Editorial: Levity

Off course.
A good example of comedy – intentional or not – stolen from Lusipurr.

I hope all the LusiJobs are enjoying the official Lusipurr.com “Dear Friends: A Final Fantasy V Playthrough” so far. Final Fantasy V was always a game that I represented as a favourite without really having the cred to do so. When I tried to go back and play earlier Final Fantasy games that I had been too young or too console-less to play when they were first released, I found many of them lacking that special something that made me connect so quickly to my dear Final Fantasy VII and IX. When I played Final Fantasy V for the first time, my first impression was that I was finally playing a game in the same spiritual vein as those two PSX delights. There was a sense of fun alongside the epic tale of a dying world and teenaged Ethos also loved that Bartz’ attraction to Reina was mentioned off the top (I also like girls! If she likes Bartz maybe girls will like me too!)

But I do not want to talk too much about Final Fantasy V specifically here and how and if and to what degree my views have changed (the place for that is the official comment thread!), but this example does highlight something that I still believe about gaming and story-telling in general, and that is to tell a successful story, there must be successful moments of levity.

Comedy is difficult because it can be so context-dependent on content, perceptions of the audience, and both the geographical and historical location of the joke and audience. Personally, I find that the best comedy comes from good authentic characters authentically clashing with each other. This is something that B.J. Novak alluded to in an interview when he talked about writing for The Office. He essentially says that the most important factor in writing a funny scene was for all the characters to behave like themselves. The audience must sympathize, or understand the position of all characters involved and therefore understand the discrepancy from a position that the characters often cannot themselves.

Video games often have a problem creating authentic characters and with maintaining a macro view when writing the plentiful smaller scenes that most games feel they require. Therefore I find that many video game “jokes” come from what the writers assume the player is feeling in the moment rather than placing their faith first in strong character work. It takes skill to patiently develop authentic characters, and then to put those characters into situations that are neither contrived nor trite.

I spent too long unlocking the extra bits in this scene.
They have a job to do, but they can still have fun while they do it.

One of the most successful examples of levity in gaming comes from Final Fantasy IX. No character in that game is a clown for the sake of it. Sure, Steiner is too serious, but that is a reflection of his good qualities as well. Sure, Quina seems preposterous and even looks like a clown, but a lot of the humour surrounding him/her comes from the fact that there is not a lot of mutual understanding between her/him and the rest of the group. Every character has a place and is taken seriously, but these traits are often bounced off of very different characters who are also just acting like themselves and therefore the result is humourous to the audience even if it is not to the characters themselves.

Baku mispronouncing Professor Tot’s name is just Baku acting like Baku. Steiner digging himself into deeper and deeper holes because he cannot understand that Zidane is egging him on is just Steiner being Steiner. Put another way, Final Fantasy IX can laugh at its characters that it also clearly loves, even if the characters themselves cannot. The game feels more well-rounded because it can laugh at itself and suddenly the serious elements have more weight because of it.

Good comedic moments are far fewer in a series like Zelda, but they happen for the same reasons. The Kikwi are generally sort of useless, but they mean well and act consistently, therefore the oblivious and huge king of the Kikwi is funny not only because of his opposite qualities, but in his stubborn and happy-go-lucky similarities that display themselves in humourous ways because of his physical and social differences. When Groose is stunned by the pure beauty of the world below, the music and solemness of the scene suggest that he is going to give the land its name of Hyrule, but of course he calls it Grooseland because he is still Groose.

The Uncharted series takes a slightly different route. Nathan Drake is supposed to – generally – reflect what the player is feeling and so after a dramatic or particularly epic scene, hearing the main character speak the player’s silent reaction out loud is a moment of cathartic relief. Nathan Drake is right there with the player, understanding that something serious does not have to only be serious.

I do not need a game to be a “comedy” per se, but I do think that a game needs some levity for it to be self-aware enough to do a good job at story-telling. But what do you all think, LusiLaughs? Are my examples any good? Am I making any sense? Say things!

3 comments

  1. Yes, I definitely read all of this and I have one thing to say: BUTZ LOL!

  2. “He essentially says that the most important factor in writing a funny scene was for all the characters to behave like themselves. The audience must sympathize, or understand the position of all characters involved and therefore understand the discrepancy from a position that the characters often cannot themselves.”

    This is largely true in what we might consider more ‘conventional’ comedy. But it is not necessarily true in absurdist, dadaist, or surrealist comedy, where the function is to shatter the audience’s conception of reality the moment they begin to feel that they have grasped it. But of course, those things (dadaism sometimes excepted) are less about levity (which I would consider to be a general light-heartedness and joviality), and more about shocking the viewer into laughing at the outrageous juxtaposition between reality and the object of absurdity which is being made to stand in for reality and to be treated like reality, often (although not always) with straight-faced seriousness by the players.

    (It’s BARTZ.)

    There are a few games where more avant-garde approaches to comedy have been deployed, and in fact there are a few such moments in Final Fantasy IX (the Crazy Old Man in Lindblum is one). But, by and large, whether it is because of the Japanese origin of western games, general disinterest on the part of devs or audiences, or because of some sort of difficulty inherent to the medium, video games generally eschew such modes of humour. I suspect all three of these potential impediments play a role, in descending order of effect.

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