Friday, August 6, 2010

DeathSpank's Straight Man

Now that my PSN problems have subsided, I’ve been chuckling my way through DeathSpank. Whether or not one appreciates the humor (ironic comments about quest logs and unicorn poop jokes aren’t for everyone), it is still rare to see a game concentrate so heavily on comedy. Such a focus places the player in a strange position: the interactive nature of the medium means that the player assumes a dual role as a performer and audience member.

Because DeathSpank functions like a traditional hack and slash RPG on a mechanical level, the player assumes the role of the “straight man” in a comedy duo. It’s our job to play the game like we know a hack and slash RPG ought to be played: We dutifully equip armor, grind for abilities, and complete quests. In response, the game subverts these traditions by lampooning them or presenting us with outlandish tasks. Without the player filling the role as the earnest adventurer, there would be no comedic foil for the game’s jokes. In terms of game dynamics, DeathSpank is little more than a purple-thong-wearing Link. The player acts in a way that is considered “normal” in the context of the genre, while the world and its wacky inhabitants cause humorous mayhem through silliness and satire. In DeathSpank players channel Dean Martin while the story, surroundings, and NPCs act like Jerry Lewis:

The difficulty with using this comedy dynamic in a game is that the humor is both produced and consumed by the player. While it is clear that Martin and Lewis often had a good time joking around and ad-libbing, their routines were for the benefit of an audience. In DeathSpank, the player is tasked with tickling themselves by constructing jokes that are ultimately for their own amusement. Thus, some of the humor that would normally be derived from spontaneity is lost on the audience. Rather than simply anticipating jokes, the player enacts them, which makes any laughs the game can provide even more impressive.

DeathSpank routinely tests the player’s ability to split themselves between being an actor and an audience member. Much of the humor comes at the expense of the character DeathSpank, and by extension, the player. As is the case in many comedies, big laughs often stem from the foolishness or misfortune of others. For example, part of the joke of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first routine?” is that they are playing characters who grow increasingly annoyed with one another as the sketch progresses. Not only are we laughing at the linguistic silliness, we also are laughing at these the predicament in which these two jokers find themselves.

Because the player is both the creator and consumer of the game’s comedy, DeathSpank often forces me to execute jokes in which I am the object of ridicule. When DeathSpank tries to rescue the orphan, the humor is working on several levels, most of which are having fun at my expense.

In a normal game, rescuing a person from demons would result in their gratitude. Instead, the orphan turns out to be a spoiled brat who commands DeathSpank perform a series of quests before she joins him. Rather than providing closure, the end of each quest gives rise to a new one. The orphan demands a lollipop before joining DeathSpank. After the lollipop is secured, she demands a pony. Once the pony is secured, she demands DeathSpank act as a surrogate father and take her through a montage of wholesome father-daughter fun. Every time I try to talk her into leaving via dialogue options, I am rewarded by another stupid fetch quest. If I were watching some rube play through this sequence, I’d probably be dying of laughter, but it’s a bit harder to smile when I’m the rube!

DeathSpank strikes a delicate balance: The game swings back and forth from laughing with the player to laughing at them. The line between performer and audience is a thin one, and it can even change based on how many people happen to be watching the game at a given time. At one point when Hanah was in the room, I got into an insult contest with the aforementioned orphan that quickly degenerated into a long string of “I know you are, but what am I?” retorts. While it was tedious choosing the same dialogue option approximately ten times in a row, I had become the entertainer again. I was putting on a show for someone else, creating a piece of humor with the game as my partner. Ultimately, the entire act looped back around and the joke became about how long Hanah would put up with my idiotic dedication to the bit.

Comedy is difficult, and the cognitive dissonance that games like DeathSpank require makes things even harder. I think DeathSpank is hilarious, but it also illustrates the complexity of making funny in games. Because of their participatory nature, games invite those looking for a laugh to take part in creating one for themselves. A joke that comes across as hilarious and unexpected to an audience member feels different to those performing it. Additionally, it is much easier to laugh at the incompetence or bemusement of a hapless straight man when you aren’t the butt of the joke.

However, what may seem like a practical joke on the player quickly becomes a piece of two-man stand up when another person walks into the room and unwittingly assumes the role of the audience. The player and their relative normalcy is an integral part of DeathSpank’s comedy act. Armor like the “Epic Chest of Awesomeness,” with its description, “Unimaginable yet oddly specific power is contained within,” is funny because the player is hewing to old habits and expectations learned from traditional, straight-faced RPGs in which the armor’s name would match the serious tone of the story and action. When the player acts as the straight man, DeathSpank’s puns and absurdities achieve the juxtaposition that makes them them funny. Without a player who is flexible enough to act as an audience and an entertainer, DeathSpank’s poop jokes wouldn’t have a punch line. And as we all know, a poop joke without a punch line just stinks.

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