Humor Me: Comedy Dialog in Games

Got humor? Game developer published an article about humor in games this month that was unintentionally funny from a writer’s point of view. Damion Schubert, our bud over at Zen of Design, spends two pages waxing rhapsodic about the red-headed stepchild of game design: game dialog. While I did find it humorous that a combat designer for MMOs was schooling readers on how to write comedy, I can’t fault his goal. We’ve talked about the joy of comic relief on this blog before. This week I’ll be exploring how to put comedy in games, starting with, you guessed it, dialog.

Character
In his article, Damion points out the appeal of cheesy one-liners, which act to make the game more fun while humanizing the character. Character is the key word. Comedy has to grow from the character’s personality, or it will seem odd, inappropriate, or, well, cheesy. I know people who hate LAW & ORDER, because over a dead body, Lenny will always crack a pithy one-liner. A character who always has the perfect comeback will actually seem less human than the one who seems humorously at a loss on occasion (although some players don’t want to play relatable characters).

Bad example (from Civilization IV): “I’ve studied on killin’ you.” Out of context, it seems kind of funny, but when you realize it’s the French leader saying it, you’re left wondering… what?

Good example (from Blackadder TV series — love it!): “Hunger and poverty stalk the land like some… great big stalking thing!”

Comedy, or just bad writing?
Damion also pointed out how “hanging a lampshade” or “hanging a lantern” on an issue can be quite humorous. Rather than trying to hide a clunky plot point, “hang a lantern” on it by pointing it out in dialog. First of all, you’ll see this technique used just as often in drama. In one season finale of SMALLVILLE, I believe Clark’s father was missing, and Chloe wanted to talk to Clark about their relationship. Obviously, this was the least appropriate time to do so, but the writers wanted to address the Chloe/Clark storyline for the season finale. So they hung a lantern on it: Chloe says, “I know this isn’t the best time, but I really have to say this…”

Second of all, if it’s bad writing or too ludicrous a premise, no amount of hanging the lantern can save it. Now you know I love STARGATE SG1, but in the episode where they did, indeed, face a dragon, they had characters say, “Please don’t tell me that’s a dragon.” Unfortunately, the viewers were thinking the same thing, and that was their last season.

You can also get past an iffy premise by using distraction/misdirection and social proof, both to comedic or dramatic effect. A better idea is to write a solid story and premise, so you won’t have to resort to these techniques at all. Or get someone to write it for you!

The myth of the one-liner
Damion quotes quite a few humorous lines, including Bruce Willis’ character from Die Hard: “Yippee-kay-aye, mother–.” Yet at its simplest, comedy usually requires a set-up and a twist, or punchline. When looking at 10-200 hour games, the effort to put comedy in can be overwhelming. If you’re not careful, you may rewrite a set-up, but keep the punchline in, making it fall flat for the player. To put comedy into your dialog, you’ll need to look a little bit deeper than the one-liner.

I can only scratch the surface of how to write comedy dialog in one article. But saying comedy is all about dialog is like saying narrative designers just write text. Dialog can solve some problems, add flavor, and show character, but it’s not a panacea. Thursday I’ll explore how to put comedy in games without saying hardly a word, and then I’ll focus on comedy in combat! Subscribe for more — otherwise, see you soon!

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Published in: on August 12, 2008 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Ah, Blackadder. A classic…but not actually what I want to talk about. ;)

    I’ve done some amateur writing in my time. Just for fun; I haven’t tried to get anything published (yet), just shared it with friends. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s great fun to write a scene that’s a single sentence that encompasses a hilarious punchline. But! The only way you can make that one sentence so funny is by spending a lot of time setting up the situation beforehand. When done right, it’s the culmination of all the writing you’ve been doing before, from characterization to mood and even theme. I almost think of it like a set of bowling pins; You have to set it up, then you have the satisfaction of knocking it down.

    Of course, I say comedy, but I’m sure this applies to drama and other things…wherever you want to evoke an emotion. (H. P. Lovecraft comes to mind.)

  2. You’re catching on ;) Ideally, in a game, all that stuff leading up to the punchline isn’t written out like in a scene, but played out by the player. That’s what the next one’s about!

    -Anne

  3. […] dying is easy, and comedy is hard… what is comedy about dying? You can put comedy into your game dialog, or through your design, but enough generalities. In honor of Damion Schubert, who wrote about […]

  4. […] some real comedy? We’ve been talking about comedy in games (check out the series if you missed it), so it’s high time for an […]


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