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?).

8 thoughts on “Telling a Joke through Level Design

  1. Seeing your tweets earlier got me thinking about this subject again, and right before I type any of it out I see you’ve addressed every point I thought of. In particular I wondered if you’d dabbled with magic at all after playing through the traps in gaiden. There seems to be something very analogous with misdirection and having objects do things they’re not supposed to be able to.

    The one thing that you didn’t explicitly say was that in all the truly funny games I’ve played, the misdirection is almost always high difficulty. Difficulty is just perfect for having the player focus on right now without thinking too hard about what could be a trap.

    Your closing point about not killing the player is something that really made me think difficulty is important. I can’t think of a joke in any easy games that don’t involve killing the player or at least having them take damage. Meanwhile kaizo mario does a gag that is completely harmless to the player: giving them a power up just after an area they desperately could have used one, or giving it before hand but blocking progress to big mario.

    Usually these gags have a small expense to the player, death is cheap is IWBTG after all. For a glimpse at the opposite extreme, take ‘The Sign’ quest in Korean mmo Ragnarok Online. This quest is brutally long with many obscure nuances, but one part of the quest is a simple item farm. The npc requests 50 of this, you bring it, then he requests 10 of that and so on. A cunning player might look up all the necessary items, farm them, then bring them all back and mash through the dialogue boxes. If you do this, he silently takes every quest item from you at once but only gives you credit for the item he is asking for right now. He proceeds to move you n to the next one type of item.

    This joke is many times more sadistic than anything in IWBTG to the point I think the only person laughing is the designer! Ouch.

  2. Absolutely spot-on, Kayin, you should seriously consider getting in touch with the Extra Credits team to see if they wouldn’t be willing to do a follow-up episode based on these insights. Hell, I’d be willing to do it myself, although I have no special contact with them.

  3. Yeah I used to do magic. In all honesty I was never all that good at it — I had the execution but never developed the timing. Of course it’s easier to refine timing in a game or story or whatever!

    As for difficulty and hard games, it is absolutely easier to make a hard funny game than a not hard funny game. I think it makes sense if you look at comedy. Comedy is rarely “positive”. Like the message might be positive, but it is positive by framing negatives, like how Louis CK does a lot of pro women commentary on gender by … showing how shitty dudes can be. I think you can kinda do it though. I think Lemmings is sorta in that direction. It doesn’t try and leverage the comedy but there is something absurd about the shitty lives on lemmings and having to detonate lemmings stuck in certain rolls and stuff. I think that’s some of the potential I saw with I Wanna Save the Kids (even if I decided that I couldn’t really execute it how I wanted it). The humor comes from a negative place (your failure) but your failure doesn’t mean dying yet isn’t as small as “taking damage”. Telling a good mechanical joke in that frame work would be funny while not necessarily being hard. Dwarf Fortress might be another example. Dwarf Fortress is “hard” but it’s not a masocore game and a lot of humor comes from the suffering of entities you don’t necessarily want to lose.

    Also god damn that RO quest gag sounds like a huge dick.

  4. I absolutely love those “comedic timings” in video games when they are well done. Another good example is in Escape Goat 2. There are some “hub” levels, which you simply traverse through to get to the next section(s). They are not meant to be difficult or puzzle-y like the rest of the levels, just some dialog/inbetween stuff and maybe a few levers and switches to open the passage.
    The one hub area I’m talking about is towards the end. By that time you’ve learned to stand on switches and see what happens. But now here, you stand on the switch, you see some blocks moving, creating a staircase to jump up and… While you see the staircase being created a block falls down on top of you, which is pretty much guaranteed death if you don’t know about it. Nothing like that ever happens in any other level again, deaths are no big thing and the area has nothing tricky/difficult beforehand, which is why it fits in there so perfectly. I had a good laugh getting squished there :)

    I absolutely agree with the comedic value coming from misdirection, playing with player expectations. Doing this without killing the player is a very tricky thing though. In many games, killing the player is not an option, since those deaths are a alot more punishing. So, what do you do instead?

    On the item thing in Ragnarok Online mentioned in the previous comment – I’m reasonably certain that’s just the devs being terrible at properly scripting the dialogs/events that happen there. I played Ragnarok Online for around 6-7 years and that’s a quite common thing in that game. (So easy to crash the servers by abusing a few mechanics)

  5. I love seeing Kaizo Mario getting credit like this. I’m not sure what people generally think of it, as mostly they just don’t, but I get the impression that it gets treated like an unplayable joke game a lot. Which is a shame, because personally once I had got past the initial hump in the learning curve and got used to SMW physics, I found it a serious contender for the best level design I’ve seen.

    My own favourite joke there is the end of the first stage. In general Kaizo is very good about making the challenges dynamic, using enemies, moving platforms and fast timings rather than casually slapping plain, boring frame perfect jumps all over the place like the bad imitations do. It does have places which are pretty much just that, but they are always the challenge you focus on and have something extra to them, rather than something that kills you as an afterthought while you’d rather focus on something else, which is what I hate the most in games like this.

    So in the first stage, after going through a bunch of clever arrangements using half a dozen different enemies, you get to a mostly empty screen with large walls on both sides, the goal visible right past the next one, a kind of a pedestal in the middle, all this surrounding… a laconic single one block wide drop between two munchers. I guess it’s like the misdirection trick applied the other way around, calling a disproportionate amount of attention to a very mundane obstacle.

    More generally, the game gets a lot of mileage from the dissonance of using SMW’s happy, uplifting sounds and graphics with tough as nails meat grinder gameplay. What crowns the Kaizo block for me isn’t the Mario death music, but the crisp and annoyingly chipper coin sfx. Congratulations! You died! This is everywhere in the game to some extent, and most noticeable on those goddamn asshole dolphins in the third stage.

  6. That first screen full of fruit in IWBTG really is just brilliant with the subtle differences in how each one is triggered. I THINK I actually got hit by every single one my first time through, and it’s something you really can’t appreciate if you’re just watching an LP.

  7. Yeah I suppose that’s one disadvantage that comes up when I recommend people to “just watch an LP” if they find the game too hard. It’s easy to assume the game is just arbitrary and it’s easy to miss how it can get inside the player’s head. Not a huge deal, but still a somewhat unfortunate side effect…. though with a good LPer I think the psychology still shines through a bit (one of the pleasures of watching Floe play/break)

  8. You know what you might want to consider doing some day? Particularly if you ever summon the strength of will to port the whole thing to a more stable engine? Take a page from Nintendo’s book, and add an option to in one way or another skip a screen…

    … but only after dying 50 or so times. I mean you can’t coddle people too much.

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