Genre In Question

A look at what makes comedy such a difficult genre in video games.

By: Gavin Craig

Filed Under: Criticism Editor's Pick Industry Story-driven


Why are there so few video game comedies? At least twice in the past year I’ve bumped into conversations trying to answer this question, neither of which was entirely satisfactory. On Splitsider, Noah Davis talked to a number of game designers and critics, who seemed to agree that it’s really difficult to write jokes in a game format because the writer/designer can’t really control the timing (which is doubtlessly true). But as Tom Auxier notes on Nightmare Mode, “Funny things aren’t necessarily comedies, while comedies aren’t necessarily funny.”

When we talk about video games and comedy — as long as we’re not arguing over whether a particular joke was funny or not — what we’re doing is asking a question about genre. What is it that makes a comedy a comedy, and why is it that video games do or don’t do those things?

But for one reason or another, that largely doesn’t seem to be the sort of discussion we’re having. While Auxier posits an idea that “comedy” games are based on inversions of conventional game mechanics1, Davis gets close to the kind of conversation I’m talking about when he quotes the chair of NYU’s Game Center, Frank Lantz:

The most popular mode for the big-budget, triple-A game is melodrama, action-adventure where the stakes are really high. Comedy isn’t about stakes being high. It’s more about other things. These big games are laying on the melodrama to motivate you. Single-player games need to invent reasons for you to care. You have to get the ball in the hole or whatever because you’re saving the Princess or saving the world. That gets you going. Comedy is more about puncturing those big values, about building them up and deflating them. Comedy is not as much about inflating our sense of importance.

After this gem, however, Davis seems to comes back to whether jokes can work in a big, violent triple-A game like Gears of War: Judgment, or whether a game like, “The Sims, which isn’t specifically designed to create comedy. . . does so anyway because of the mechanics.”

In fact, if we’re considering comedy as a genre using any other consideration than whether the primary intention of the work in question is to provoke laughter (a frame that Auxier has usefully pushed us away from), it’s pretty clear that The Sims is in fact a comedy. While comedy can embrace any subject, even, say, murder, spycraft or war, comedy is frequently distinguished from other genres in its focus on domestic or quotidian issues rather than broader historical or macro-social conflicts. To take a classical example, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata uses the Peloponnesian War to frame a story about sexual politics on the home front. By contrast, Oedipus Rex tells what could be an essentially domestic story in terms of its repercussions on the city-state.

Of course, if a focus on the domestic were the only consideration, then we’d be able to say that The Illiad was a tragedy because Achilles offends the gods, is abandoned, and dies, and that The Odyssey was a comedy because it’s all about a man who comes home to his wife in the end, but that doesn’t quite work either. In addition to what Frank Lantz describes as the lower stakes of comedy and what I am calling the domestic/quotidian focus, comedy also tends to concern itself with the reproduction of social relationships.

In the broadest terms, this would be the old high school Shakespeare formulation that comedy ends in marriage and tragedy in death, but describing comedy as “low stakes” is also a way of saying that comedy tends to be more about the preservation or (re)production of the status quo than its destruction2. To return to Lysistrata, the action of the play centers on an inversion of traditional gender power roles, but once the conflict is resolved, things are back to normal at the end. It’s also worth observing that the central push of the play is conservative rather than transformative — the existential threat from which the women of Athens seek to save their city is not Sparta, it’s the ongoing state of war itself. Change isn’t the goal so much as a return to the proper order of things. Action is the problem, and so, in effect, the women do nothing (in the bedroom) in order to convince the men to do nothing (on the battlefield).

In this light, whether whether the player finds the nonsense language in The Sims amusing or annoying — or even, perhaps whether The Sims has anything that could be described as an authored narrative — is less important than than the fact that the game is built entirely upon home, employment, and interpersonal relationships3 and is almost entirely an ongoing reproduction of contemporary Western suburban capitalism. Used judiciously, a genre model would allow us to locate more recent examples of video game comedies like Altus’ Catherine, and maybe even start to explore whether there are mechanical/design or marketing issues with the domestic/quotidian in games, or whether part of the problem is that we’re spending too much time figuring out how to tell a joke.


1. An idea which still seems to come back to a hierarchy of laughter — an examination of what is funny, and a declaration that funny mechanics are more fundamental in a game than funny characters — rather than questions of genre.

2. In this sense, comedy is to be distinguished from satire, which also may or may not provoke laughter, but whose focus is to criticize the status quo.

3. It’s probably useful to clarify that the “domestic/quotidian” category I’m describing does not have to be specifically set within the home. A good example of a domestic/quotidian focus within a non-home setting might be something like the first Austin Powers: international Man of Mystery film, which is ostensibly concerned with the military threat posed by an international terrorist, but is actually more concerned with how an individual can acclimate to and embrace apparent cultural differences. It’s not accidental that most of those cultural differences are eventually shown to be insubstantial, or that the international terrorist spends a great deal of time trying to deal with (and maybe even relate to) his son.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Criticism Editor's Pick Industry Story-driven

About the Author:
Gavin Craig is a freelance writer and critic. His work has appeared in The Idler, Kill Screen, Snarkmarket, and Comicosity.

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