Comic combat — can you make your combat funny?

If dying is easy, and comedy is hard… what is comedy about dying? You can put comedy into your game dialog, or through your design, but enough generalities. In honor of Damion Schubert, who wrote about putting comedy in games, today I’ll explore how to successfully integrate comedy into combat itself without resorting to dialog.

Combat animations
Combat animations if well done can add lots of opportunities for humor. Here are just a few examples.

  • Combat abilities — When specializing your character in an RPG or mastering moves in a fighting game, you often choose the path that will give you the most power. All else being equal, however, you may also choose on which you think is funniest. For example, in Virtua Fighter (I believe), I enjoyed playing Drunken Master because it was funny watching him weave in and out while he tried to fight.
  • Combat effects — You’ve just knocked your opponent into next week. Why not get some laughs out of it as well? I played a game where every time I defeated someone, I got a humorous line about how he died. I can’t think of any humorous effects in animation that I’ve seen of late, besides out-and-out turning people into sheep! Can you think of something?

Combat Systems
Animations alone do not make a good combat. The systems themselves can offer humor by repetition and unpredictability.

  • Unpredictability – In 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons, I believe, there was a system called Wild Magic. If you used Wild Magic, or cast spells in a Wild Magic zone, you might have had to endure unpredictable consequences. You might accidentally cast a different spell, or you might suddenly summon, a la Hitchhiker’s Guide, a giant whale. Humor definitely ensued, although it could be frustrating for some players. Used judiciously, unpredictability in the game system can add humor to the game.
  • Repetition – Repetition is a comedy technique, and since combat is so oft-repeated, actions that seem regular at first might become humorous the 3rd or 5th time you do it. Unfortunately, this can backfire when you go on the 100th Kill Ten Rats quest. To avoid banality, take advantage of the repetition of an ability at lower levels, then have a more powerful, humorous version appear at higher levels as a “callback.”
  • Rarity – Rarity can combine with the above two techniques to create tension and comic release. For example, in the pen and paper game Rolemaster, if you critically hit someone or critically fumble, you must then refer to the critical hit charts. When we played D&D, we would still use the Rolemaster critical hit charts because they were funny. We were always holding out for the rare one, #69: “You hit the opponent in the groin area. All are stunned for two rounds in sympathy.” Loved that!

Social humor
Especially in multi-player combat, the social group can amp the comedy. If a player’s avatar does something humorous during a critical fumble or when particularly pwned, fellow players will laugh, or at least go “Ouch!” in sympathy. I remember watching two people over LAN playing HEXEN, when one of them turned the other into a chicken. The “chicken” was trying to play it off as no big deal, but all his avatar could do was run away and cluck like a chicken the whole time!

Again, this post only scratches the surface of the opportunities for humor in games, especially combat. Have you come across any great examples of humor in games?

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Filed under Game Design

13 responses to “Comic combat — can you make your combat funny?

  1. Pingback: Humor Me: Comedy Dialog in Games « Writers Cabal Blog

  2. Cowards are always funny. Halo put a lot of humour into the little monsters, who ran away, shouted a lot of random voicechats, and humorously ran around in circles if they had a grenade attached to them (whereas other monsters would do the logical thing and charge *you* with that grenade attached).

    Actually, personality in general helps. Have unique allies (such as Barney from HL2) have a specific aversion to something. Barney’s case is headcrabs, and in cutscenes, and later in battle, he makes several comments about the stupid “Head humpers” and so forth. Other games try this, to varying degrees, but many do fail (the “Macho adolescent men squad” armies in 50% of shooters always seem to have one “joker” who always failingly is totally unfunny).

    Finishing kills in combat games also alleviate a victory with a chuckle. Mortal Combat had their strange finishing moves, many games let you carry on attacking for a few seconds allowing you to do something silly with your character (such as even jumping off the edge of the area), and so on.

    Having the player have voice chats of their own is underused too. Team Fortress 2 fits this perfectly, with a massive amount of voicework dedicated to specific events (such as getting several kills, or doing some special kill – a revenge against someone who has killed you 3 times already etc.). These really are funny (if you can hear them), and fit the mood of the game. The ones for specific events such as capturing the intelligence (“I’ve captured my intelligence!” shouts the soldier), or moving the Payload cart (“Nooo! Little cart is not moving!” shouts the heavy) are wonderful, and automatic.

    Magic is also helpful for the humour. It comes somewhat into the “Unpredictable” range, but some spells in games – such as ones which change your enemies into frogs or sheep or something, are always fun. The other “magic” option is special weapons – Duke 3d, what is better then the shrink gun? 😀

    Bosses also can allow some humour, since they usually have a cutscene-death. Futurama (which you can see the cutscenes linked together on the newer DVD) I recall has a “Sun God” boss who humorously dies after manically laughing about his bone-bots, and just falling into the lava around his platform, with a quip to match. 🙂

  3. Hey Andrew!

    Yup, I completely forgot about AI. AI with specific, comic behavior can add to comedy, especially with the repetition. It can get irritating if not done well, however, like the murlocs in WoW.

    I wanted to avoid discussing dialog, since combat design usually doesn’t involve writing. Check out the first post in this series that covers your comments on dialog and goes a bit more in-depth:

    As for comic deaths, here are a couple that are quite amusing:


  4. nickhalme

    It seems that the only way a combat system can be funny is to be slapstick. In some instances the same techniques from cartoons have been used; an older Tom and Jerry game managed to be funny through wacky violence, although it wore thin with a limited variety of weapons and animations.

    But if we’re talking about a fighting game, one that aspires to be ‘serious’ (read: competition worthy) can’t really get away with randomness — it could probably work with the aforementioned wacky animations, but a change to the fighting system might be detrimental.

    As was mentioned, AI behavior seems like the most effective way of creating comedy in a game system — those little grunts in Halo would still be funny without dialogue because of the cowardly way they behave.

    In my own experiences from D&D (v3.5) the comedy usually comes from the group, and (in our case) amounts to dark humour. Nothing has changed about the rules, but the way in which certain players interpret and use them can be funny. For instance when my party once came across a lone Kobold in a dungeon we ran after him, tackled him to the ground, tied him up, and forced him to lead us through the spooky corridors. He ended up helping us dispose of the king, and took his share of the loot after we set him free. Yes dialogue was part of it, but I think it was really situational humour. We could all empathize with the terrible position this little Kobold was in, but he was still so chipper!

  5. I’m sure Team Fortress 2 had a writer, as did Half Life 2, and Halo (very much so, there are entire conversations which take during battle between AI squadmates, some funny ones too 🙂 ), and RTS games usually have writing over the action (or cutscenes) which add to the humour of war. Fair enough if dialogue isn’t to be discussed though ^_^;

    Group comedy is another good one as nick said. Pure multiplayer games are just made funnier by several humans, who do silly things within the confines of the game. Garry’s Mod might be a near-perfect example of this. 🙂

  6. Oh, and I know Garry’s mod doesn’t have to have combat in, but it can do, and it’s insane – doing mock battles and the like. Maybe a better example is TF2 or similar style games, generally the ones where bullets don’t kill you instantly, where a lot more comedy is from the players.

  7. Hey, Andrew — I wasn’t saying that dialog doesn’t exist in combat, just saying combat designers don’t — or please God, don’t — write it. But just because they don’t write doesn’t mean they can’t design in something funny.

    I’m glad you all agree with me that a lot of comedy comes from the social aspects. I know I’ve played Hero System (pen and paper), and when I’m knocked back so far I’m flying off the top of a building, I definitely get some laughs. That’s why I suggested some visual cue of a critical fumble — that can be very serious, if you like, Mr. Sad Nick 😉 — can elicit a laugh from your, ahem, well-meaning colleagues.

    I will disagree with Nick, though, because a small dose of comedy in combat in even the most serious games will entertain people without “breaking a contract” with the player. As long as it is not over-used (hence the rarity), and it stems from character, players will love it. That was the point of Damion’s article that started it in the first place. Disagree?


  8. nickhalme

    Garry’s Mod is a great example! I don’t want to sound like an ass (I will anyways), but some of the funniest moments I’ve had were simply ruining other people’s large jenga-like structures, and then trying to evade their wrath afterwards.

    I think you’ve misunderstood me, Anne 🙂

    I use ‘serious’ to describe the attitude competitive players take towards heavily technical fighters, as opposed to those with more chance involved, not in the sense of serious being the opposite of silly and fun.

    I can’t see a ‘serious’ fighting game having room for any special wacky animations simply because a)It would interfere with frame counting for the hardcore and b) I imagine that gag animations would wear rather thin. You did only mention this in a ‘finisher’ sort of capacity, after the fight, but then I don’t see how it’s really *an integral* part of the combat system.

    I don’t argue that it has anything to do with removing the player from the magic circle, it’s just that fighting games as a genre tend to keep a very tenuous balance between the casual and hardcore. A game full of wacky animations will be more entertaining, but it’s probably going to suffer in the depth department.

    That isn’t to say it wouldn’t work in some capacity! I can’t actually describe it, but EA’s upcoming fighter manages to be sort of funny at the expense of technical depth. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of demographic picks it up.

    What’s more interesting, I think, is to try and think about how some more subtle humour could be infused into a combat system. Yes, physical humour is what comes to mind first, but what about sarcasm? Fallout, although it does it with text and not through a gameplay system per se, is quite tongue in cheek, which I personally find makes for longer lasting laughs than someone falling on their ass.

    From what I’ve seen Fallout 3 will incorporate this humour a bit more in the combat; for instance the nuclear slingshot which, when loading another miniature bomb to be slung, dings like a microwave. Maybe not deserving of a laugh, but grin worthy. And hey, one of my favourite comics, The Far Side, really only made me grin 🙂

  9. Hey Nick-

    I think you misunderstand me 😉 . I’m suggesting that in cases where the player really messes up, such as a critical fumble, other players should be able to see it and respond. I never said “wacky” — as I said, it could be a very serious-looking animation. Again, knockback in Hero System has some serious consequences — slammed against walls, thrown off buildings, etc. The more I’ve been pwned, the more my friendly teammates have laughed.

    Furthermore, I did point out that repetition would have to have its limits. Read that part “To avoid banality” — if it’s not clear, let me know.

    Sarcasm, one-liners, etc all fall under dialog techniques we covered earlier.

    Your other suggestions are good — they all tie back to rarity. In a serious game, you can have comic moments, such as a “funny” effect, a “funny” weapon, or a “funny” level, as long as it’s not the entire game.


  10. nickhalme

    To be clear, are these suggestions for any game, or for a comedic game? I’m suggesting sustainable methods for creating comedy in a game system, I’m a tad confused about the benefits of a game that would employ comedy as a random factor.

    You’re speaking very broadly, but implementation is always very specific. For example if it’s not a comedic game, say it’s Gears of War, it isn’t suitable to have players laugh a lot — they might laugh at the gore, but it’s a stretch calling that comedic effect rather than effective feedback.

    Your specific suggestion that a player fault should open the player to attack is present in games like Soul Calibur, where a well-timed guard impact will send an opponent sprawling — once again it seems like quite the bend to suggest this can be called comedy. This is player feedback.

    If you’re building a comedic game it means you’re building it for laughs. It is wacky or subtle, slapstick or dark; it is humour. You can accomplish that through dialogue, player movements — hell, just about every element of a game system could be infused with some kind of comedy. But what you’re talking about here seems to be referencing varying degrees of visual player feedback that don’t necessarily involve comedy.

    Your profile says you’ve had experience with code, so you should be aware that a system is inherently a number of individual components operating as a whole — the idea that these ‘comedy’ elements be rare and not repetitive means they are rather insignificant parts of the system. What I’m talking about is how to inject comedy into the parts of the system that do repeat, and how to keep that from getting stale.

    Otherwise you’re not talking about making a ‘funny combat system’, you’re talking about ‘making a combat system funny’ — I think we’re each arguing for a different side.

  11. C.J. Kershner

    Monkey Island’s insult swordfighting set a gold standard for comedic combat in games. Not only was the mechanic was well implemented — one party would call out an insult and the other party would give the appropriate response (with more responses learned after each duel) — but the lines themselves were clever and witty.

  12. Yeah, it was written by Orson Scott Card!

    – Sande

  13. Pingback: Got humor? Tips on putting comedy in games « Writers Cabal Blog

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