Published Jun 21, 2008A Satirical Perspective Masks Social Commentary The modern videogame has jumped a long way from the days when Mario first dodged Donkey Kongs barrel barrage. We now have action games, sci-fi, horror even dating, medical and cooking games. Yet until recently, comedy games have remained relatively rare; satirical ones even more so.
Gamings geek origins are partly to blame. Perhaps this can be ascribed to the vestiges of playground taunts or because, until recently, geek culture has been so resoundingly mocked by the mainstream theres been a reticence towards self-satire. Games like Halo take themselves dead seriously and though Army of Two may be hilarious, its only because the machismo is so extreme it becomes unintentionally homoerotic. The other problem is that in dramas, nearly every beat propels the plot along, while humour can be an end unto itself and therefore easily excised from a game mostly concerned with moving the player from point A to point B.
But lately funny has been racking up frequent flyer miles with efforts like last falls surprisingly stellar Simpsons game, Suda51s gleefully savage No More Heroes, Penny Arcades On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness and, of course, Grand Theft Auto IV which furthers Rockstars legacy of social commentary. As writer-director (and in-game talk show host) Lazlow Jones told NPR: "[GTA IV] is a satire of not only New York, but of American consumerism and culture. While the media and politicians may get all a-flutter about GTAs violence, they rarely play the game and so miss its gleeful mockery of the media and politicians. Georgia Institute of Technology prof Ian Bogost wrote of the developers similarly satirical Bully: as with most of the Rockstar's titles, the best social commentary is ambient. In Grand Theft Auto, it was the hilariously satirical radio shows. In Bully, its the conversations among Bullworth students, which satirize the shallow nature of high school social roles. Advancing technology has allowed Rockstar to extend its satirical reach. They still savage conservative talk radio ("Teaching you how to be afraid, angry and eager to kill strangers) and national public radio ("Lulling you to sleep with liberal soft-pedalling). Their satire also permeates the streets, where the Starbucks-esque "Bean Machine boasts "All Beans Lovingly Picked by Children in Central America and where the Statue of Liberty is re-dubbed the Statue of Happiness, replacing its freedom torch with a coffee cup.
But now you can get online and scroll though hundreds of posts on CrapList ("Men of Arab descent with backpacks wanted for cruel practical joke) or chill in your crib watching the none-too-subtle Fox rip Weazel News with its terror-obsessed "furry and balanced coverage ("Liberty City is now officially on Charcoal 8 Alert, more serious than the Red High 7 Risk Alert, but not as serious as the recently created Black Severe 9 Alert.)
There are literally hours of television shows, ranging from the violently right-wing cartoon Republican Space Commandos to reality series Im Rich (featuring such expensive accoutrements as a toilet-installed TV for bulimics) and adverts for "America's Next Top Hooker. Then theres the educational doc on the history of Liberty City, beginning with the slaughter of the native population.
Even the main storyline involving Serbian illegal immigrant Niko is about more than committing crimes its really an indictment of the false promise of the "American Dream. Of course, sometimes GTA writers just like a good sex joke the internet cafés are called [email protected] and flying a helicopter over the golf courses reveal them to be penis-shaped.
Speaking of lowbrow humour, Mike "Gabe Krahulik and Jerry "Tycho Holkins, the creators of cult webcomic Penny Arcade love it as much as they loathe anti-gaming advocate Jack Thompson. Hence the inclusion of their comics Fruit Fucker robots in Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 1: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. As its title suggests, its a piss-take on the excesses of RPGs as well as a means of turning the game-related comic into a game itself, with such hardcore in-jokes as a hobo holding a sign reading "will deal damage for food. Though theres been some online criticism the game is merely an amusing parody (with a killer closing song, "Final Boss by MC Frontalot) that fails to capture the gloves-off industry coal-raking of the comic itself.
The Simpsons certainly pulled no punches in their first true game triumph. It not only devoted various levels to satirizing genres (Grand Theft Scratchy, Medal of Homer, etc) it also attacked videogame critics and even the makers of previous crappy Simpsons titles. That gameplay itself is only average pointing out game clichés doesnt make them less cliché but the humour makes it a joy to play.
Jokes also fuel the point-and-click throwback Sam & Max series as well as Tim Schaeffers awesome Psychonauts, which takes place at a psychic summer camp with each level occurring in a different counsellors mind. The humour oozes from the cheeky dialogue and sight gags one level, which takes place in a paranoiacs head, is a topsy-turvy suburb populated exclusively by suit-clad secret agents pretending to work road crew, mow lawns and bake cookies.
The most unexpectedly strong satire came from this years blood-soaked No More Heroes, which took on hardcore game geeks, clichéd plot twists, repetitive levels and the grind of open-world games (see: gas-pumping and garbage-collecting mini-games) as well as the industrys exuberant ultra-violence. Tarantino-esque creator Suda51 forces us to acknowledge the shallowness of modern game design, which almost always asks us to kill without motivation, especially after our antihero Travis Touchdown himself starts questioning the sense of it all. Taken together, these games signal an evolution of the art form. Designers have become confident enough to mock both their own industry and society at large while gamers can finally move beyond being Travis Touchdown, the mindless button-masher laying waste to hordes of red-shirts and the occasional "boss. These games aspire to make us think and as everyone from Jonathan Swift to Jon Stewart has taught us, there are few better ways to do so than by also making us laugh.