world of the game. Sometimes this curiosity can lead to immensely entertaining discoveries.

The above video is from the classic game Deus Ex. Protagonist JC Denton has been asked to intervene in a dispute between a hotel owner, his daughter, and a neighborhood pimp. The game expects you to either kill the evil pimp or do nothing and let the decent hotel owner die because of your inaction. It does not expect you to beat both men to death with a crowbar -- but you can, as shown in the video.

Afterward, you have a conversation with the hotel owner's daughter. The game thinks you have witnessed the hotel owner's death without intervening, but does not suspect you have actually personally murdered the guy. The daughter is in hysterics about her father's death.  Your response? Without showing any emotion or admitting any shred of wrongdoing, "What a shame."

The result, of course, due to this amazing intersection of scripted dialogue and unexpected player action, is that JC Denton comes off as a colossal asshole.

It's this type of incongruity, of amazing human unpredictability, this detailed exchange between the makers of video games and the many who play them that will assure that comedy is a huge part of video gaming for many years to come.

5.) Repetition can make a familiar joke funnier.


Of course, it's all a matter of degree.

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