Everybody likes a bit of the old The Funny in games, right? After all, it seems to be the great missing element in most modern games. Just ask Al Lowe, creator of the legendary Leisure Suit Larry series. “When the adventure game format passed away,” he says an in interview for Gamasutra, “… humour seems to have been left by the wayside.”
More often than not, in modern AAA-grade titles what little humour there is tends to rest on the shoulders of the ‘comic relief’ member of your combat squad, if there’s any at all. Games that have plots reaching almost to the level of a parody/farce such as Modern Warfare 2 lack even that, and take themselves so seriously that they can be quite painful at times to some players.
The question is – just how important is humour in some of these games? Surely some genres are better off taking themselves seriously. After all, who wants to be pulled out of combat sim by having your wingman making James Bond-esque one-liners every time he shoots down an enemy? It might work in a space combat sim like Wing Commander III (“Chalk up another number for the maniac!”) but it’s probably not good in a serious combat simulator like Falcon 4.0.
There are certainly still humorous games – the Battlefield: Bad Company series doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the resurgence of adventure games was certainly a bring-back of the comedic ones like Mad Max and Monkey Island over the more serious ones, like Gabriel Knight.
So which genres aren’t improved by the addition of humour?
We’ve covered hardcore simulations (which is a dying genre everywhere but Europe, seemingly) but what else?
Well, I’m going to draw a line in the sand here. I’m going to finally crawl towards my point and say this: almost without exception, business sims and other games with a grounding in economics are weakened by the addition of humour. I don’t mean the odd witty line from an advisor or in a cut scene, either. I mean a setting that’s flat-out silly.
I’m sure some of you already have your finger in the air right now, with the ‘excuse me’ look on your face. You’re going to bring up classics like Theme Hospital or Pizza Tycoon – and you’d be right to do so. These are two business sims that not only use humour heavily to great effect, but whose very concepts are quite firmly rooted in humour.
Pizza Tycoon sees you running a pizza restaurant in one of the Italian-food capitals of Europe or America. But by ‘running a pizza restaurant’ I mean doing errands for the mob, planting rat-poison (or explosives) in competing restaurants and figuring out the amount of salt and lobsters to put in your pizzas based on local market research. Truly a great sim of capitalism. But that’s pretty tame compared to the other title mentioned above.
In Theme Hospital, you run… well, a hospital. (Try not to sound surprised) Probably something that could be done dead-pan serious, but in order to make it work well as at it does, the game has a wicked sense of humour. The opening cut-scene shows a patient about to be “saved” (being operated on with a chainsaw) until a red light flashes on the monitor. He ran out of medical insurance, and is promptly dumped down the disposal shoot by the surgeon. This sets the tone for the game – you spend your time curing disorders like ‘bloaty head’ by popping and re-inflating human heads and desperately cleaning puke and trash from the hallways when the local town mayor comes to visit.
There’s others, too. I haven’t even brought up Tropico or The Movies.
So, did I just negate my point, here? I just brought up genuinely enjoyable, funny business sims. But no, there’s something important with these two titles – they’re designed to be funny, right off the bat.
It’s the addition of humour to a title or franchise that doesn’t really need or want for it that can be a huge problem, and it’s something that seems to have happened a fair bit of late. For instance, take the less-than-serious look at, uhm… you know, I’m not even sure just what “Tycoon City: New York” is supposed to simulate. Real-estate, with a hint of cafe management? But the failings with that title weren’t limited to weak humour.
But it’s Firaxis’ treatment of two of their stable of Sid Meier franchises that have really made me question the addition of humour.
In 2005, Civilization 4 came out. An incredible series of games came before it – the original game quite literally invented a genre – and the fourth title in the franchise was met with almost universal praise. To this day it holds a 92% rating at gamerankings.com, and a 94 on metacritic.
I’m not going to make disparaging comments about Civ4. It earned the praise that was heaped on it. It’s addictive, balanced and generally immersive. I say generally, because no matter how much I enjoy the game, the humourous take on the leaders of other nations continues, to this day, to pull me out of the game.
In Civilization (the original), you would enter diplomatic negotiations with enemy nations and find yourself greeted with a tense musical piece and a serious-looking head of state to face off with. If things of a threatening nature were discussed, you’d read terse almost Cuban-missile-crisis style sentences and find yourself stroking your real or imaginary beard while deciding on how best to continue the negotiations.
In Civilization 4, meanwhile, a version of Julias Caesar straight out of Asterix bounds onto the screen and summarises his feelings for your nation in simplistic, sometimes comical phrases. Obviously, this isn’t a huge complaint – a touch of light-heartedness certainly didn’t kill the game – I still play it today, five years later. But nonetheless, there are those moments, where you’re getting seriously invested in your game. War is about to break out. Negotiations are tense… and just the wrong silly animation pulls you right back out of the game and makes you sigh while pouring your next cup of coffee. (The “just one more turn” thing still works!)
Then we get to Firaxis’ continuation of the other big Microprose franchise – Railroad Tycoon.
This one was such a departure that they didn’t even keep the name. It was titled Sid Meier’s Railroads! and, at least in track-laying terms, had more in common with Rollercoaster Tycoon than any of its predecessors.
The focus of this game was on what you connected and what trains you built – you could literally drag track from one oddly-scaled city to the next and then watch cartoony trains slide around on enormous trestle bridges that’d twist and turn enough to bring up the lunches of every passenger aboard.
In effect, the game was re-designed (and heck, even renamed) to seem more like a spiritual companion to Sid Meier’s Pirates! than anything else – which is another perfect example of the same thing happening. A relatively serious title imbibed with over-the-top silly characters until it ceases being possible to really take the game seriously.
It’s something we’ll never know, but I’d love to find out just how the sales of these games would have differed if they’d kept the more serious tone of the originals. Obviously, both games did quite well, but certainly within a different demographic.
It almost goes without saying that the bulk of the players of Railroads! aren’t the bespectacled, balding train nerds who micro-manage their engine type, track layout and spend ten minutes mulling over just when to buy competitors’ stocks on margins. The game world is laid out like a model railroad set, in the same way that Pirates! is laid out like a Saturday-morning cartoon or models in a bathtub.
Is the humour appropriate? Do the changed tones of these games work? Obviously, it’s a matter of personal taste – but in this case it’s the ‘watering down’ of classic franchises to cater for a perceived wider audience. If the classics are treated in this way, what does it leave for the crazies like myself and the balding spreadsheet-nerds who prefer business sims to be taken seriously?
It’s a fine line to walk, introducing humour into genres like this. If it’s integrated well into the concept, you can get a classic (cult or not) like Theme Hospital. If you’re slightly less lucky, you can end up with a game like Civilization IV; great despite the humour, not because of it. Finally, if you really do badly, you might end up with Railroads. As it gets closer and closer to the release date of each new title in these franchises, just which slot the title will fall into is something that will doubtlessly keep spreadsheet-nerds up late at night.
Some genres could use an injection of humour, to help the player stomach the absurdity of the content. Other genres do not. Deciding just what’s the right tone for your game is something that some developers could seemingly use a hand in deciding.
Why do this? Why denigrate the genre by making light of something serious like the running of a railroad or the colonisation of the new world? Why attempt to simulate a model railroad instead of a real one? Most people with model railroads, or who have memories of model railroads from their childhood, used those tools to imagine themselves as barons, motormen or the like – if you want to appeal to that, you do it by giving them trains and railways that are honest in their portrayal, and grand in their scale. Not cutesy-poo worlds where the trains go ‘choo choo!’ and the dictators cackle like cartoon villains.
If this trend keeps up and serious business and economics sims are slowly eroded by humour, armchair CEOs, Generals and Captains of Industry will find themselves facing off across a virtual board-room table discussing shares and market capitalisation… in LOLCat speak.