Comedy has been around in gaming for a long time. From the perhaps-unintentionally comical deaths in Super Mario Bros. to the bathroom humor of Saints Row and beyond, writers and developers in the gaming industry never skip a good opportunity to give gamers a good laugh.
But are the games in question genuinely funny? Or are they just offering awkward, light-hearted moments?
Unfortunately, while video games often try to insert humor into their gameplay, plotlines, etc., it often comes off as forced and, frankly, unfunny. Developers seemingly try to replicate the experience of seeing a movie, TV show, or play by adding the frequent element of humor even seen in the most dramatic of movies and television, including Breaking Bad, The Wire, and countless more examples. Whether it's due to unconvincing animations or just plain awkward writing, gaming has yet to learn the trick of flawlessly integrating comedy.
Take Portal 2, for example. Portal 2's gameplay was very exceptional and the puzzles were exceptionally crafted. The humor in it, however, is another matter. While some of the characters seemed to be there for comedic relief, that "relief" was often unfunny and quite forced.
The Borderlands series is similar in design. Its humor is nearly renowned for being forced and unclever. There are undeniably zany characters who spew ridiculous dialogue, but the game ends up seeming more eclectic and less a product for comedic entertainment. More often than not, it's the concept of there being an astronomical number of guns that is funny to the player.
The Saints Row series performs decently at humor. The games' stories are so wild that many of their biggest moments are hilarious in and of themselves. For example, the very premise of Saints Row IV placing you in the role of President of the United States is gut-wrenchingly funny. Furthermore, their voyage to Mars at the end of Saints Row: The Third is so crazy, even compared to the rest of the gaming, that it nearly requires a laugh or two. Yet the overuse of bathroom humor and forced jokes often removes the player from the experience.
Occasionally, there is a game that absolutely nails comedy. For instance, The Stanley Parable was a fantastic example of a title that implements humor perfectly. A game with many branching paths, The Stanley Parable is narrated hilariously and often throws players for a loop in various moments throughout. It's an incredibly short game, despite its many paths, but a fantastically necessary one for any gamer looking for a genuine laugh.
How can the gaming industry do better with humor, though? With series like Borderlands, it often feels like the writers start with the jokes and construct a story around it or, at the very least, foster a story with a constant question of "where is the joke?" This is obviously a bad methodology if one wants to avoid the sound of crickets chirping. Rather, in the vein of dark humor, which Borderlands and Saints Row frequently implement, developers need not look much further than Grand Theft Auto.
This is, too, a game that breaks the suspension of disbelief. However, it often works in its favor, as characters like Trevor, Michael, and Franklin are often unusual enough to give gamers a good laugh. Further, they are each protagonists of the game and, with the exception of Trevor, they each play the "straight man." This means that they, more often than not, react to the hilarity that ensues around them, and they generally don't crack wise all too often themselves. That can get old.
The same goes for Mass Effect. While Shepard was known to crack a joke here and there, he was often not the focus of comedic relief. Rather, that role belonged to Joker and a number of other supporting characters.
As such, as long as humor comes naturally throughout the writing and development of a game, then the comedy itself will likely turn out more effectively. When the player character insists on making forced jokes at every possible turn, it gets old and prompts many an eyeroll. If developers can manage to avoid this sort humor, then it will likely lead to more hilarious experiences to crop up organically.