Borderlands 2 might be funny, but it's not a comedy
The more I play Borderlands 2, the more I like it. But the more I think it’s not really a comedy. Borderlands 2 tries to be a comedy, but all it is a funny action movie.
There are many facets to video games, but boiled down, they’re a series of actions that tell stories. When I say Borderlands 2 isn’t a comedy, I mean exactly that: it is a very capable, if old fashioned, first person shooter with RPG mechanics. It slaps a hundred internet memes, slapstick jokes, and absurd narrative beats onto this to distract you, to convince you it’s a comedy video game. But don’t be fooled: it’s a funny shooter, but no comedy. It’s skinned a funny guy, and it’s wearing him as a suit, but that doesn’t make the product a comedy.
Funny things aren’t necessarily comedies, while comedies aren’t necessarily funny. Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic The Room is funny, but it’s sure not a comedy. Shakespeare’s Othello is a comedy, but it’s not particularly funny unless you laugh at racism and murder. A funny thing makes us laugh. A comedy makes us think: it proposes a ludicrous situation, and it makes us think about it. Comedy tends to be funny, of course—it’s hard to have ludicrous situations without a few laughs—but it doesn’t have to be. Funny things have to make us laugh, but they don’t have to make us ask any questions.
Video games are unique in that they communicate everything—drama, tragedy, comedy—to us via asking questions. And Borderlands 2 rarely asks funny questions. It tells us funny jokes, but rarely asks comedic questions. Because in a video game, when your actions are ludicrous, you create comedy. For instance: shooting midgets off of shields in Borderlands 2? Maybe not comedy gold, but definitely comedy. We are asking a question, and the world is providing us with a ludicrous answer. We make the game a comedy; we are a complicit party in comedy.
Other elements of the game—a lady shooting herself after hearing Scooter the creepy redneck’s “love poem”—work as comedy, but they’re not unique to video games. Such subversion of expectation is comedic, but you don’t really have anything to do with it besides having turned in a quest objective.
When a game isn’t funny for the reasons it exists—Borderlands 2 enjoys having guns and especially enjoys shooting them—it never really works. Firing guns is rarely funny in Borderlands 2, besides the occasional joke gun: ninety nine percent of the game is spent firing sedate guns into boring enemies while Handsome Jack rants on over a speaker. Defending an insane bombmaking girl while she tortures a bandit might make me laugh—it’s bleakly funny, especially when said bandit’s dark history is slowly revealed—but the game itself is just delivering a “defeat waves of enemies” trope. Nothing’s comedic about that, besides that we’re still doing it.
To keep at the point: video game comedies work when we’re the ones making the jokes. Seminal video game comedy Psychonauts made you laugh with its writing, to be sure, but the thread ran throughout the game: you levitated on a giant rolling ball, often to hilarious results; you explored the mind of an insane arsonist, where the writing—intensely “logical”—contrasted the insane level design; and your powers, like lighting people on fire, often acted as comedy. Contrast this to Borderlands 2, where the levels are beautiful deserts and tundra populated with in-jokes on the walls, and where your guns almost always effect enemies the same. They quip when they die, but they all die the same.
The first time I tore out a tiny baby chick’s throat with a Pomeranian puppy in Tokyo Jungle, I laughed. I ran around, jumping eighteen times my height, eating animals that were running amok in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. The central mechanic of the game—marking your territory (by peeing on everywhere and everything) and mating with randomly spawning females—was pretty good, too. I asked, “Why does this exist?” perhaps more times than I can remember asking a video game. The controller rumble and thumping techno as your elephant mated with another elephant, the way your family of tigers all jumped at exactly the same time, these were the small things that made the game such an incredibly surreal experience.
If you pressed Tokyo Jungle’s developers about their game, I’m not sure they’d call it a comedy. The game shares similarities with a roguelike, in the sense that you spawn generations of animals and lead them to horrible deaths. Everything is played with straight-faced seriousness, right down to the fact that you can outfit your beagle with a classy detective hat, sweater, and kitten mittens. Tokyo Jungle never tells you you’re supposed to laugh: it just tells you, “A Chick Hero has appeared in Dogenzaka,” and it will slowly dawn on you: wait, that’s supposed to be a super dangerous baby chick.
Tokyo Jungle is, of course, a brutal game. You’ll eat other animals, hundreds of them in a successful playthrough, all in vicious fashion. It’s a survival horror roguelike, where the zombies are replaced by hordes of lionnesses that will tear your face off.
But Tokyo Jungle is hilarious, and incredibly successful as a comedy. It works because what makes it funny is also what makes it a worthwhile game.
Games are defined by their verbs. Borderlands 2 is a shoot, loot, and level sort of game: you shoot enemies, loot guns, and level yourself up. None of these are funny verbs. They’re all deadly serious. Tokyo Jungle, meanwhile, has you eating, marking, mating, and dying. These are comedic verbs in part because of their rarity, and in part because of how much they defy video game logic.
All these verbs have in-game effects, and they’re hilarious. The idea of dinosaurs running around in post-apocalyptic Tokyo is brilliant, and it’s funny, and it makes you think for a moment about how utterly ridiculous video games can be. You’re a dinosaur, and you just ate fifteen elephants along the Yamanote Line (a real place) so that you could mate with another, flea-ridden raptor in a hay hovel. Rather than be made up of jokes, the central premise offers us the comedy: the video game itself is the comedy, rather than the things attached to the mechanics.
It’s what separates what makes Rifftrax funny from what makes comedy films funny. One is a bunch of funny dudes talking over a film; the other is genuine comedy. Borderlands 2 is hilarious people talking over a decent, old-fashioned video game; Tokyo Jungle is a side-splittingly ridiculous video game.