The author, journo, gamer and all-round good geek Naomi Alderman wrote about humorous games in her Guardian column this week. She says that funny video games are the ones that stand out in the memories of gamers. I’d add that these are the ones non-gamers remember too.
Unlike Naomi, I’d class myself as a complete non-gamer. I’m content to be on the outside, equally and comfortably separated from adult gamers and from my own childhood play experiences. I dilly and dally in a trivial way, but only as long as it’s fun. I’m not politicised or business-minded. I don’t see it as my place to fight the games industry’s corner. No, on the whole, I’m happy just to watch. Maybe it’s because life itself feels like such a constant negotiation of interaction, rule and reward. Perhaps my need to pretend or think creatively is satisfied through other channels. Whatever it is, I know that as an adult I have never wished I’d spent more time playing games – and it’s not something that impacts on my conscience at all. By contrast, I’ve often wished I’d read more textbooks.
But of course I am fascinated by play and pretending and all those ancient hard-wired human impulses we can’t seem to escape. I’m intrigued, too, by the way that play is sold as an anarchic opposite to work, but in so many games (even the ones set in space) it is structurally identical to a tedious office job.
And maybe that’s why I don’t play games. I’m lazy, and organised playing is a kind of work. I’m also self-regulating and antisocial, and continually looking for inspiration in the creative outputs of others. But my laziness means I struggle to stick with endless unbreakable rules, whether they’re the rules that create a game system or the rules that govern a fictional narrative (I don’t read novels either.) And my Sisyphan appeal for inspiration in all creativity means I price myself out of the market. Because, of course, you’re not supposed to find games inspiring in the way I wish they’d be, any more than you’re supposed to find novels a ‘starting point’ for writing your own version (bear with me). Beautiful and interesting they may be, games and novels are complete, closed shops to me. There they always are, already: every possible potential action mapped out around a nicely laid table of rewards. When you’re not playing or reading, the fiction agelessly awaits you. And not only you – any ‘you’. The literary ideas of books lead me not into writing follow-up books, but commentating on the ideas – i.e. entering a different world again, with different rules.
I’m so lazy at imagining, so desperate for inspiration in the living, breathing, sense, that I can barely hold the abstracted fiction of a game of cards in my head because I keep wanting all the aspects to be more real… less fictional. I want the kings and queens to exist somehow. I don’t like the breakdown of poker and chess to numbers and symbols; I want to see pawns beheaded, horses galloping.
For people like me who feel their needs can’t be met by games or fiction, humour is a striking and delightful surprise. You could even argue that the best fiction is at its most game-like, or interactive, when it gives you an engaging joke. I read it as a kid, but still thoroughly enjoy the line from (I think) The Box of Delights where a talking animal asks the boy his name before declaring in disgust: “Kay’s not a name, it’s a letter of the alphabet”.
This illustrates something Nick Montfort points out (at length) in his study of interactive fiction “Twisty Little Passages”. There’s some considerable common ground between the structure of the riddle and that of the adventure game. It’s not too difficult to immerse children in a story, and when we read these books in our open-minded youth, our imaginations snag on these flashes of humour. These kids’ book jokes, these almost-puzzles, drag us even further into our imaginations than we already were, and our memories stay hooked on individual lines for years. Because comedy works a kind of magic – it’s a gateway to self-generated pleasure. There’s an exciting, flattering autonomy in understanding a joke. A electrical spark connecting words, characters and worlds that children experience as very real indeed.
The beauty of comedy is that it can happen anywhere. You can watch it happen or you can experience it, and games have given us laughs in every humanly imaginable setting, at our expense and at our foe’s. Monkey Island and Portal are the obligatory name checks in any piece about games and humour, but one could easily add a host of 80s and 90s games to the list… all the other Lucas Arts games, Lemmings, anything inspired by a cartoon, Infocom and Acornsoft’s bizarre text adventures, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, the Skate and Ski or Die series… even the funeral march at the end of Danger UXB. Many games based on films turned out to be much funnier than the original film. I wonder if the prevalence of humour in these early video games had to do with the fact that they were largely pitched at children, and children have always been more free about enjoying comedy than adults.
Those children are now grown-up, and many of them are now seeking credibility for an industry grown out of their own memories of incredibility. Incredible that the medium itself existed – the unexpectedness of being allowed to interact with something so fully. And incredible that there was a funny all-singing, all-dancing spin-off of every day life just for them; a hobby in which to retreat. I worry that the hobbies have become jobs, the children have become ‘gamers’ rather than idle players. And I worry we might be losing our sense of humour about it.
Wherever there’s interaction, there’s the possibility of irony, surprise and knowingness. Knowingness. Mm. I mean – when the author makes themselves present. Where the brain assembles ideas. Games that involve humour are striking because they ask you to enjoy the play in your head as much as the play on the screen. The author’s knowing interceptions in his fiction are as surprising and wonderful as the pen-wielding hand of the artist you’d sometimes see looming in a frame of your favourite comic strip as a child. These are the moments you realise the story’s not just happening on the page, it’s also happening in your head. And Kay’s not a just name, it’s also a letter of the alphabet.