Every year, there are a range of movies and TV shows that are released to the public across a wide variety of genres. We find ourselves with many, many choices from blockbuster action to gripping drama to comedy, and some varying blend of all three.
It’s different in video games.
While movies and TV are pretty evenly split between the genres, it’s just simply not the case with video games. The interactivity of the medium has more or less forced the vast majority of games in the scene to be action-oriented. Take a look at the top 100 selling games of 2012. Practically the entire list is action titles, with the only exceptions being sports games, racing games or dance games. There’s nearly nothing I’d consider a “drama” game, or a “comedy” game. They simply don’t exist.
There are a few drama games out there. I would classify titles like Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead as dramas, as though they have some action, the vast majority of the focus is on storytelling and character development. You may even include the recent Last of Us and BioShock Infinite in that category, despite their respective bodycounts.
Comedy games is another category entirely, and one that almost doesn’t exist. The compromise we have to make for video games is that we have action games that happen to be funny, or at least, try to be.
In truth, some of the best games of this console generation have been these sorts of funny games. There aren’t all that many to choose from, but I’ll highlight a trio that used comedy to propel themselves over their competition, Portal, Borderlands and Saints Row.
Each of these games, or one of their sequels, has been my game of the year at some point over the past decade, and the same has been true for many other fans and critics out there. Gameplay is obviously a big part of that, you can’t call a game great if it’s hilarious, but the controls are shit, after all. But it’s the writing and tone of each of these series that really set them apart from similar games in the genre.
Portal is a unique case from the others because really there ARE no similar games in the genre. Portal is a puzzle game with a plot, which is weird enough as is, but manages to be hilarious with a limited cast of characters, which doesn’t even include the protagonist.
Rather, the burden is entirely on GLaDOS for the first game, the malevolent robot who eventually tries to kill you after running you through a series of “tests.” In the sequel, she’s joined by Wheately, the only other fully voiced onscreen character in the series, and Cave Johnson, the disembodied voice of Aperture past. Add in some curiosity cores and adorable turrets, and you’ve got yourself a real comedic cast.
Portal has a type of clever humor that pervades the entire landscape of the game. There’s rarely a wasted line or a visual pun that doesn’t hit its mark. You can argue that things can go a bit overboard when GLaDOS is turned into a potato and almost eaten by birds, but generally, Portal maintains a constant level of humor which in my mind, makes it the most clever game ever made, both from a gameplay puzzle perspective, but also in terms of its writing.
The Borderlands series is different. Way different. Borderlands uses a combination of a unique animation style and constant, over-the-top humor to differentiate itself from its competitors. Without Borderlands’ humor, it would be just another generic sci-fi FPS. Yes, leveling and loot drops make it somewhat unique in the shooter genre, but those alone wouldn’t have forged the series into the classic that it is. Rather, it’s the fact that Borderlands is the closest thing to a pure comedy game that exists right now.
Yes, there’s tons of action as well, but every mission, nearly every line of dialog is purposefully infused with comedy, so the game never takes itself seriously for more than a few seconds at a time. This tactic was employed to some degree in the first game, but they really amped up the comedy for the sequel, and the writing of the series became much, much better.
Borderlands blends overt, crude, loud humor with actual clever dialog. Yes, the second game is full of Bonderfarts and Butt-Ponies, but it’s juvenile in a delightful way. It’s even directly integrated into gameplay, with quests like Face McShooty, a bandit who simply wants you to shoot him in the face. That’s it. You do so, you win. It’s a thirty second sequence that has stayed with me long after the fact because of its sheer randomness.
Similarly, the game was able to craft genuinely hilarious characters like Tiny Tina and Handsome Jack. The game making Jack into a complete douche asshat really made him stand out as a villain, and his constant (rather hilarious) taunts throughout the game made you want to kill him all the more by the time you reach the end. Perhaps at times, Borderlands can veer into humor that isn’t your speed, as there’s rarely anything subtle about it, but many will regard it as one of the funniest games in existence. I certainly do.
Finally we reach Saint’s Row, and I’m expecting my review copy of the fourth game in the mail any day now. The second game was my favorite of the year while the third was quite good in its own right. Again, Saint’s Row uses humor to differentiate itself from its competition, Grand Theft Auto.
It’s weird, because Grand Theft Auto is supposed to be funny in its own right. Particularly in the Vice City and San Andreas installments, the game spreads comedy around like fertilizer, and it sprouts up all over the world, mostly in the form of funny shop names or products or radio segments. But by Grand Theft Auto IV, the series started to take itself pretty damn seriously, and the goofy nature of the GTA universe gave way to darkness and despair most of the time. Not that the game was bad, but rarely was it ever funny.
Enter Saint’s Row, a game which has no such dramatic illusions. Saint’s Row realizes that an open world crime sandbox is meant to be FUN, and then does everything in its power to ensure the player never stops laughing through nearly the entire run of gameplay.
If Portal is equivalent to the intelligent humor of say, Arrested Development, then Saints Row is Jackass. Still funny, but eliciting gut laughs using every dirty trick in the book. This starts at character creation, where you can make your hero the typical tall dark leading man, or an obese Asian woman, if you so choose. They can dress up in a sharp suit, or run around town wearing a swim trunks and a viking helmet. Remove all their clothes, and you’ll automatically start a built-in streaking minigame.
Saints Row isn’t about clever lines of dialog, but more inserting humor into all of its missions through gameplay. I’ll never forget the gimp chariot race of Saints Row 3, nor the side missions which have you bouncing yourself like a rag doll between passing traffic in order to collect insurance money, or spraying houses with shit from a sewage truck to lower property values. And then there’s just the general ****-aroundness the game allows you, where you can rampage down the street beating civilians with a giant dildo and doing the sexy saxaphone dance from Lost Boys.
All three of these series probably would have been just fine mechanically if they were devoid of humor, but would we still remember them today? Would they have been the classics they are now without it? I don’t think so, and it’s sad to me that out of the hundreds of games that have been released over the years, I can only think of a handful that effectively used comedy in any meaningful capacity. Sure, there are others, I didn’t have time to get to Double Fine for instance, but these games are the exception, not the rule.
We just need more diversity in games. I understand that we need action titles, but people would hate going to the movies if every film was made by Michael Bay. Action can be mixed with comedy and drama in ways far more interesting that what we’re seeing, and I hope as games continue to evolve, we’ll see more and more diversity in the medium.