Thursday, January 16, 2014

Discussion #3 - Comedy In Games

Gaming is an interactive experience that allows players to care about what is going on and there are many facets to how a gamer can enjoy the overall gaming experience. Great gameplay mechanics is one thing to consider and so too are the appealing graphics of a game, and let's not forget about the memorable soundtracks that you repeat in your head ever so often and the progressive storytelling that leads up to a satisfying payoff towards the end of the game, but what is something that a gamer can take from an experience that can't be found in experiences in other media forms?

When it comes to storytelling in a game, it isn't always about having a super serious "I gotta have the tone of a sophisticated William Shakesphere play" knock your socks off thrilling adventure. I mean, we can still have an amazing adventure and we can still have a story that can make an impact in a game, sending the right kind of messages to the gamer as he or she plays through it, but it's important to remember what the core concept of a video game is. A video game is something a gamer is supposed to have fun with.

That is a plain description but that is the only answer you really need because as challenging as a game can be, it has to present fun challenges to the gamer. A game is supposed to bring out the intrigue that a gamer can relate to. A game has to have its own element of surprise that can grab the gamer's attention and keep that attention throughout the experience. Cutscenes in between levels of a game provide temporary relief for gamers before they are ready to perform again in gameplay, and it would be these cutscenes that deliver the smiles and the laughs that a gamer is looking for.

There are countless examples of characters who have expressed the brightness and flexibility of their personalities through cutscenes where they don't do anything serious, but rather they do things that are just completely silly, playfully daft or cleverly hysterical. Most video game characters are introduced to have that dimension of comic relief to begin with and whether that can be seen in the design of the character or if that can be heard in the dialogue of the character, gamers will find out right away what the funny points of a video game story are.

The jokes in video game stories aren't so easy as to ask "Why did the chicken cross the road?" but rather the jokes are developed on a platform that would remind anyone of a Broadway stage play, a Charlie Chaplin silent film or even an episode of The Three Stooges. Basically, slapstick comedy works in video games and they have worked in video games for a long time simply because the platform of video games is appropriate for slapstick comedy to have a presence on. Development teams are aiming to have the gamer relax with the product they are making, and comedy is the easiest way to allow the gamer to relax.

I will list a few characters who represent the element of comedy in games very well and they are the following...

Daxter - Jak and Daxter

Now I'm starting off with a rather perplexing character in the sense that not everybody finds this character to be funny. Daxter is viewed by some as a character who tries to crack jokes but isn't very good at it.  He is viewed as that fiend you bring along because you have to or else you're going to hear about it from said friend. In my view, the basic idea of a character like Daxter is solid with one main reason being that the design of this character is appealing and it's something that you can remember when you see it. Another reason would be because of the fact that a story like a Jak and Daxter adventure needs to have balance. You have your serious straight man character in Jak who is the hero that gamers want to be, but you also have to have a nutty and unorthodox thinking sidekick in Daxter who is the hero that gamers hope they don't up becoming.

In some ways you can say that Daxter serves as a reality check for those who are not careful with their heroic pursuits. Those with dreams of being the main hero with the spotlight on them have to be aware of the fact that they can't take their heroic duties lightly, and wisecracking jokes like Jerry Seinfeld won't always get you to main hero status. There are some moments where Daxter actually comes across as funny and entertaining, and in the way of "Aww shucks! The little guy can't get a break, can he?", which is what Daxter's purpose pretty much is. Of course, there are some moments where Daxter can be annoying to the point where some gamers have to "facepalm". That is the thing about developing a character in any media form. You can't expect a character to be perfect in its delivery. There will be some jokes the character uses that you will like, and there will be other jokes that you just won't like for one reason or another. It happens.

Daxter is a needed source of balance for the scope of a Jak and Daxter story because he does provide a break in the serious tones that are developed by Jak and his situations. Whether or not he is well liked by fans or critics, Daxter has legitimate reasons to exist and his basic foundation as a "cheerful screw-up" comedy character is understandable.

Earthworm Jim

Random cartoony schemes make up the world that Earthworm Jim lives in and it's easy to tell why he transitions so well into the world of video games. Earthworm Jim is a beloved character who reminds people of the slapstick nature of comedy. Jim comes across as a heroic character who takes his job seriously, but in his own silly way. The game that featured Earthworm Jim on the Sega Genesis clearly showed how little the restrictions were for Jim to show how crazy the situations he got himself into actually became. The world that surrounds Jim is outrageous and the thought of a worm being in a suit can be the one to defeat the forces of rotten baddies is a very easy way to grab the attention of the gamer.

Early on in the game, Jim is challenged to a race through outer space against a chicken dressed up as an astronaut and the thought alone is ridiculous enough to make the gamer laugh on the inside before actually laughing. Simply put, playing through the game and watching the cutscenes that take place in between levels give you the impression that Erathworm Jim's mind wanders off quite a bit. Jim comes across as an entertainer who's pumped up and ready to go for the troubles that await him, and even when he fails miserably during the game, his reaction to his defeat can be pretty hilarious as well.

How about that one time in the Sega Genesis game where Jim had to ride on a giant hamster to advance through tubes that would be fitting for a real hamster to travel through? Jim is obviously no stranger to making well placed puns, it would seem. Let's also consider the way that Jim is designed. He is a worm in a spacesuit. Before he came into existence no one would even dare to imagine having a character like that appear in a cartoon.

Earthworms have no arms and no legs in real life and it is only through his spacesuit where Jim can move and function like a typical anthropomorphic character would, so therefore we have a character who can be creative with his body, and when I mean creative I mean creative in the funniest ways. At any time Jim can simply get out of his spacesuit and act like a worm again in movement and it's something like this where fans can make double takes depending on how it's presented. Earthworm Jim is a fun character who expresses his personality when the action begins.

Crash Bandicoot

This character is in the same breath as Earthworm Jim as he does just as many zany and off the wall things to make gamers laugh. Crash Bandicoot used to be a staple main hero character for the early days of the Sony Playstation and it was easy to see why he became popular in the eyes of gamers who played his games. Crash Bandicoot had an energetic personality and he was always willing to jump off boxes and bounce off obstacles in order to collect as many apples as he possibly could. The designs of the levels were not only amazing but also amusing because of the way the obstacles were set up. Crash's facial expressions were always well noticed and they stood out to the gamer. Crash almost always appeared to have a goofy smile on his face even when things weren't going so well for him in a boss fight.

As far as dialogue goes, Crash didn't have much to say (if he even got to say anything at all), but his initial reactions of "Whoa!" or "Look out!" or even "Oh no!" sent a message to the gamer that things were going to get a bit dicey, but not in a bad way. In some parts of the series when he loses a life, Crash's defeated animations are flat out priceless because these animations are as cinematic as watching your favorite Saturday morning cartoon hero mess up so badly when going toe-to-toe. You feel bad for the hero because of his comedic shortcomings but this also encourages you to root for this hero and it motivates you to succeed in a video game as your favorite hero. Comedy has such benefits when it's applied to the main motivations of wanting to complete a game, and Crash Bandicoot fits this category like a glove.

It's sad that Crash Bandicoot has come and gone through the history of video games and his slow departure from the scene was hard to endure, being reduced to just racing spin-off games that really didn't do anything to the main Crash Bandicoot canon. I guess the joke would be "Why did the bandicoot cross the road and start racing?" My answer would be this "So that he could ride off into the sunset, partner!" Buh-duh bump!

Luigi - Super Mario Bros.

Now wait just a minute! The first real popular sidekick in the history of video games is actually a comedy character? Well, when Nintendo created Luigi to be another available character for gamers to play as, they probably didn't envision him to be any sort of joke as a character. Although he was just an NES recolor of Mario when he made his debut, Luigi would play a very significant role in the development of options a gamer could have in a game, so at what point did the younger brother of Mario become so funny?

In more recent times, Luigi has been portrayed by Nintendo as a cowardly sidekick who reacts in the silliest ways possible. Whenever anything bad happens to our poor green plumber, Luigi's reactions to these events are very memorable and they add to the cartoony experience of the game. The points of humor applied to Luigi's situations are very well placed and they add a new dimension to his character. The type of comedy used for Luigi isn't forced and it doesn't harm Luigi's character at all. The type of comedy we see involving Luigi relates to the kind of character he is, the hero who isn't as brave as the main hero, his big brother Mario.

Luigi being involved in laugh-out-loud comedy scenes makes sense because of the character dynamics that are in play for Mario games. The humor is lighthearted and it's something that gamers can relate to. Sometimes the comedy that comes from Luigi's mishaps can be tied in to missions that Mario needs to complete in games and this is a witty way to feature Luigi and make him relevant to the game's plot in some way. Because of the jokes that surround Luigi fans have developed a new liking and admiration for the character, and so much so that the fans of Luigi will make original jokes involving Luigi. Mario comedy is clearly relatable comedy because it makes us gamers feel like we should get behind certain characters a little bit more. At least Nintendo was generous enough to hold the Year of Luigi, right?

Telling a joke is not a science. Telling a joke is the easiest way to make a person smile and to make a person feel at home. Telling a joke is only a natural part of one's personality. Telling a joke extends the range of a story in any media form and the jokes can lead to a great payoff later on if they are used properly. As a writer, you have to write for the ear and not for the eye and you have to write in jokes that are pleasant for the ears to hear. The jokes in a video game have to flow without being given away too easily.

For instance, I could come up with a scenario where a red ant and a black ant are fighting over position of a huge boulder that they both need for their respective colonies. While these ants are considered opponents in a competition, they are not necessarily bitter enemies but they treat each other like rivals who can't stand each other. Let's say the red ant is a fiery and stubborn worker who goes by the book(note the pun), and let's say the black ant is a goofy oddball who will do the most unusual things to complete a task.

I could implement the dialogue of the entire game in such a way to spoof classic stories such as Rocky, any installment of Bruce Willis' Die Hard series or even Bad News Bears. Depending on who you play as in this predicament, the dialogue can change to better fit the ant you are supporting in gameplay and it will add more comedic elements to the ant you are opposing. Comedy adds spice to the situation. Comedy in video games isn't a one-way road.

Games are meant to be remembered for at least one thing that stands out and some games have great amounts of comedy that stick out like a sore thumb in the dog days of winter, and I mean that in a good way. We could use a few characters who are relaxed and out of the ordinary compared to their comrades because they add to the world they inhabit and because they add to the overall experience of the game. There is that saying 'Live, Love, Laugh" and I believe one good tweak to that saying would be "Play, Enjoy, Laugh" because that is one way to view a video game.

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