Allow Me to Introduce Myself
A man walked into a bar; an ambulance drove him to the hospital where they treated the concussion. (Maybe not the best joke, but it is clean)
A personal philosophy of mine is that reality is overrated. If I’m going to live life by my rules then things are going to be FUN. If I’m not having FUN then I must be doing it wrong. Being an engineer and designer means that I look at life analytically. I use my background to create systems, rules, and explanations for why things work the way they do. One of the most difficult aspects of human personality is humor. Why do we laugh? What is funny? In Star Trek: The Next Generation the character Data spends entire episodes dwelling on humor trying to make sense of it in his android mind. Philosophers and great comedians have commented on this subject for centuries. Game designers like Greg Costikyan, Warren Spector, Steve Meretzky, Al Lowe, Bob Bates, James Wallis, Walt Frietag and others have found innovative and creative ways of including comedy in their paper and video games. This is my attempt to show how you might also include it in yours.
A particularly effective way of making nonsense is to use random table generation. Carefully constructing tables of similar types and using the tables to seed your adventure plots, character names, McGuffins, and motives. Picking from a list of colors and foods gives results like “purple banana” which is strange and therefore funny. Constructing an Evil Genius you may pick personality traits like “robot” and “diaper” and create someone very funny that nobody would expect. Coming up with non-sequiturs is much easier if you “choose one from column A and one from column B”. Comic strips like “The Farside” are masters at combining two dissimilar concepts and creating something very funny in the twist.
Take a look at “Madlibs” a wordplay pastime that takes any story and replaces the verbs, nouns, and adjectives with blanks that are filled-in by the players. It is the very absurdity of taking something familiar and wreaking chaos on it that causes laughter.
Sounds Funny to Me
David Letterman, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks all like weird sounding names. Towns in New Jersey, words with ‘K’, ‘W’, or ‘OO’ can all create visions of something funny when you say them. Strange sounding cultural words can be funny too, try Yiddish, German, French, and Japanese. Many-times normal words will sound funny if you use outragous accents. Try Monty Python and Peter Sellers movies for good examples of comedic accents. When you hear a strange word write it down and use it later. Use puns (sparingly) and oxymorons or other forms of wordplay to build small “in-jokes” for players to find. One of my favorite one-word oxymorons is “Producer” since they tend not to.
For our use a picaresque is a funny travelogue. It is a series of humorous events that happen while going from point A to point B. If you build your adventures as sets of funny bits that players can reveal while playing, and then whisk them through it with a wacky guide they will experience the humor to the degree that they participate. Remember that there is a big difference to writing humor and playing humor. The players must feel like they have some control of the plot even if they have a lack of control of the situation. When faced with conflict a player should be able to choose from multiple possible solutions.
Try the books of Terry Prachett, Douglas Adams, and Robert Asprin for examples of putting character into funny situations while they try to accomplish a goal. Taking a standard fantasy epic and parodying it is a cheap, but effective, way of making comedy. For great parody check out “Bore of the Rings”.
Get a running gag. Find something early in the game and reuse it in different ways. Don’t go overboard. A properly used running gag can give a theme to your game and help make the game have continuity. I like to tie my running gags with my reoccurring characters.
Tempo or Beat is one of the most important features to keeping the game moving and funny. If the players seem stuck or bored drop something unexpected into the scene and let the mayhem begin. A comfortable way to gauge encounters in games is to properly balance action and storytelling. Too much storytelling gets boring; too much battling gets monotonous. Open the adventure by dropping the players into a short action sequence, once resolved let them catch up to the story by having an actor or McGuffin give them clues to the situation. Always finish with a climatic action sequence followed by a wrap-up story ending. Another aspect of beat that is very important with multi-player games is keeping everybody involved. If a player has nothing to do there is no way for them to have fun. Purposely find ways to use the players together and focus several times during the game on special character attributes of each player.
Stick in the Mud
Funny motivations can help otherwise unfunny players to join the act. Give them something silly to do, make it difficult to achieve while at the same time opposing some motivation of another player and you have the recipe for disaster, and that is great for comedy. If a player still won’t get involved send a game character after them. Little brothers, jealous girlfriends, angry authorities, and hungry monsters all work to spice up the life of the terminally serious.
On occasion I’ve picked a running gag and used it mercilessly on the unfunny player. You must be careful with this but it works like a comedy team with a Straight Rube.
People are funny. The way we relate makes animal mating behavior look simple. Our bodies are always leaking, oozing, farting, or belching. Everyone has unique looks and most people have at least one funny feature. We get embarrassed from the mistakes we make. We place taboos on certain body parts and certain behaviors and then spend all our time trying to break the taboos.
When putting characters into your game make sure you consider all the human weaknesses and include a healthy dose of those weaknesses when defining personalities. Occasionally give someone a sneeze, body odor, or nervous tick. It may become the most memorable part of that character. Don’t be afraid of forcing the players into situations where they catch colds, get sprayed by skunks, or get unsightly blemishes.
I tend to spend a lot more time on the personalities of characters than their back-stories. If a character makes it trough a first pass I’ll then spend the time to more fully develop them. I love to reuse characters that the players have met. It builds relationships and provides a sense of continuity.
Remember that it is much more funny to role-play a weakness than it is an advantage. Being the best isn’t as funny as thinking you are the best.
In single-player video games I suggest that you have a buddy-AI, a sidekick that follows the player. That way the player has someone to talk to, instead of himself, and there is always somebody you can do something funny to without it being the player.
Another interesting rule I learned from melodrama is don’t use shades of gray in personality. There is evil and good, but nothing in-between. Even if your bad guy has a weakness, his intent should remain solidly evil. Use extremes of personality and borrow heavily from stereotypes so that players can easily grasp the intents and purpose of your characters without much thought. If you wish to have a character switch sides, so to speak. Make it happen as the result of the player’s actions.
Schtick – Comedic actions, funny things people do
Beat – The timing, delivery is everything
Gag – A one liner that provides the theme for a session, often it repeats throughout
Routine – A collection of funny bits
Situation – A place and/or all the necessary components for comedy, just add players
Joke – A situation and players that when mixed result in something funny happening
Twist – An unexpected event, unusual use of an item, or unusual behavior
Pun – Different meanings for the same word, mostly with ironic or comedic results
Farce – A ridiculous and silly situation where everything is chaos and nonsense
Whopper – Exaggerating the properties of anything to an extreme
Surprise – The obvious and expected are replaced with opposites and uncertainty
Irony – While things seem to happen for all the wrong reasons, somebody is keeping score
Chaos – A state where no system of physical or social laws can give predictable results
McGuffin – A prop that drives the plot of a story, for example the Holy Grail or Maltese Falcon
Rube – The butt of a joke or gag
Straight – A too serious person, because of their seriousness funny stuff happens to them
Stooge – A funny person that just can’t stop cutting up, bad luck happens all around them
Fool – An innocent, naive person that just wants to do good but can’t get it right
Goon – A tough person with more muscles and mouth than brains
Femme fatale – A Straight or Fool female who’s looks cause traffic accidents
Hag – A matronly, ugly, or nuisance female
Bitty – A friendly, sometimes overly protective female, eager to please
Grump – A dark, pessimistic personality that doesn’t laugh much
Rascal – A friendly personality that is sometimes lazy or sneaky
Miser – An extremely greedy personality, wealth and power rule their lives
Evil Genius – A soulless, power hungry, megalomaniac that has diabolical plans
Kook – A befuddled, wacky, and absent-minded old person with answers to most everything
Coward – A person who will at any cost avoid danger or threat, they can be liars too
Hero – A selfless and all around good person, everything is about action and the cause
Bootlicker – Similar to the Coward, the Bootlicker manipulates people in power to their own ends
Know-it-all – Contrary to their name they over state their real knowledge, usually causing harm
Dude – This person exudes Cool and bad luck simply slides right off
Bureaucrat – A political or corporate person of some stature that makes life difficult for others
Go forth and design great games. Do Good, annoy Evil. Make big bucks and buy more of my games. Thanks.
Original content Copyright © 1999-2009 Randy Angle