Comic Relief

I was talking today with a contact at THQ about what the Writers Cabal can conjure up for its clients.  With delight, he said, “Oh, you can do comedy projects, too!”  This reaction got me thinking about whether distinctions between comedy and drama are neccessary or even desireable when creating a memorable game.  Tone and genre can have an impact on everything from game design to animation.

In television, shows often find themselves pigeonholed into either comedy or drama, and never the twain shall meet.  The necessities of timeslots, marketing, and, let’s face it, tradition place most shows into either category.  Except, of course, shows such as UGLY BETTY, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, and GILMORE GIRLS.   These “dramedies,” coincidentally targeted at a female audience, often have both sitcom and hourlong writers staffing it.   However, the idea that you only find comedy in sitcoms misses the mark.  Les Moonves, CEO of Viacom and former head of CBS, purportedly said “You can never have too much comedy in a drama.”  You often hear in shows from LAW & ORDER to HEROES comic asides that help to lighten the sometimes heavy load of drama. 

Games, naturally, don’t have the same restrictions as does television, except in marketing.  Yet 10, 50, or 200 hours of gameplay make it even more important to follow Les’ advice.  Unrelenting drama is, well, unrelenting.  Even Shakespeare (even?) knew to put comic relief in his dramas.  Games have the opportunity to play with genre in a way television can’t, and need only adhere to a genre or tone enough to satisfy the audience and the marketing department. 

Now before all you developers yawn and say “That’s just for writers,” in reality, the comedy can be conveyed in as many ways as you have departments.  Who can forget the final scene of Doom, a hard-core action shooter, where the peaceful little bunny is now impaled on a stick?  If that’s not comedy…  How about in Hexen, after the same stripe of Doom, which allowed you to turn your opponents into chickens and watch them cluck around. 

The comedy in games that might otherwise be a straight drama turn a game that is fun into a game that is memorable.  Don’t forget the comic relief!

I mentioned the first two funny (to me) moments I could think of.  It occurs to me I might occasionally have a sick sense of humor.  What are some great comic moments that you remember in an otherwise dramatic game?



Filed under Game Design, Writing

7 responses to “Comic Relief

  1. I’m not so sure I’d agree with the ‘never the twain shall meet’ initial assertion here — not only do comedy and drama mix extremely well, but I’d say that they also mix very, very often, and not just in female-targeted ‘dramedies’, either. Consider the heavy doses of humor to be found in THE X-FILES, THE WEST WING, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, FIREFLY, SMALLVILLE, even animated series like BATMAN. To be fair, most of these series had strong female followings as well, but that’s certainly because most of these shows were extremely well written and paid heaps of attention to interpersonal relationships. Which, of course, is the key to any great drama — or, for that matter, almost any great story. Of course, the key is always balance; hence the faltering, lurching footsteps of STUDIO 60, which has struggled to find the right blend of rom-com and drama since its premiere episode (which is odd, given Sorkin’s work on WEST WING in its heyday).

    As for humor in games, I immediately think of the Blizzard games. From the ability to ‘sheep’ your enemies to the strings of increasingly more ludicrous dialogue spouted by the characters when you click on them (which are, in turn, often laced with geek community in-jokes), I think nobody does it better.

  2. Alan

    Humor in games is always a bit tricky; unless a game/narrative sets out to provide a humorous experience, jokes can feel forced. Let’s face it; humor is a difficult thing to begin with. Consider that some developers explicitly try to avoid inserting inappropriate humor, as in a recent interview in the Escapist with some folks at Bethesda:

    That said, some of the most memorable gaming moments contain an element of humor, particularly self-referential humor when a game pokes fun at itself and its pedigree. The Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion had one such moment, when the player was given the opportunity to subcontract out a quest to a group of eager neophyte adventurers. The risk is that such additions can break the immersion of the in-game setting, but in the above example, the humorous exchange served an alternate purpose of making the player feel important by filling a role normally reserved for the most powerful characters.

  3. Thanks for agreeing with me Geoff 🙂 Definitely a lot of dramas incorporate comedy, which in my opinion and in Les Moonves’ opinion makes for a successful show. What I was saying in this post is that many shows are pigeonholed into either comedy or drama. This is true especially for the writers on these shows — crossover between formats is rare, though less so these days. In games, it is even more necessary to combine these two, or else we’ll end up where TV drama is this season: reportedly 60% of the pilots this season are police dramas. We definitely need room for the West Wings and Buffys of the gaming world.

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