Humor in Adventure Games

Adventure games have received attention as a focus of study — for example: Montfort’s (2005) seminal work on IF; Lessard’s (2013) historically contextualising view of the genre’s development and transitions; Fernández-Vara’s (2009) analysis of adventure games in terms of performance. Rather less however has been written on the comic workings of such games. Dormann and Biddle (2009) discuss humor in games more generally, through a qualitative study of player experiences, commenting on the cognitive and social potential of humor. Lessard (2012) discusses the self-referential humor in Crowther and Woods’ Adventure as an example of “hacker humor”, situating it in the context of late 70s’ programming culture, where “hack” indicated a level of technical expertise. Black (2012) analyses The Secret of Monkey Island (SMI) in terms of the relationship between code and screen (the latter being the “representational” level accessible to the player), and suggests that parody often arises from on-screen commentary on the negotiation and possible tension between the two. Identifying particular moments in Zork, Harpold (2007) discusses limitations of medium as opportunity for metalepsis[4], which may be recuperated “within the semiotic plane of play” through “recapture” — a device which masks technical limitations by reincorporating them into the gameworld. Harpold does not focus on the comic potential of such moments, though this may be inferred. Discussion of the comic effect has therefore tended to be incidental, and where it has been the primary focus, this has usually been either in terms of more general suggested potential, or emerging in the course of analysing a specific example.

Here I take the approach of a more sustained look at the comic (which may include such devices) in relation to genre and player expectations, considering moments which seem to foreground disconnection rather than recapture. While the recognition of conventions plays a key part in the discussion, I do not attempt here to lay out an exhaustive poetics of the ‘adventure’ genre, nor would I claim that it is characterized by entirely self-containing boundaries (exceptions and crossovers are also acknowledged here). My approach is indebted to critical and literary theory, particularly theories of comedy and parody, and theories which touch upon the “comic” element at play. I would suggest that a consideration of the comic benefits from an approach which may be applied across disciplines and media. Shklovsky’s account of parody has focused on the “laying bare” of devices in the novel (Shklovsky, 1990); while, in a related vein, a similar “demystifying power” has been ascribed to the comic more generally (Flieger, 1991, p. 183; Zupančič, 2008, pp. 204-5).

The comic element will first be considered in its relation to players’ expectations for the genre. The limitations and possibilities available to the player, and the opportunity for digression and detour, will be discussed, giving consideration to the reduction in available actions from text to graphic adventure (see Fernández Vara 2009, pp. 114-5). Parody is discussed in terms of its ability to ‘halt’ and interrupt play, making the player aware of the manipulation at work through the defamiliarization or “laying bare” (Shklovsky, 1990) of ‘learned’ conventions, the player’s positioning, and the player’s own expectations. This is considered as a means of playful re-engagement in itself, sometimes in the form of a ‘joke’ on the player. Escape from Monkey Island (LucasArts, 2000) is considered as suggesting a turning-point in terms of comedic self-referentiality. This is followed by discussion of a more recent ‘nostalgic turn’, with the parodic approach intersecting with the nostalgic, as another means of engaging with established conventions which also acknowledges distance. The question of nostalgia leads into a consideration of the “replayability” of adventure games, suggesting that this quality may reside in the player’s engagement with the humor. Finally, the discussion will consider possible implications of the effects of such comic tactics for player engagement and “immersion”, in relation to adventure games.

However, despite the occasional heightened streamlining of choices in graphic adventures[5], I suggest that this potential for straying, already present in Zork, is not abandoned even within the “narrow[er] range of actions available to players” (Black, 2012, p. 217), and the closing-off of “wrong” paths in MI-influenced adventures. In these, a certain freedom is enabled by encouraging the player to try out all available dialogue options and click on any object with no fear of fatally compromising progress in the game. This allows paradoxically, for digressions and incidental dialogue, the only purpose of which is humorous diversion, unlinked to narrative progression. Indeed, this is more in line with comedy’s tendency to favour situations which incur no fatal or severe consequences (Sypher, 1980, p. 254). One post-MIexample is Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Revolution, 1996), where the player character has the option to talk to any character about any inventory-item — ranging from a used tissue to a “priceless gem” — for a variety of responses, including “What kind of madman would go around waving a priceless gem under people’s noses?”, without fear of actual plot-repercussions, such as accidentally giving it away to (or having it snatched by) the wrong non-player character.

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