Artful Nonsense

Video games and the joy of nonsense.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Humor


The internet and I grew up together, and so I sometimes take for granted just how awe-inspiring it really is. The minds of so many people linked together in instant collaboration on as many subjects as the mind can fathom. News from every corner of the world instantly relayed as it occurs. And, just as importantly, the purest, most gorgeous nonsense that ever graced the eyes and ears of mankind.

Honestly, the nonsense is the most important to me. If I had to choose between instant access to current events, to social media, or to the dumbest nonsense ever imagined, I would unrepentantly choose the nonsense. As I become more and more locked into the routines of daily adult life and get further and further away from the joyous extravagance of youth, I notice that I’ve become addicted to nonsense. To feed my habit, I’ve taken to seeking out the finest the internet has to offer in unadulterated, uproarious bullshit.

Take, for example, the videos of Canadian rock group/minor YouTube stars Dayjob Orchestra. The foremost of these videos are their overdubs of footage from Star Trek: The Next Generation, wherein they’ve inserted their own voices, attempting to match up the actors’ lip movements with their own musings on pandas, Rush and, above all, apple juice. Their finest, titled “Happy in Paraguay,” is a legitimate masterpiece. I’m not being hyperbolic. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at something with so little coherent content. “Watch me eat four hundred and fifty fucking hard-boiled eggs!”

Random humor like this has permeated pop culture to some degree over the course of this generation, with things like Adult Swim achieving great popularity in large part due to their adeptness at being hilariously off-the-wall. But what about in gaming? Video games don’t often achieve this level of complete non sequitur anti-storytelling, but I think the format of video games is ripe for the most complete expression of this kind of funniness. As a gamer, you have to actively engage with the game you’re playing, and if the game is completely composed of random tripe, it makes it all the funnier if you are a direct participant in the perpetration of the aforementioned random tripe. I’ve thirsted for this engagement in nonsense, this total immersion in nonsense. Why don’t we have more of it in our video games?

The very idea of a lot of video games is pretty ridiculous if you get right down to it, especially early video games. Brodyquest is a perfect lampooning of this inherent ludicrousness. If you have not experienced Brodyquest, it is an insane four-minute video that conflates the catchy lo-fi music and singular purpose of early platformers with, for some reason, actor Adrien Brody. His progression from waking up at home in the morning to, eventually, outer space, follows the same inevitable onward progression we’ve all come to expect from classic video games. It even has a water level! The semi-religious ending notwithstanding, it’s a spot-on facsimile of the odd world that we voluntarily enter when we play video games.

But even with nonsense in their most basic makeup, as of now, most video games don’t do nonsense at the level of Brodyquest or Dayjob Orchestra. And in some ways that’s good – nonsense humor is really easy to mess up. Imagine paying sixty bucks for a new game only to discover that it has no discernible story, no character development, just a weird landscape you are forced to navigate where bizarre things keep happening to you. Making nonsense that’s truly transcendent is not as simple as just stringing together words that don’t form an actual sentence or putting human clothes on animals. Try too hard, and the whole thing becomes flat and desperate. Don’t try hard enough, and you seem like you’ve hired the laziest writers on Earth. There’s nothing better than good nonsense, but stale nonsense is the worst. If you’ve ever seen a bad YouTube Poop (or, if your tastes are akin to mine, a bad episode of Family Guy) you can attest to this fact.

Despite the potential pitfalls, I do dream of a game creating an open-world nonsense universe where a day’s worth of mundaneness could be rinsed off in a bath of ridiculousness. And such a thing is not impossible: as a good example of how the player autonomy of video games could be combined with the hilarious idiocy of the best type of random humor, just take a look at the legendary Deus Ex Malkavian Mod.

Let’s deconstruct this mod a bit. It begins with the following epigram: “If there were no insanity, it would be necessary to create it. –Catbag.” What follows is exactly that, a carefully constructed zone of utter insanity. And this is exactly what I’m yearning for – a break from the numbing sanity of commutes, small talk and paid labor.

Using mostly voice samples cut up from the original game, in this mod characters communicate missions to you with phrases like “Get pills against my orders,” and “Promise you won’t kill my wolf?” The latter refers to a hobo you find in the basement of the compound where the mod takes place. The guy does indeed have a wolf and he won’t shut up about it. In an expert subversion of the convention of dialogue options in games, player character JC Denton can respond to the question of “Promise you won’t kill my wolf?” by saying either “No,” or “[Lie] Sure.” In other words, the game assumes that either way you are going to kill this guy’s wolf.

The art of this mod is that it takes a classic game with a highly-praised plot and made it into an interactive diorama of total randomness. The more emotional bits of the original game are twisted in very funny new ways, as well. JC Denton, in one of the original game’s endings, attempts to speak but finds himself dumbfounded and can only utter, “I… I…” It’s perhaps the most labored reading JC’s voice actor gives throughout the game – he sounds gravelly and strained, as if coming to terms with something unfathomable. In this mod, the sound bite of JC mumbling this odd, stilted “I… I…” is in almost every conversation you have. For instance, from a conversation with your brother, Paul: “Paul. I… I… I thought you were a GEP gun.”

The Malkavian Mod is a fantastic example of the possibilities for video games in this regard, but it’s far from superlative. As it is a fan-made mod, obviously the scope of the Malkavian Mod is not nearly as large as the original game. It takes place entirely in an altered version of a single area. The idea of a whole 40-hour game of this kind of delightful trash is both horrifying and the most enticing idea I’ve ever heard. It would be a huge risk for a major developer to intentionally put out a game with the purpose of pleasantly confusing players, but it’s one that I would buy in a heartbeat.

I think a big part of the joy of nonsense is in the surprise of it. Nonsense is so called because it is made up of things that defy logic, that break from the sequences of thought we’re trained to fall into when dealing with the world. When things are bleak or repetitive or too orderly, nonsense is like a drink of fresh water in a vast desert. It wakes us up, reminds us that there are possibilities beyond the bounds of the normal. That’s why I think laughing at nonsense is especially freeing – it’s an acknowledgement that not everything can be planned for, predicted or understood. That can be a bit scary, but it can be liberating as well, especially when you feel stuck repeating the same patterns.

So, on behalf of all those who long for escape, I implore the game developers of tomorrow: Let’s get at least one major game that makes absolutely no sense.

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Humor

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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