Gluttonous Punchlines in Table For One

Telling jokes in video games is difficult. Ron Gilbert – writer of Monkey Island, DeathSpank, and the upcoming The Cave – has spoken about the trouble with comedic timing in games. One of his key points is that due to the player’s agency, games don’t have complete control over timing, and jokes need to be malleable in order to be successful.

Some jokes only work well because they involve the interaction of the audience, and this isn’t unique to video games. Take, for instance, this exchange:
Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Interrupting cow.
Interrupting cow wh–?

The audience has freedom to behave how they would like, but chooses to play along. They respond in accordance to their expectations of knock-knock jokes, and the joke subverts that expectation. Audience participation is integral to the punchline.

One of Ron Gilbert’s own games, DeathSpank, received criticism on its release from Experience Points’ Scott Juster, because when the player was put in the dual position of performer and audience, many of the jokes were at the expense of the player-character. He explains that this creates dissonance because “it is much easier to laugh at the incompetence or bemusement of a hapless straight man when you aren’t the butt of the joke.”

Table For One is a video game which tells jokes with the player as both participant and audience, but avoids doing so at the player’s expense. Its comedy is layered through the player’s revelation and mastery of the systems, and each joke works in carrying the theme of the game. Nothing spoils a good joke like explaining the punchline, so I implore you to play the game yourself before reading, to its completion if you have the patience. I assure you the payoff is worth it.

Table For One was developed as part of 7DFPS, a challenge for game developers to make a first person shooter in seven days. The advent of 3D and the first person perspective revolutionised the way we shoot things in video games. But what if, in some parallel universe, they changed the way we eat things in video games, instead? Table For One is a game that has somehow fallen from this parallel universe, where first person games followed in the footsteps of Pac-Man, rather than Space Invaders. In this FPS, instead of looking down the barrel of a gun, you’re looking down the barrel of your gob. Your iron sights: your teeth and gums.

When you start Table For One, the game’s menu (which is exactly that: a restaurant menu, which lists the credits and options among entrees and desserts) tells you the controls, but nothing more than this. Pressing ‘Start’ tosses the menu to the floor, revealing the restaurant you’re sitting in. A meal of steak, peas, potato and a soda sits on your table. The aim of the game is simple: finish your meal.

This is easier said than done. Eating is a deliberately obtuse physics game which involves manipulating each item on your plate with the WASD keys and the mouse buttons in order to levitate them towards the camera. You also have to keep the reticule on whichever piece of food you are holding. If your mouse slips, whatever you’re carrying will immediately drop. If anything lands on the floor, you’ll be instantly thrown to a game over screen (written on the meal’s cheque), abruptly scathing you for your insolence. “You have failed where infants succeeded,” the game told me, for dropping a pea.

The mechanic is reminiscent of precarious food balancing in real life. Spilling food on the table or in your lap isn’t so bad. It’s probably still edible. But if something falls on the floor, it’s a lost cause. Similarly, dropping food on the floor in Table For One is a fail state, but dropping it on the table or in your lap is not. Once you start your food’s telekinetic journey from plate to mouth, there’s a small window of grace, giving you a second chance to surreptitiously redeem your sloppiness. Threat of failure increases with each subsequent mouthful. If you drop anything, you’ve got to start the game again.

Taking a trivial action in real life and modelling it with a complex simulation, with player input so obtuse to the point of ridiculousness, is not an original idea. It’s been seen in the likes of QWOP and Realistic Summer Sports Simulator. Like these games, Table For One is initially funny because you don’t understand the mechanics right away, and create goofy scenarios through comedic failure. What is original is the how the game frames this as part of its theme. Instead of attempting athletics, you’re eating a steak. The fear of committing a social faux pas is at odds with the desire to eat everything you can.

But all of this – the in-mouth point of view, the fiddly physics, the scathing failure screens – are all just appetisers to the game’s real punchline. Everything up to this point has been a roundabout way for you to ask “Who’s there?” to a proverbial knock-knock joke.

By the time you get far enough to clean your plate and finish your soda, you’ve grokked the motor skills to deliver food to your mouth through the game’s newfangled logic. If you haven’t lost your patience by this point, you finally empty your plate. You wait momentarily for a “Congratulations” or “Game Over” screen which doesn’t come. The game hasn’t ended. The background music changes tracks to something more upbeat and cheeky.
“Now what?” the player thinks.
“Now what?” the character thinks.
They’re both hungry for more.

And so you shift your attention to the other verb in your arsenal, the oft-overlooked staple of interaction at the core of the first person shooter genre: the act of looking itself. Before, you were only focused on your plate, but now you scour your surroundings for something you’ve missed. When the reticule hovers over something that the character wants to eat, he wiggles his fingers, which are raised on either side of the screen. If you’ve learned to parse this by the time you’ve reached this second phase of the game, you’ll notice that the character now gives this feedback when looking at the cutlery and plates. The character has become less discriminant as to what he classifies as edible.

And so, now that you can, and now that you have nothing else to do, you eat the plates. A ceramic, crunching noise plays. You eat your knife, your fork, and your glass, each with increasingly cringe-eliciting sound effects. And yet the game still doesn’t end. You look around the room. What next?

You look at the game’s menu, lying on the floor where you threw it. Your character wiggles his fingers. If you’re anything like me, this is the moment where the game makes you laugh like no other game has made you laugh before. In what other game can you eat the main menu? Now that you’ve consumed everything that isn’t nailed down, the music changes again, kicking the beat up another notch. You still haven’t finished your meal.

At this point, you know where the game’s going. You’re just along for the ride, in trepidation for the game’s inevitable, Katamari-like conclusion. Your character wiggles his fingers at every table and chair in the room. You eat everything that isn’t nailed down, with increasingly ridiculous sound effects of crunching wood.

Finally, when there’s literally nothing left in the room to eat, the whole room begins to contort and squeeze. You hear the noise of people screaming as you swallow everything, leaving you in a white void. Only now does the game inform you that you’ve “finished your meal” and scores you on your completion time.

The game is succinct, utilising the constraints of its seven day development period as strengths. Eating is portrayed by static objects moving towards the camera, then disappearing, triggering a sound effect. This alone is enough for the player to understand. The jokes are delivered in the simplest way possible, without the game dressing them up or insecurely drawing attention to them. We know the character is hungry because the only verb of the game is to eat. Also, the character has his hands in the air and is wiggling his fingers: a classic anticipatory pantomime for indulgence. The only way to progress in the game is to eat, so the player’s and character’s desires are consonant.

The characterisation is played out through progression of the game’s rules. It begins by making you fear the embarrassment of sloppy eating, then prods you in the endgame by continually saying you haven’t finished your meal. It does all this without telling you explicitly through text or audio. It just smiles at you expectantly, coercing you into telling the joke yourself. It’s a skit told entirely through play.

In the end, the game’s premise can be boiled down to: Man eats meal, is still hungry, progressively eats more and more things until he devours the whole world. But it’s uniqueness is in its delivery. Table For One doesn’t tell you a joke, so much as hide it within its mechanic, and let you discover it. You project your own performance anxiety of eating in public on the abstraction of an unfamiliar, nonsensical physics game. As you get better at it, anxiety becomes less important, and you want to keep proving your mastery, by eating anything you can find, until there’s nothing left. That’s the punchline. It doesn’t rely on comedic timing, or making the player the straight man, or the comedic foil. It’s all you. After all, there’s no room for a double act at a table for one.