D20: Interactive Comedy is a bit of a crap-shoot

Borderlands 2

By on August 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I recently had a chance to sit down with Anthony Burch, writer of Borderlands 2 and the less manic half of brilliant web series, Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? and chat about what it takes to write comedy in games. Whilst my interview was by no means as entertaining as Tim’s impromptu D&D game, it did bring to light some of the problems with writing comedy for games in general and RPGs in particular.

According to Burch, there was little opportunity for iteration on jokes, both because of deadlines and the nature of the medium — there are only so many ideas you can bounce off people, and aside from animatics, there’s no real way to see how a joke will perform outside of the finished product.

What was probably my favourite joke in the game — the sarcastic clapping Slab who appears after you’ve completed Brick’s challenge — was thought to be a failure until it appeared as a hugely popular cosplay at a convention. The general gist of the conversation seemed to be that writing comedy for games is a bit of a crap-shoot, and that all you can really do is bounce some jokes off co-workers, trust your instincts and keep your fingers crossed.

In the case of Borderlands 2, Burch had a leg up thanks to the world of Pandora being established and the characters being ripe for comedy. Whilst this is also true of the world and characters of South Park: The Stick of Truth, it occurs to me that the writers of South Park might have additional challenges to face whilst writing their jokes.

One of the fundamental appeals of South Park is its topicality – the show has a terrifyingly fast episode turnaround, meaning that nearly every episode can be as topical is possible and able to comment on contemporary news reports or political situations.

Whilst it is true that in the earlier days of South Park, topicality wasn’t of major concern to the creators, but as the show has aged the way it has remained contemporary is to centre episodes around the key topics of the day. Unlike the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth hasn’t stuck to a prohibitive schedule — the game has been delayed a number of times, both due to distributor problems and production delays and now has a release date of sometime in the future. As such, the jokes in The Stick of Truth seems to be relying more or South Park nostalgia, shock and situational comedy than topicality.

The behind closed doors demo shown at E3 showed the New Kid (the player character) using an alien anal probe to teleport, the powers of the Underpants Gnomes to shrink and engaging in a farting contest with Cartman. Whilst this was funny for 10 minutes, I’m not entirely sure that jokes based on South Park history can remain solidly entertaining for the 12-20 odd hours the game will most probably last.

That said, the demo didn’t feature a great deal of dialogue, so there’s still no real indication as to whether South Park creators and writers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone can bring their  sense of humour to an interactive medium. Fingers crossed.

This is my last D20 column for games.on.net. It’s been fun banging on about my favourite genre but all good things must come to an end.

Later kids. Be good. I can reach you from here.

4 comments (Leave your own)

Anthony gave a talk at GDC this year titled “Designing Humor in Borderlands 2″. I found it to be an interesting insight into the process. The full slides and script are here:
https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1jXHsbVPir8cu5hL5Li3XdVoPyUQEGuBtr36AQSjTOpI/edit?usp=sharing

 
pinkwithhappiness

Nooo Dan don’t gooo!! I have been reading your writing since you started at Hyper and was so excited when you started writing for GON on my fav genre.
Your articles will be missed here.
:*o(

 
Artful-dodgeR

Damn Dan, will be sad to see you go :(

 

“This is my last D20 column for games.on.net. ”

Best of luck in your next writing endeavor !

 
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