Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #33:

Exploring Genres — Serious Talk About Comedy

by Travis S. Casey
May 10, 2002

Comedy is very popular. Take a look at TV shows, and you'll see lots of comedies. Many movies are comedies as well. People like to laugh — it makes them feel good. It lets them forget their troubles, if only for a little while.

So why don't we see comedy-based online games? Part of the answer, I think, is inertia — it's easier to make yet another fantasy game than to do something new. But there's some more basic problems, I think. To get to them, we're going to have to talk about the theory of comedy a bit. Reams have been written about it, but I'm not going to try to get into issues like "what is the emotional basis of humor?" here; I'm going to try to be more immediately useful than that.

Problem 1: Audience/Character Separation

In comedy, the audience is often laughing at the characters and what they do. In an online game, however, the players are both the characters (well, the actors portraying them, but close enough) and the audience. As anyone who's ever been the butt of a joke knows, though, what seems funny to onlookers often isn't funny at all to the people it's happening to.

When players are both the characters and the audience, then, some types of humor are harder to use. Consider slapstick, where the humor comes from a character having something bad happen to him/her — Laurel and Hardy may be funny to watch, but having to play them may be a lot less funny. Or humor focusing on inept characters — for an example here, Peter Sellers' character of Inspector Closeau. Again, Closeau is funny to watch, but would probably be much less funny to have to play.

What's really needed for these sorts of comedy roles is the ability to be both actor and audience at the same time. Some people can do that easily, but others find it to be very hard for them. Thus, this sort of comedy has a more limited appeal in online games as they're currently structured than in TV or movies.

The same thing shows up in another way in the form of the standard TV sitcom. Many (heck, I'd daresay most) sitcom episodes revolve around a misunderstanding created by people who are... well, acting like idiots. If people in sitcoms would just actually talk to each other about things, most of the episodes would only last five minutes.

The problem here is that if you want to set up such a "hilarious misunderstanding" plot in an online game, there has to be a way to either prevent players from reasonably working out the misunderstanding, or the players involved have to all understand that maintaining the misunderstanding is part of their role. For the players to do that requires an awareness of the actor/author split — a player has to simultaneously play the character and keep in mind that there are certain things the character shouldn't do for the sake of the plot, no matter how logical it might seem for the character to do those things.

There are other audience/actor-split problems in online games. For example, humor often comes from the audience knowing something about the current situation that one or more of the characters does not. The players, in reality, have to either know or not know. If they don't know, then playing the part of the character who doesn't know is easier, but the players probably won't see what's funny in the situation. If the players do know, however, then they have to be able to keep that knowledge "firewalled" away from their characters — because if the characters act on it, the comedy in the situation will be gone.

Problem 2: Incompetent Characters

Incompetent characters are a staple of comedy — I've already mentioned Laurel and Hardy, and Inspector Closeau, and there's many others I could list. Traditional RPGs, however, focus highly on characters (and players, for that matter) being competent. Indeed, a common reward for playing well is for characters to gain more experience, and thereby become more competent. These two things are obviously incompatible — so if we want to generate humor from incompetent characters, we either have to abandon a lot of traditional RPG baggage, or we have to dodge by making NPCs be the incompetents instead of PCs.

Using NPCs for the humor, however, has its own problems. The normal AI problems involved with NPCs become more apparent — a behavior may be funny the first time you see it, but if the NPC keeps doing it over and over without variation, it can quickly stop being funny. Further, NPCs in most games are reactive rather than active, so the active role can be assumed by the players. In order to show incompetence, an NPC needs to take more of an active role.

And in that lies another danger — with NPCs taking more of an active role, and with them getting the laughs, the players may quickly come to feel superfluous. If the comedy going on doesn't really involve their characters, then the players might as well just go watch a comedy on TV.

Problem 3: Comedy Itself

At its core, comedy is about making people laugh. That's a lot harder than it sounds — everyone thinks they're good at being funny, but a lot fewer of us are. And to be consistently funny is even harder, especially when you're doing it in front of the same audience over and over.

There are a lot of different ways to be funny, which we can consider to be sort of subgenres of comedy. Slapstick, puns, parody, and satire are all examples. These are often combined — for example, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels use all of these at different points. Using just one can quickly wear out the humor in the situation, so it's best to mix them.

Another element of comedy that makes it harder than it looks is pacing. You can't just hit the audience with joke after joke after joke — you have to pace things out, allowing stretches where the audience can recover for the next "funny bit". Otherwise, you don't get the maximum impact out of the comedy. On the other hand, you can't let too large an interval slide by without humor in a comedy. (Of course, if you're doing a mixed comedy-drama or other mixture, then you can alternate comedy with other things of interest to the audience.)

Actors who have done both comedy and drama will tell you that comedy's harder to do. Timing is a major part of comedy, and can be very hard to get right. Further, actors doing comedy have a similar problem to the audience/character one mentioned above — the actor, knowing the script, knows what's really happening, but has to act like he/she doesn't. This is especially true in playing an inept character who doesn't notice what's right in front of him/her. And lastly, any actor or comic will tell you that trying too hard to be funny is death on comedy — comedy has to look natural, rather than forced.

Thankfully, some of these problems fall out in online games. Since the players aren't physically present, they don't have to worry so much about things like laughing at their own jokes, looking at something they shouldn't, and some of the other things that can trip actors and comics up.

There is, however, still a burden on the players. And there's also a burden on the designers and builders, who have to create the environment for the players to "be funny" in, and have to encourage and help the players. Next time, join me for part two of "comedy", where I'll give some ideas and advice. See you in fourteen!

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