Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Problem with Video Game Humor

I've been watching more and more of Zero Punctuation recently, and it's gotten me thinking - there isn't much decent video game comedy out there.

That's kind of a loaded statement, I guess, so I'll give a little background. For those of you who don't know, Zero Punctuation is a series of video game video-reviews (not redundant, I swear) written and performed by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, a British-born video game journalist and game developer. The premise is simple: Yahtzee reviews a game through narration while little animated characters act out everything he's saying. Oh, and Yahtzee also talks fast. Real fast. That's where the title comes from (except, you know, he is using correct punctuation most of the time - it just doesn't sound like he is). Also he's British.

But the good news is that they're funny, insightful videos. The whole animated-video-review concept isn't anything new, and Yahtzee's characters are in danger of being too cute, but the whole thing is kept afloat by Yahtzee's quick wit and well-thought-out reviews - the guy knows what makes a good video game good, and despite his constantly cynical tone he's not just a mean guy trying to put down popular games (as some people have labeled him). And, you know, he's got a good sense of humor. It's not surprising that the videos have become so damned popular.

A problem arises, though. A lot of the people who dig Zero Punctuation are the same people who, say, read terrible gaming webcomics, or watch other game review videos that are nowhere near as funny. In other words, they're internet gaming nerds with terrible senses of humor who find Yahtzee funny because, LOL, he talks fast and hates things!! That's what worries me - ravenous gaming fans reducing Yahtzee's videos to gimmick-status, not realizing that the humor of Zero Punctuation comes from its truthful critique, not its "gimmick". It's kinda like people who thought Superbad was funny 'cause they made dick jokes - totally missed the point. And that leads to the over-arching problem of video game humor. Barely any of it is any good - Zero Punctuation being a rare exception to the rule.

Now "video game humor" is a pretty vague term, so I'll give my definition of it: humor related primarily to video games. OK, so maybe that's still vague, so let me try out an example: Penny Arcade is a gaming webcomic, and it is a comedy strip. Thus it is a video game comedy. Alternately, Metalocalypse could be called "music humor," since its focus is on a metal band. Now, in theory, there's no point in dividing up comedy into these little niches; funny is funny, after all, no matter what the focus. When it comes to video game humor, though, you have to start talking about niches, because video game humor is completely niche, a world full of inside jokes and nerdy circle-jerking that nobody out of the loop would even attempt to understand.

Why is this? Well, because video games themselves are completely niche. I've mentioned this before, but unlike music or film or whathaveyou, there are many many people who just don't give a shit about video games. I mean, sure, the video game industry is a massive force, with Halo 3 outselling most Hollywood movies and yadda yadda, but good business does not equal mainstream acceptance. And since video games and the internet walk hand in hand, pretty much all video game humor you're gonna find is going to be on the internet, where it is not only accepted, but drooled upon. As such, there is no quality control present, not to mention an influx of obnoxious meme-based humor that tends to collide face-first with most video game-related media. Since the "gamer" lifestyle is already so insular, you end up with a lot of humor that either just doesn't make any sense outside of a "gamer" context, or isn't funny (or, most of the time, both).

The big kahuna of "video game humor" is gaming webcomics. That, it could be said, is pretty much what I'm talking about when I say "video game humor" - they're practically synonymous. The most popular one here is Penny Arcade, and I'll admit that by all rights it deserves to be - it's the best one I've seen. I wouldn't call it a great comic by any stretch of the imagination; too often the comic makes jokes that are so self-serving or obscure, they completely lose the humor. But it's got a nice art style and they seem to understand comedic timing and dialogue, which is not something I can say about almost every other gaming webcomic I have seen online - seriously, almost none of them are any good. They run from the obnoxiously long-winded to the awfully unfunny to the absolute scum of the earth. But, you know, these types of comics have ready-made audiences at their disposal - throngs of internet denizens eager to laugh at constant Portal references and All Your Base jokes and all that 4chan meme crap. It supports the notion that video games are a complete niche, hopelessly incapable of cracking a joke that anybody could find funny.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Yahtzee himself recognizes this and has even gone as far as to publicly call out Ctrl-Alt-Del on his blog. It's interesting - I wouldn't be surprised if many of Yahtzee's fans were avid Ctrl-Alt-Del readers themselves. To see someone as popular as Yahtzee savage something like Ctrl-Alt-Del so thoroughly and pointedly is refreshing to say the least - a voice of reason in a sea of wank-off mediocrity.

(Although some of the people he disses are outspoken fans of his. Hmm.)

Besides webcomics, the only instance of "video game humor" I've seen in a more mainstream context has been Grandma's Boy. But goddamn, that movie was terrible. Boring, way too long, not even a guilty pleasure. But hey, they played Frog Bog and DDR in it, so BAM, gaming humor.

I think there's hope, though. My friend Adam, who does not care for video games much, thinks Zero Punctuation is funny. I think part of the trick to making jokes about video games is, well, NOT making jokes about just video games - instead, making jokes about characters, truths, situations, life - that just happen to involve video games. I mean, hey, you don't have to be a metal fan to love Metalocalypse, or a pop music obsessive to like High Fidelity. But when you get caught up in an already inside-jokey culture, you sacrifice humor. As somebody who loves both comedy and video games, it is depressing to see how often this occurs.

1 comment:

Luke said...

I just have a silly, nerdy comic to show you that I think you might like. It's all history related, though, so don't be scared!

First, read this: http://s237.photobucket.com/albums/ff28/beatonna/?action=view¤t=14johnpaul.jpg

Then, read this: http://s237.photobucket.com/albums/ff28/beatonna/?action=view¤t=popepray.jpg

And finally, read this one just for the last panel: http://s237.photobucket.com/albums/ff28/beatonna/?action=view¤t=1tesla.jpg

Enjoy!