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.


  1. Legokid3000

    I enjoyed reading this quite a bit. I shared a lot of similar thoughts when I was playing through Borderlands 2.One line that jabs at me every time is Tina’s “Best Tea Party ever…” line.
    I didn’t laugh at that line; I almost cried.

  2. thwip71

    Nobody ever said Borderlands 2  “tries to be a comedy”.   Including comedy elements/dialogue  DOES NOT = trying to “be a comedy”.    If a speaker at an otherwise boring seminar, or a cancer survivor convention makes a couple jokes, that doesn’t mean they are “trying to be a comedian”.   They are simply trying to lighten the mood a bit, and lessen the gravity of the situation.    2K/Gearbox is obviously (thankfully) not interested in copying the CODs of the gaming world, with a pseudo-realistic military shooter.  That had a lot to do with their abrupt, and controversial change in art style, as well as the overall tone of the game.   It’s only natural, if you’re trying to NOT take things…or be taken…too seriously, to inject some humor. 
    And, BTW, to compare…in any way…B2 to the typical Japanese crap that is Tokyo Jungle, is beyond stupid.  ESPECIALLY when you do so in an attempt to prove that Borderlands 2 somehow failed at something that TJ was trying to achieve…..when it didn’t.

    • Fengxii

      @thwip71 dude chill

  3. Fengxii

    “Funny things aren’t necessarily comedies, while comedies aren’t necessarily funny […] 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. ” Woah woah woah, seriously?
    I always figured the point of a comedy is laughter, but that’s interesting nonetheless.
    Like when you look at it that way, a lot more things start to fit into “comedy.” Like “American Psycho” suddenly becomes a comedy, even if it didn’t make me laugh.
    Can the earlier Mortal Kombat games fit into comedy? They’re very absurd and seem to fit a non-serious 90s thing. Maybe even some of the more weird Metal Gear Solids, although that may be a stretch.

  4. GFoppy

    I really loved Borderlands 2, but one thing that always bugged me was that the game’s humour was either hit or miss. There were some jokes and references that worked (“WELCOME TO DIE!!”), while other attempts at laughter just fell completely flat (“boner farts”). For some reason, I found that the NPCs who were characteristically insane, such as Patricia Tannis or Tiny Tina, were the most genuinely funny because we are able to emphatise and accept that character’s mental instability. Contrast this to Handsome Jack: I found him to be completely irritating and unfunny (even his “butt stallion” joke), although this could be an intentional design by Gearbox because Jack eventually becomes a much-hated villain by the endgame.
    Great that you brought up Psychonauts, it is one of the rare videogames that manages to stay funny from start to finish, and is an example of how to get humour right for games. I have not played Tokyo Jungle, so I cannot comment on its comparison to BL2.

  5. Alysander

    Othello is definitely not a comedy… at least in terms of Shakespeare scholarship.

    A quick google search does show a couple of essays which argue that Othello is structured like a comedy, but its certainly not a commonly accepted fact. Now, you could be arguing that Othello serves the function of a comedy as it’s defined in the context of the article (” A comedy makes us think: it proposes a ludicrous situation, and it makes us think about it.”), but I have a hard time seeing how Othello’s scenario is any more ludicrous than say Romeo and Juliet.

    Really, I guess I’m just confused by your definition of comedy.