Video games aren’t good at making you laugh. They aren’t because, in a video game, you’re supposed to make yourself laugh.
Sure, they can have lines that make you chuckle. They can employ absurd sight gags. But the games that are funniest are often the ones that aren’t trying to make you laugh. They’re at their best when they’re telling jokes.
Here’s a video game joke: in Super Mario 64, lead Mario to the highest point in Cool, Cool Mountain. Jump and have him dive in the air, landing in the snow. Mario takes no damage, but his feet flail about in the air.
It’s hard for video games to be consciously funny because of that duality. When we’re both telling the joke and laughing at it, it often feels kind of awkward. Sniper Elite’s ludicrously over-the-top testicle shot could be funny, but we’re both telling it (we’re shooting the guy) and laughing at it (we’re seeing it happen). We’re doing something, and the developers are giving us a joke to say. It’s the selling point of the game, the gruesome shot, so instead of discovering this funny thing we’re playing the game to tell ourselves a joke.
We’re both sides of the comedy: teller and recipient. The funniest video games, meanwhile, put us in one role or the other. Flinging Mario into the snow is, first, an actor role, then a teller role: the first time is accidental, but then you can walk around, telling people, “Look at this! Look at this!” Playing exclusively with proximity mines in Goldeneye, meanwhile, was being told a joke: the developer, as director, was telling us, as actor, to do the dumbest thing possible and be rewarded for it. Same with Nier’s awful jumping animation, inside: it is the game giving you leeway, as actor, to do something silly, and then the right, as director, to tell this joke to others.
Video games aren’t funny when they’re making antiquated references to popular memes, over-the-top gags, or sly, referential jokes; they’re funniest when they’re playing to our role as actor/director. They’re funniest when they’re surprising. Things like Sniper’s gruesome shot are things that get blown up too quickly: we aren’t allowed to interact with them as a joke receiver in-game. Video game jokes are funniest when we’re able to experience them through both roles, and, in this case, the actor portion, where we discover something funny by accident, is removed. We’re playing Sniper as director, to tell ourselves and anyone watching something funny.
This happens for two reasons. The first, as I’ve cunningly foreshadowed, is marketing. It’s the same reason comedy films feature their best bits in the trailers: they need to convince you to see them. The other reason is more subtle, though: video games hold a kind of super-seriousness. They are afraid we’ll laugh when we’re supposed to be frowning. They want to tell their stories like motion pictures, and thus if a game has jokes, the game has to be about jokes. If it’s a drama, the typical game seems to say, then nothing can be funny.
Except films play with our emotions, while, in a video game, we’re playing with ourselves. Film is a medium designed to tell us stories. In video games, we’re fighting to tell our own stories with a developer who want to tell you a story. They want you to be an obedient actor, while we want to get drunk and lampoon a sense of seriousness.
For its many faults, Skyrim was wonderful because it let you do what you wanted despite being in a serious fantasy world. You could pickpocket someone’s armor, give them a frenzy potion, and watch them kill themselves against the city guard. You could climb sheer cliffs by jumping. You could jump a horse off a mountain onto a dragon and thrown forward at ridiculous speed. Whether these are glitches or not, they’re funny, and they make the game seem human.
Many of the most fondly remembered titles from over the years have struck this balance. Rockstar’s catalog shows the dichotomy between balance and focus. Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption were games with both drama and comedy. Auto featured absurdity around every corner and encouraged you to shoot up Liberty City in ridiculous violent binges, but also told one of gaming’s great stories. Red Dead Redemption did the same: the narrative was intense and dramatic, but the game let us do ridiculous things like outrun a train on a horse. L.A. Noire, meanwhile, was always serious: it made the occasional noir joke, but for the most part fought for us to take it seriously. It’s faded much more quickly from my consciousness, as a result: in fact, the only thing I remember is how you can make Cole Phelps into a madman who threw about wild, ridiculous accusations.
At their heart, video games should allow us to be dumb. They should allow us to do stupid, ridiculous things: let us outrun trains, jump by way of rockets launched at our feet. Don’t codify these into mechanics explained via tutorial: nobody likes a joke that has to be explained. Let the player do what they want. Let them explore. Sure, we’ll muck a lot of things up, but we’ll do it our way.