The Ryan Lambie Column: Why so serious? Humour in video games

Why is comedy missing so often from our video games? Ryan, after all, needs a good laugh...

Parodius Panda

Many, many moons ago, when the Earth was younger and games still came on cassettes, a now-defunct game developer produced a game based on the topical ITV puppet show Spitting Image. It was a fighting game that featured the world’s leaders beating the hell out of each other – Margaret Thatcher belting Gorbachev around the head with her handbag, for example. It was not an amusing game.

A year or two later, someone else sat and coded a Monty Python’s Flying Circus game. Despite the possibilities suggested by Terry Gilliam’s extraordinary animation, this not an amusing game either.

An awkward combination, humour and video games. I suppose it has much to do with the medium’s repetitive nature – even the most ingenious joke, pratfall or sight gag is only genuinely funny the first time round, and to paraphrase a quote from an episode of the Simpsons (the one where Homer forms a barbershop quartet with Apu, Barney and Seymour Skinner), will become less funny each time you encounter it.

While successful comedy games undoubtedly exist (the Monkey Island series, or, in fact, most things by Telltale immediately spring to mind), most of the time the results are decidedly mixed – the Leisure Suit Larry games have their moments, but they’re generally only amusing if you’re a fourteen-year-old male and into puerile double-entendres.

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The Japanese appear to be far more adept at injecting the amusing and bizarre into their games than their Western counterparts; witness the glorious Parodius series, which took the stupendous 2D space-based shooter Gradius and added an army of cartoon penguins, fish and a healthy dose of genuinely surreal humour. Parodius‘ creators really let their imaginations run riot with their boss designs: witness the otherworldy grandeur of the giant panda in a tutu that spits out fluffy toys as it spins on its ballet shoe-shod feet, or the colossal cat/flying pirate ship chimera. Later entries in the series upped the weirdness quotient still further: Sexy Parodius featured a lecherous octopus with a preoccupation with scantily clad women, while Forever With Me took the opportunity to parody a number of games from Konami’s back catalogue, with an entire level devoted to seminal beat-em-up Yie Ar Kung Fu.

And if you thought Parodius was eccentric, then you probably haven’t played Kato-chan Ken-chan, a PC Engine game based on Japanese comedy show Kato-chan Ken-chan no Gokigen TV. The TV programme is frequently described as the Eastern equivalent of Benny Hill – and it certainly shows in Hudsonsoft’s game tie-in, a Wonderboy clone where the protagonist farts on enemies and avoids turds falling from the sky.

Unsurprisingly, Kato-chan Ken-chan only made it out of Japan in a bowdlerised state: renamed J.J & Jeff, the US version excised the lavatorial humour of the original, with the rampant flatulence replaced with a spray can.

It’s unlikely that Sega’s Wiiware platformer Pole’s Big Adventure will find a wider release either. A parody of 8-bit era gaming conventions, Pole takes great pleasure in taking its audience by surprise; an unseen commentator cackles with glee as apparently benign fruits turn nasty, or Mario-style pipes leave the protagonist covered in oil (or worse) rather than transporting them to another stage. And thanks to the Viagra-like effects of certain mushrooms, it’s doubtful we’ll see Pole’s Big Adventure appear on Western Wiis anytime soon.

Sadly, genuinely funny games are all too rare. The GTA series may have a welcome streak of satire, and the Resident Evil franchise has provided numerous unintentional titters over the years (“He seems to have been bitten by a poisonous snake, but the size of the wound is abnormally large!”), but games tailor made to raise laughs have been mostly dire; the three thousand or so games based on The Simpsons were generally awful, and Futurama didn’t fare much better, despite some excellent cut scenes.

Of course, the absence of comedy in video games isn’t all the developers’ fault. The biggest selling game on the Xbox 360 to date is – you guessed it – Halo 3; on the PS3, it’s Gran Turismo 5, followed by MotorStorm and Metal Gear Solid 4. Amusing, zany or surreal games simply aren’t fashionable – sci-fi shooters and racing games good, bizarre sight gags and puns bad.

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Which is a shame, because I’m still waiting for a next-gen Parodius, and desperate for my fix of ballet-dancing pandas and laser-spitting penguins. Come on, Konami!

And just to prove that video game-based humour can be funny, here’s a little joke to conclude this week’s column:

Q: What do you need if you break your leg while asleep?A: A Dreamcast.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.