On Comedy and Feeling

Jimmy Maher’s most recent SPAG editorial contains the paragraph:

Some of us who are very, very good are writing games like the generally acknowledged best game of 2007: Lost Pig. On the one hand, Lost Pig is nothing to disparage. It’s hilarious; it’s great fun; it’s honed and polished to the most beautiful shine… And yet, on the other hand, it disturbs me just a bit that, after twelve months and dozens if not hundreds of game releases, a game about a cartoon-style orc with pidgin English skills trying to recover a pig was the pinnancle of our achievements. Best comedy (if such a category existed)? Sure. Best game? That concerns me a bit. It’s not that the XYZZY voters were wrong. Lost Pig probably was the best game of 2007. But why was it the best game? Where are the IF games that, to paraphrase a famous old Electronic Arts ad, make us cry?

I disagree with the sentiment that comedy is a second-class form, with less potential to be Real Literature. Aristophanes’s work is art; A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not meaningless or powerless because it ends in a wedding instead of a slaughter. (This prejudice among IFers has been manifest for a long time now — I glancingly mention it in a review of To Hell in a Hamper back in 2004 — and it reflects a wider cultural trend. Comedies seldom win Best Picture.)

In addition, I think the metric of how a game makes us feel needs to be treated with caution. While I like and admire good comedy, I’ve also laughed at movies that I thought were complete trash. Likewise, the ability to evoke tears may be valued by audiences, but it isn’t, in itself, a guarantee of either depth or literary quality. I’ve felt tears well up over news reports; over schlock children’s movies; even, occasionally, over well-constructed ads. It’s possible to sit there with tears in my eyes even at the same moment I’m furious that the journalists have been so crass as to interview the parents of a murdered child and ask how it feels.

Now it’s not surprising that this question of evoking tears gets a lot of attention, not just from us but from critics of commercial game design as well, because emotional resonance is important, and it is traditionally harder to achieve with games than with other media. I don’t think this means games are structurally inferior for producing these feelings or that no one is seriously trying to tell powerful stories or that all expression in the industry is stifled by corporate hacks. I think it is mostly because of the youth of games, and the relative lack of conventions for representing subjective experience. A year ago, I made a sweeping off-the-cuff statement on RAIF, but I still agree with it:

The handling [of] emotive and subjective content differs more from medium to medium than the handling of objective realities.

My argument was, essentially, that most mature media — film, musicals, novels — have a heap of unique-to-the-medium conventions for communicating the feelings and internal realities of the protagonists. I can’t speak for everyone else, but it’s these moments of connection that most often make me cry, if anything does. But many of these work precisely because they are conventions, because the audience has learned the language.

To a limited degree, IF has more access to the conventions of the novel (and less access to the conventions of the movie) than other forms of game. But just as movie conventions have not wholly succeeded for video games, neither do the tricks of conventional literary writing entirely work for interactive fiction. A cutscene of action is bad enough. How many players will sit still for a cutscene of non-interactive internal monologue? So we need other methods more suited to an interactive medium. And despite the decrying of “formal experimentation” as a dry and academic process, it is often by departing from their normal formal behavior that media communicate with greatest intensity: through fragmentation of sequence (like the movie montage), through stylization and elevation of language (like certain passages of Shakespeare), through a shift of register from speech to music (like the songs in musicals).

Instructions to, e.g., lay obsession with craft and experimentation aside and write from the heart don’t address the problem, or it would have been solved by now. Art has more to do with craft and form and context than any romantic would like to admit, and some of the most frankly “from the heart” IF is also the most flat-out awful. (Try “On Optimism” or “A Moment of Hope” or “Solitary” sometime.) What we need is to discover how, in the language of IF form, to express those sensations that sometimes elude us: shock, grief, triumph, joy. We’ve made progress on a few of them — disorientation is sometimes signaled by text with a lot of hit-any-key-to-continue pauses, to indicate discontinuity of perception — but there is more for authors to find, and for players to grow comfortable with.

In the meantime, feeling is tricky, and it may seem easier to tell jokes in a game than to make people feel strong negative emotions. Perhaps that affects what we’re willing to admire in games.

Comedy is still not at all an easy thing to do well, though, nor is it ineligible to be art. Emotional resonance makes the audience pay attention. It does not necessarily give them anything to take away and think about, and this too is required. Art needs substance.

And here, for all its silly premise, Lost Pig does have something to say: it is about the value of civility.

[Warning: From here on it is possible that I will spoil a few features of the game for the people who haven’t played this yet.]

To resume: The contact between Grunk and the gnome, and the gnome’s story, are the core of the game. Grunk’s (justly) much-discussed characterization is not just an ornament; it is also required so that he can be a foil to the gnome. On each side there is a sense that other characters have treated them rudely and inconsiderately — Grunk’s boss doesn’t sound like a very patient fellow, and the gnome is clear about what sorts of folks have come down to the shrine in the past — and this has isolated them and made them withdraw from the world. But to each other they are decent. Confronted with a physical weakling, Grunk is not violent or abusive; confronted with an intellectual inferior, the gnome is patient and engaging. Both come away better because of it. If you have any doubt that this is the real subject of the game, remember how you got the seventh point.

It is not, therefore, a game which plumbs a controversial ethical issue, but it is also not wholly insubstantial. It is comedy of manners, like Austen or the better work of Wodehouse: domestic, charming, apparently effortless, but concerned with the stuff that keeps humanity together.

I do think we could be doing a better job of talking about the content of IF rather than its form alone; but that may be a matter for another time. (Though, on that note, I am obliged to Victor Gijsbers for his thoughtful critique of Metamorphoses in the SPAG Specifics section.)

7 thoughts on “On Comedy and Feeling”

  1. Hi, Emily…

    Thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful response. As you may have surmised, the editorial was to some extent intended as a provocation, to get people talking or at least thinking about how to take IF to (to use a hopelessly muddle-headed term) some sort of “next level” of storytelling. I really, really didn’t want to demean the very real achievement of Lost Pig, however. I hope most readers will see through to my larger point (even if they disagree with it), and not take the editorial as sour grapes toward a really impressive game.

    You have a lot to say, all of it well-considered as usual. I’m just going to talk about a couple of things right now. Perhaps more later.

    Regarding comedy being considered a “lower” form: I’m sympathetic to your point to some extent, having argued for years that schoolchildren should read more of Shakespeare’s comedies so as to avoid the impression that the greatest writer in English of all time was nothing but doom and gloom and stages left strewn with bodies. While I love Midsummer and Much Ado and Twelfth Night, however, I also think, conventionally enough, that Shakespeare’s greatest works are the Four Great Tragedies. That may say something about the relative values of the forms, or it may not — maybe Shakespeare was just a little bit better at tragedy than comedy.

    I also think we have to be careful in how we use these terms, particularly if we are going to be drawn into asking whether one is inherently “better” than another. You come from a classical studies background I believe, and I come from a literary background; thus when we slip on our scholars’ hats to talk about tragedy and comedy, we may be using those terms a little differently than the average XYZZY voter. Merchant of Venice and The Tempest were after all considered comedies in Shakespeare’s time by simple virtue of having (poor Shylock aside) happy endings. In the context of a hypothetical XYZZY comedy category, the term comedy of course simply means something light and funny (not that even this form of comedy can’t say something about the proverbial human condition).

    I do think there is too much “cheap” comedy in IF, and that it does devalue the form to some extent and at least has the potential to hold it back. By cheap comedy, I mean the jokes telling us that, hey, this is only a silly computer game. Instead of reworking an absurd, jarring puzzle, we just insert a joke about adventure games, and break down mimesis even further. It’s an easy out, a way to AVOID really grappling with our current storytelling and design limitations and trying to get past them. Lost Pig wasn’t actually a huge offender here, but some of my favorite games of 2007 were, such as The Chinese Room and particularly Tales of a Slaver’s Kingdom — which was nothing but an extended joke of this nature. So… even as I paradoxically enjoy the irony and the retro-fun in many individual instances, I wish there wasn’t quite so much of it out there. I wish there were more attempts to really immerse the player and tell a believable story.

    As you said, “it is sometimes easier to tell jokes.” I wish we would not take the easy way quite so often as we do.

    Regarding “dry and academic” formal experimentation: I understand that this experimentation is necessary. We saw a lot of it from roughly 1995 to 2000, as authors were trying to figure out just what we might do with IF if we weren’t trapped into writing conventional puzzly adventure games, as we had been during the commercial era. Game after game tried something formally new, among them Photopia and your own Galatea. I think we’ve seen a dramatic slowdown in the appearance of formally new approaches to IF since, however, simply because we are running out of new gimmicks (and I don’t really mean that perjoratively) to try out. We’re at a point now where I think we should be marrying this toolbox of formal techniques with compelling narrative content to create a more balanced whole. To some extent, that’s happening, of course. But I’m impatient. :)

    One thing I hear over and over not just in IF criticism but in interactive media criticism in general is how “young” the form is, how we have so much to learn and shouldn’t expect too much. To some extent that’s true, but we shouldn’t get too complacent that we’ll sort it all out eventually as we wait around for our Citizen Kane to come one of these decades. We’re over thirty years on from Adventure; maybe the time for our Citizen Kane is NOW, and maybe it’s up to us to do it.

  2. No, I’m really not arguing for complacency!

    Part of the reason for my recent focus on outreach is that we need more games by more authors — not more of any one specific kind of game, but more of all kinds — and the author base may grow as the player base does. (Somewhere five or eight years ago I’m on record saying I’m not too worried about expanding the IF community. At the time, I felt that we still had a lot to say to one another, and that the relatively isolation in which the form was developing actually produced unusual focus on innovation. But things have changed.)

    But something I sometimes see (not necessarily in your editorial, but in pieces with a similar thrust and a bit less nuance) is an implication that the things that are currently missing can be achieved simply through a change of intention; whereas I think that any substantive improvement in the expressiveness of IF is still going to require a certain amount of design innovation.

    I do agree with you that a fair amount of what I see done in the ELO sphere seems disappointingly thin-blooded, from my perspective; experimentation purely for experiment’s sake, with no interest in how this could help us communicate better the sorts of things that we actually want to communicate. So in that sense what you said resonated quite a bit.

    But still… for example, I also wish that Galatea had more grandchildren in modern NPC design, but I can also understand why she doesn’t, and it’s only partly about the challenge of building a conversation system or creating the content to fill it out. After all, modern IF systems have an increasing number of libraries designed to support the UI features of (or better than) Galatea, which puts the creation side in easier reach. And there have been a range of conversation-specific games that have done interesting things, as well as heavy conversation in some of Eric Eve’s work. (I keep meaning to play Weishaupt Scholars, too, because I had the impression it does a fair amount with NPCs.)

    At the same time, the existing libraries do not solve the underlying design challenges that come with deeper NPC implementation, especially in a long-form game. Where Galatea fails for people, it’s often because they see her as a puzzle-box, or because they want a longer story with more context.

    On the other hand, if you have a game with a real plot arc, you *cannot* write the character in the same way that Galatea is written. It’s not feasible to let the conversation go anywhere and everywhere, in any and all scenes. So how where do you draw the line about what you will and won’t implement? Evaine, in City of Secrets, has on her own more conversation options than Galatea does, but no one sees her as an equally deep character; some of that I’d put down to the writing and plot development, but some of it is because the freedom of the interaction has had to be constrained.

    Then there are issues of pacing, which become more serious the longer and more conversational your game is. If you’re writing a long-form puzzleless plot-heavy game which mostly consists of one conversation scene after another, gameplay can become extremely stolid. One starts to long for some variety of action: other things to do than pick conversation choices, some alternation between high-content and low-content moves, and so on. Okay, you might think, in that case, why not add some more physical interaction with the setting? But physical manipulation puzzles aren’t really suitable to this kind of work; even exploration, especially compass-driven exploration, can feel a little out of key with the rest.

    This is something I’ve noticed with Eric’s more ambitious conversation-and-puzzle games, in fact: he has quite reasonably decided that it’s necessary (e.g. in Elysium Enigma) to include some very branching conversation sequences, but also some exploration and some old-fashioned puzzles. And the piece really does need something to break up the potential monotony of pure conversation and to engage the player with the physical setting as well, but what he in fact has there seems like an uncomfortable hybrid, because the puzzles do not fit the mood of the conversation.

    But what do we put into our potentially rich NPCs-and-plot game as leavening instead? Or, to come at this another way, if our game is about relationships between characters and about dilemmas that they face, what other forms of IF-suitable interaction can we use to convey character and emotion to the player? Reading diary entries is classic but very limited, and it doesn’t go very far if what you want is to *break up* the dense-text portions of the game with something lighter.

    And it is in thinking about this kind of problem that I find myself faced with the need for more formal innovation after all.

  3. Rather than a hypothetical “Best Comedy” category, wouldn’t it make more sense to institute a “Most Fun” category — to balance out the existing categories that lean towards the other end of the infamous narratological/ludological dichotomy that doesn’t exist? “Best use of medium” doesn’t quite cover the same ground.

    When seen within the context of Elizabethan England, Shylock’s fate — watching his daughter falling in love with a Christian, and being released from his bond on the condition that he convert — was actually part of the “happy ending” that made the play a comedy. However, Shakespeare’s art — even in this comedy — was such that he put enough humanity in the comic villian Shylock that, 400 years later, the same work can be played as Shylock’s tragedy.

    Which is all a regrettably pedantic way of suggesting that Shakespeare challenging the supposition that Shakespeare was a better tragic author than a comic author. I truth, I think the tragedies *read* better (as stand-alone works of literature), so that when we study them in literature classes, we have more to say about them.

    Citizen Kane wasn’t recognized as a classic until about 15 or 20 years after it was released, so our cyberbard may already be among us.

    I don’t say this to discourage authors, but rather to encourage the critics and metacontent curators, whose work is at least as important in the establishment of taste, canon, convention, etc. And a meaty discussion on the function and nature of comedy in IF is just the sort of thing that critics can offer the IF community.

  4. I don’t like comedy but I found Lost Pig to be lovingly crafted, with plenty of attention to detail and with good writing. I just started playing it yesterday and I’m almost through.

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