One joke, one witticism. Order up!
There’s a moment on Penny Arcade’s excellent web series “Strip Search” where a journalist asks one of the contestants to be funny. The contestant tries to tell a joke, and then flounders. To anyone who is considered funny by others and has been introduced as such, this is a familiar experience. In that moment, it’s almost as if all your humor has left you and you’re bereft of a talent that seems ever present at almost any other point in your life. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t me. Humor requires something that is missing in that moment. Humor requires context.
This mental tangent was inspired by the game Citizens of Earth (CoE). In CoE, the player the takes control of the buffoonish Vice President of the Earth in his attempts to fend off an alien invasion with local townsfolk. The game plays the scenario for laughs, but never seems to hit on a good joke, much less consistently be funny. The problem feels similar to the one the Strip Search contestant had. CoE feels like a game that was told to “be funny” and was unable to achieve that. What gives?
One of the most underappreciated things about humor is how much context plays a role. Humor relies on a shared cultural context upon which the humorist can make a clever observation or subvert a common understanding. If the parties involved in humor share different contexts, then the foundation which is being commented upon disappears and the meaning is lost. Consider the old joke “A man walks into a bar. Ouch.” This joke relies on the notion that the receiver understands that “A man walks into a bar” is a common setup for a joke. Furthermore, the receiver should anticipate additional setup before the punch line is given. The humor comes when the receiver realizes that the meaning of “bar” has changed and the punch line just happened. If the receiver did not have the background in “A man walks into a bar” jokes, then the subversive nature of the joke is lost and so is its meaning. The shared context is crucial.
Citizens of Earth never establishes context. The background, what little exists, is generic American town with nothing to define it. This may seem like a shared context, and it is, but it’s not a very deep one. To achieve its generalizability, this context sacrifices nuance and greater meaning for fear of including something unfamiliar to its broad audience. As a result, there is very little for the developers to explore that doesn’t violate the mission of generalizable humor. The jokes must draw on a shallow pool that has, unfortunately for CoE, already been thoroughly explored. Consider the most prominent joke of the game: the arrogant, out-of-touch main character. Calling a politician distant and silly is about as common a joke as you will find. It’s used so often that it has entered the world of stereotype. If there were more too Citizens of Earth, then maybe this could be built on, but there isn’t. The context is just too shallow to explore the concept further. The Vice President is yet another stupid politician. Move on to the next tired joke.
The problem with humor on demand is that requires the comedian to create a shared context out of thin air and often with a short time limit. When the comedian hasn’t had time to create that context, they must rely on broadly relatable tropes that only allow for tired standbys or risk delivering a joke that the receiver lacks the context to enjoy. When attempting humor, video games need to recognize the importance of taking their time and setting up situations with the player’s buy in. Humor without time to develop is just confusing or, even worse, bland.