Telling a Joke through Level Design

I was watching some Extra Credits recently and got to the episode on Comedic Games. It correctly talks about a few things — how much funny games are not funny in their game bits — they’re funny in writing or in cutscenes or whatever. They then talk about how it’s hard because comedy is driven by timing and wonders how we could rethink how we do comedy in games. He then goes on for the rest of episodes about how glitches are funny ( and they ARE funny ). All while I’m just sitting there thinking “BUT WE KNOW THIS. WE DO THIS. WE’RE NOT THE BEST AT IT, BUT WE ACTUALLY DO THIS ALL THE TIME”

I would have loved IWBTG to be talked about but it could have been anything. It could have been Kaizo Mario, a romhack made up of what are basically challenging mechanics jokes. The so called “kaizo block” is a mechanical joke. It is subversive in numerous ways, It is a betrayal of trust. It is turning a positive secret into a death trap. It turns a simple jump into a puzzle. It’s also not a one off sudden slapstick gag. This is a joke that can be told with timing. Remember, comedic timing isn’t about “timing”. Humor isn’t a fighting game combo. Comedic timing is about psychology. It’s about anticipation, or misdirection or number of other components. The jump in the classic Kaizo Block trap is MISDIRECTION. You are putting the players focus somewhere else to solve a different problem. This is a real comedic setup. The state of a person right after making a jump, mentally, is about as predictable as one could ever hope for in comedy. The kaizo block then hits, right at those crucial, weak, post jump input moments. The Mario death music is practically a rimshot here, rubbing it in the players face. It’s a full featured, if short, joke.

Or I can talk about IWBTG. IWBTG’s long jokes generally function in sets of 3 (a common number in comedy). The first screen of IWBTG shows this. You walk off the ledge, you hear a suspicious click, a barrier closes above you and, after a slight delay, a big crushing spike wall slams into you with a horrible, grating loud sound. So that’s a mini joke — not particularly clever, but the elements are there. You then figure it out, go to the second floor and go “Ahah! Can’t fool me twice!”. The 2nd rep in a 3 part joke like this is to establish a pattern. It doesn’t need to be pure repetition like it is here, but it still needs to generally contrast the punchline. So the player gets past the second spike platform with no problem. Then they drop down, do the same with the 3rd and get splattered. That’s a 3 stage joke. Of course all this work leads up to the joke of falling into the horrible spike room and dying, but this isn’t a 4 stage joke because the spike room is modular and could come after any real frustrating segment. Also worth saying real quick that there seems to be a lot of humor in delaying game over music just a little. Works for IWBTG games and Mario Romhacks at least.

But okay more IWBTG stuff. The Delicious Fruit room. First fruit is a mini joke. Fruit generally is not thought about as a hazard and some early players (before IWBTG got it’s reputation) would jump into them wondering if they were a pickup. Subversion of expectations is probably the easiest form of videogame humor especially with how much visual language we have with them. Anyways the second part of the joke is clearing out the apples. The player knows what to do and while there are a few headaches, he’ll make it through. In his feelings of victory will be dashed as soon as he jumped and get hits by an upward flying apple. That sequence also has another joke I love. After doing the upper path, the player sees one unfortunately placed apple at the very end. A lot of players will try and bait it out, but it seems very stubborn. The player knows not to trust anything at this point and eventually have to make that jump with and just cross their fingers… and the apple falls down instead of up at them.

A lot of humor in games happen when we take away control from the player in games, but it can be funny when we comedically give them back. The parachute gag is a long build up — a heroic glide in to the stage on a parachute, with awesome music and parallaxing layers and stuff and it’s all cool and the ground is coming up and BAM you are released a few feet away from ground and you fall unceremoniously into the water and die AND forcing you to do the long fly in a game. It’s an obnoxious joke and sometimes people complain about it, but I love it. The repeated waits really sell the gag and, by initially taking control away from the player, you can build your joke however you want, only to drop them, with full control, into the punchline.

My favorite and last trap is in Gaiden — Stage 1-2. After a series of difficult swings, the player is running through a row of crushers. When they finally get to solid ground, they are met with a pit with two spikes over it and a save point on the other side. The swings earlier build up the stakes (don’t wanna do it again) and the crushers build up the tension. The two spikes stop the player from jumping clean across. It would be an easy jump, but one does not simply trust spikes to simply be spikes in IWBTG. Almost all players at this point pause to get their bearings and prepare for the jump. After a few moments of preparing the floor shoots up on hydraulics and smashes The Lad into the ceiling. This is one of those traps (like the tombstone after the Spike Corridor) that just destroys people. For maximum comedic effect, it is important that the floor does NOT come up right away. The player needs enough time to relax just a little and lower their defenses. It’s almost like the Kaizo Block setup only instead of punching them during their commitment, you punch them during their preparation (which you can predict due to the previous crusher segment). The two spikes that make them pause do absolutely nothing…. well, besides making them fall for the real trap. Misdirection is a POWERFUL.

I find there to be a similarity between comedy in magic. Performance arts with a lot of emphasis on timing and pacing… but magic is interactive. Even when no one directly taking part of a trick, the audience is scrutinizing the performer and trying to see through them. The magician on the other hand employs misdirection to control them. Misdirection works in comedy, but isn’t essential like it is in games. I feel like good game jokes need lots of misdirection because it’s one of the best ways to control and setup an active participant. Once you’re cleverly controlling the player, you can do all sorts of stuff! The problem isn’t too hard — we have basically all the answers we need to tell real “game jokes” and are doing it RIGHT NOW. We just need to get better at it and get more creative and try and have more variety (more ways to be funny WITHOUT killing the player?).

One Move to Change a Match-Up

I was going through the SCR Norcal vs SoCal match after watching Evo and was taken back by how Ricky vs Snake Eyez played out so differently. Now Snake Eyez won both games, but the matches were extraordinarily different. At first I thought it was due to change in Ricky’s play, but I hadn’t considered the Ultra changes too much at the time.

So during SCR, we see Rufus HAVE to play like Rufus in a matchup where you don’t wanna be up and close. Rufus has to be aggressive because he has no other choice. Zangief can outfootsies him easily and most of Rufus’s moves get beat by Zangief’s standing medium punch.

Ricky vs Snake Eyez at EVO is a whole different beast and while there are many chnages that effect the matchup, but that change to Standing Medium is by far the biggest. Zangief’s biggest tool in that matchup has been weakened and now Rufus can play defensively. That change alone (an increase in St.M’s hurtbox) is enough to create this entire change in dynamic. Now Rufus can play footsies instead of feeding himself to the Zangief-Grinder.

Now I’m sure Ricky DID have an axe to grind after that match at SCR and I’d guess that matchup got a bit of attention leading up to EVO, but the biggest change was the hurtbox on a single move.