Playing For Laughs

Like HRH by 8th Day, Di's Baby pokes fun at the royal family. However, Prince Charles shooting photographers and Diana trying to avoid an epidural was enough to get it banned. Sadly, this meant its stablemate, 'Seal Cull' didn't actually make it to release.

How do you get Pikachu on a bus? Pokemon.  Not exactly side splitting, but remarkably the only  game related joke I can remember.  While Hollywood has been cashing in with hilarious movies  for decades, and the BBC sells more Comedy DVDs than any other genre, the world of games still struggles to make you smile, let alone belly laugh.

That’s not to say that games haven’t tried.  Comedy is subjective – what one person finds hilarious,  another finds disgusting.  There are so many subtle varieties of comedy yet, disappointingly, games  always seem to go for the gross and disgusting.  The earliest comedy game I can recall is Pimania by Automata, a humble text adventure on the ZX81, featuring the PiMan.  The humour is gentle and off-beat and the game was a huge success thanks to its £6000 Golden Sundial prize; PiMan’s future was assured and he featured in most  of Automata’s subsequent releases, as well as a long running comic strip in PCW magazine.

However, even in those early days, I’ve always seen the PiMan as looking like something  you’d see scrawled in a pub toilet, like a man with a penis on his face. I’m sure his creators, Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, must have been trying to make him look as filthy  as possible without actually adding any pubes!  For me, the only thing actually funny about PiMan was the music published on the B-side of the games, crude and poorly produced, but it always made me giggle. But then, I was young, and still thought farts were hilarious.

Looking at the early days of 8-bit gaming, it’s easy to confuse comic intent with a genuine shock factor. One of the first Spectrum adventure games I played was ‘Soho Sex Adventure – Herpes or Bust’ by Malan Software. At the tender age of twelve the abhorrent language and themes were quite breathtaking. It wasn’t all bad news, this ‘Roy Chubby Brown’ of adventure games did teach me a lot about STDs. I can only imagine the designer of the game was some sex crazed boot boy skinhead, who used computer programming as therapy for his tourettes. While many of us cherish these pioneering days of gaming, now with kids of my own, I’m glad of today’s game rating system.

Leisure Suit Larry was the first mainstream comedic adventure to really shock, but was it actually funny? For me, going through the motions of Larry buying a condom remains a golden gaming moment, his embarrassment compounded when everyone in the shop overhears the convoluted transaction

It’s something we all did, we’re not proud of it, but we can acknowledge it was often funnier than intentionally comic adventure games. Yep, we all typed rude words into text adventures to see what the response was. Most parsers would ignore you, or say they didn’t understand, but when one like Urban Upstart volleyed abuse back at you it was comedy gold.

One of my funniest text based Spectrum experiences was thanks to a random song generator included in ‘It’s only Rock n Roll’ by K-Tel. Because each line kind of flows into the next, the results are often hilarious:  ‘Give me more of your love, You need to make it grow, Jump on it, You never wipe your nose..’

There is now a very long tradition of comedy adventure games, from Bored of the Rings and Leisure Suit Larry right through to the often hilarious Broken Sword series, but to make an arcade game which is laugh-out-loud funny has been a challenge grasped by few.  Jeff Minter’s animal themed shooters always had titles to make you smile, like Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time, but I always felt disappointed that the comedy didn’t really seep into the games.  Mikro-Gen’s collection of Wally Week games were something of a videogaming sitcom, but when the similarities between Wally in the games and Wally in 1980s episodes of  ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ became obvious, his credibility was severely tarnished.

A comic device often used in arcade adventure games is the ‘do nothing’ technique.  If you stop controlling your character and wait, they do something unexpected, like lay down and sleep, eat a sandwich or pop out a yoyo.  One of the earliest exponents was IK+, wait a while and your character’s trousers fall to the floor,  however, every time you tried to demonstrate this to a friend you were playing against, they would just pummel your face while your hands were off the controls.

Toilet Kids on the PC is one of those games which is only funny because it's so weird. It's a top-down shoot-em-up set down a toilet, because the game's hero is sucked into the bowl. Much poo throwing ensues and, yes, the boss on the cover art is holding two turds

By 1985, riding on the boom of official game licencing, came a wave of TV comedy related games.  The first of these was The Young Ones by Orpheus, a licence perfectly pitched for that generation of gamers. Far from funny was the cash-in-quick 9.95 price tag, and a poorly written sub-standard game. Similarly themed, but of far better quality, was Virgin’s ‘How to be a complete Bastard’ starring Adrian  Edmondson. It’s often funny, and very odd, with some of the game seeing you control your character as a gas cooker!

More licenced comedy games followed, from Monty Python, Viz, Simpsons, South Park, and more recently even Little Britain.  Unsurprisingly, none have offered many laughs.  Rather than getting the writers of the programs involved in making the games, they’ve left the design and story to the developers, and lets be honest, your average computer programmer wouldn’t go down well at Jongleurs.

If any arcade game was to actually try and make us laugh, it had to be British.  In 2001 our prayers were answered when Rare gave us Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  The concept of a fluffy kiddy Nintendo game hiding a profanity splattered adult romp was ingenious in itself.  The game’s mixture of funny accents and clever writing does actually provide many laugh out loud moments – the giant poo-boss wh0 sings operatically as he pelts you with turds, surely remains one of gaming’s landmark achievements.

Thankfully, someone at Nintendo must have fallen asleep the day this proposal landed on their desk

It is also fair to say that added reality has made games more funny and you can’t write about comedy in games without mentioning Grand Theft Auto.  While early GTA games rely on crass one liners to inspire mirth, recent versions are packed full of funny moments; what other game would allow you to go to a mafia meeting wearing a full rubber gimp suit?

If you try and think of your funniest gaming moment, nine times out of ten, it will be when you were playing side by side with another player and something funny happened unintentionally.  The human connection during multi-player games certainly seems to be the greatest source of gaming hilarity while any other funny moments are usually things that you and you only find funny.  Personally I like that cheesy wink you get after the shooting in Hyper Sports, or the way the commentator says ‘You’re wrrricked’ in Destruction Derby by Reflections on PS1.  Until someone develops a game in co-operation with some genuinely good comedy writers, and then turns it into a commercial hit, we’ll just have to keep on scouring dungeon walls for jokes and flushing the toilets in first person shooters.

Last five articles by Jace



  1. Edward Edward says:

    The Lucasarts adventure games and now the Telltale Adventure games are where some of the best humour in gaming lies.
    Telltale Games provide some of the most clever, most hilarious games around these days. It’s a shame less games give you genuine deliberate laughs, and apart from few examples, quite a lot of the best laughs come from unintentional moments with friends as you mentioned.
    Still, interesting read :D

  2. Ste says:

    I agree with Edward, I thought the Monkey Island games by Lucasarts were hilarious at times, I’d sit there chuckling to myself like an idiot quite often. I also totally agree with the multiplayer aspect of comedy in games, I used to play alot of City of Heroes and even during situations that weren’t supposed to be funny became hilarious when teamed with the right bunch of people connected to each other on Ventrillo. Good times

  3. Kat says:

    Interesting! I have to say the Monkey Island games sprung to mind immediately for me also. The L4D games have some humour in them – the chatter between characters, the odd scrawl in a saferoom.

  4. Lorna Lorna says:

    It is always easier to go for the cheap laughs with toilet humour, but genuine comedy, I agree can be tricky. The Monkey Island games were great examples of games getting it right. Sadly, I haven’t had enough multiplayer experience to have had many moments of hilarity…unless you count shoving people of the cliff into the quarry in Burnout Paradise.

  5. Samuel The Preacher says:

    There is humour out there… Monkey Island, as others have said, and also Sam & Max and Grim Fandango and the other Lucasarts point and clicks. The LEGO Star Wars games were amusing too, until it got old seeing the same old jokes in each of the sequels and other LEGO spin-offs. Left 4 Dead, as Kat mentioned, but Valve games generally have humour hidden in them somewhere, either very subtly, as in Portal, or more blatantly in the case of Team Fortress 2. Sometimes it’s just a moment or two in the course of a more serious game… Bioware games tend to have humour from oddball characters, and Ubisoft have found ways of injecting comedy into Assassin’s Creed at odd moments, sometimes working, sometimes not.

    In terms of multiplayer, I tend to be the guy other people are laughing at, heh. The tale of how I accidentally challenged Pete to a duel in Borderlands and spent 10 minutes running away from him in a panic will no doubt never die.

  6. Ste says:

    Theres a moment in Red Dead Redemption which I thought was pretty funny. One of the “stranger” missions is to pick some wild flowers for an old man to give to his wife for their anniversary. After finding the flowers for him the old man invites you in for a drink and to meet his wife. The cut scene shows John walking into his house and then you see thold old man’s wife’s rotting dead body sitting there in a rocking chair. The old guy introduces John to her who quicky makes his excuses and leaves.

    Not so funny when I describe it here but definately worth a chuckle when you see it.

    @Preach – I didnt like Sam and Max, abit too cheesy for my liking

  7. Jace says:

    Thanks for all the comments guys. I can’t believe I omitted Mr Threepwood and his exploits. That said, there’s a big difference between what makes you laugh out loud, and what you think is funny. I don’t think Monkey Island actually made me laugh out loud, but I did think it was funny if you get what I mean. Also loving Red Dead’s stab at hitting the funny bone, perhaps what’s more funny is the way John Marston reacts to the idiot characters in the game. Its an odd juxtoposition, as he doesn’t seem the type of character who’d tolerate all that larking about. There’s another kind of laugh in there too of course, the shocked laugh, like when Seth starts getting jiggy with the corpses. Ugh.

  8. Richie richie says:

    Game humour is usually a little lame. Pitched at that kind of Pixar level.

    For truly funny games you need to get into the Japanese things like Parappa and Bishi Bashi. But even then it’s just wierd, fruity Jap humour rather than killer gags. Fable 2 and Saints Row 2 raised a couple of chuckles but that’s about it recently.

  9. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    Humour in games is, for me, the little things that sometimes escape your attention in that sort of “blink and you miss it” type scenario. As morose as Fallout 3 was, there were so many journal entries or little notes scattered around that were actually hilarious such as using the persuasion perk to get some guy in Girdershade to go fetch all the Quantums in exchange for a threesome, the fact that the Railway Rifle always sounds “choo-choo” whenever you fire it (reminded me of Monty Python with the coconut shells), the nailboard I found in Clifftop Shacks called “The Board Of Education”, watching the Metro ticket collector robots killing Ghouls and Super Mutants JUST because they don’t have a valid ticket cracks me up… the very fact that the game’s icon is a blond haired dood winking with his thumb up in a post apocalyptic world where everyone is either dead or dying… that’s fucking hilarious to me!

    When I played through Borderlands I also found myself laughing at some awesome stuff, such as the “Turtles All The Way Down” graffiti scrawled on various walls, the fact that Marcus Kincade’s poster advertises “100% Cocking Action” and Scooter is advertising a beer called Clitz with the tagline of “It’s what’s under the hood”. This WAS actually going to be the subject of another article but I scrapped the idea as I’d have to ruin my enjoyment of games by stopping to take notes and I hate that… but humour in games is great when it’s done well. I’m not into “Bottom” style humour though, just never appealed to me.

  10. Adam Adam says:

    I find myself laughing at games for all the wrong reason. I love directed humour as everyone has proudly mentioned the origional LucasArts Heroic titles and perhaps more of the Dead pan George Stobbart as was referenced in the article, but when it’s expected of a game, you’re prepared for it a lot more and you arguably appreciate it less. It’s the less expected laugh out loud moments that get me and these only seem to crop up in multiplayer sections, bugs or just really bad writing. I think a lot of ‘serious’ games that go for the token comedy mission either try to hard or fall foul of ‘The Next Generation’ effect where it’s perfectly good on its own but try and look at what preceded it and what follows and it seems so out of place you wonder why they bother. Still, hats off to them for trying!

    One of my all time faveorites was from a World of Warcraft jaunt where me and a friend walked (literally, slow walk, not running or mounted) from Stormwind to Ironforge -no we didn’t take the tram. It’s a long walk, it’s not a very interesting one either but we did it. Slowly we attracted attention, random people joined in which was a giggle in its own right. Then one person mentioned how we deserve to be bought ale by the GM’s when we arrived, I opened a ticket to the GM’s, perfectly deadpan explaining the situation. One of them got back to us and joined in the banter (again, funny in its own way considering these are people emplyed to be professional about dealing with serious in game issues), he said ultimately we couldn’t have anything yet when we got to Ironforge, he was standing in the tavern waiting, he waved and then dissappeared.

    It doesn’t sound like much but it’s very rare to see the blue cloaked GM’s -it made our night in its own humorous way :D

    Much <3 Jace.

  11. Keith Wood says:

    Bad Taste Software did produce Di’s Baby and Santa’s Grotty Christmas back in 1984 – but Seal Cull was never in our plans (as best as we can work out it was part of a 1985 April Fools press release which somehow got attributed to Bad Taste Software by rumour and misunderstanding).

    I personally only first heard of the Seal Cull rumour in early 2011 – and liked the title so much I decided to create it. Beta testers are now sought….

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