Yesterday I finished the adventure game “Simon the Sorcerer – Wer will schon Kontakt?!” (=Who’d even want contact?!). The week before it was “Ceville”, both from Germany. The latter one, together with “The Book of Unwritten Tales” (which I played some time ago) were considered to be surprisingly good games. This could be true in terms of puzzles and some gameplay mechanics. Even though the idea of switching between different characters is nothing new (even in the old Lucas Arts-era you had this element) and some puzzles are not so unique and the stories and characters are not much out of the ordinary, what really bothered me was the humor. Or the lack of humor.
Humor is a very subjective thing, and it’s hard to describe why you laugh about something and why not. In the case of the aforementioned games, I just didn’t find them funny, neither the slapstick, characters nor dialogues. I have to admit I expected less from the new Simon game, as the first German outing “Chaos ist das halbe Leben” (=Chaos Happens) was less than average in terms of jokes. So let’s take this as an example: On the one hand you have the original three games from the UK with the very British sense of humor. They may be a bit immature with some characters, voice acting and overall story, but at least the jokes WORKED and they didn’t feel forced on the player. In the case of the German games, the adventures try desperately to make fun of German traits like bureaucracy, politics, TV etc. Of course it’s legitimate to use these references rather than using names and events from other countries. Still these games seem to miss the point of what is meant to be fun.
Again it’s hard to say what is meant by “fun”. Fun could be anything, be it word plays, comic situations, characters’ behavior. It may sound old, but saying “the old classics were better” rings so true. Why do LucasArts adventures like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max and others still appeal to the current generation? Because they got the timing right, they got the characters right, they didn’t have to rely on old references and jokes all the time. It seems as if today’s comic adventures, especially but not exclusively from Germany, try to imitate the old forms without trying anything new. Or if they try something modern, the subtleties are lost and replaced by tabloid humor.
There are of course other examples of games outside of Germany which face the same problems: “A Vampyre Story”, “Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island” and “So Blonde” (to name but a few) show their lack of a genuine sense of humor because they again try to rely too much on their graphics harking back to the late 90ies, but having stale word plays and uninteresting stories and characters (the one more than the other). Maybe it has to do with the demographic? Do people really prefer this kind of humor which is not funny? It’s the same with comedians, at least in Germany. They adapt to the current trends of making fun of particular cultural or political phenomena, but they lose their relevance in the process.
So what makes a good game fun? Or simply: What games make me actually laugh? There are some good examples, but most are found in the indie scene where small developers don’t try to follow a certain trend. Like “Ben There Dan That” which has a pretty crude and rude humor, especially with the sequel “Time Gentlemen Please!” in which you get Hitler and dinosaurs in the future. How cool is that?! Or you have the Telltale Games. Even if you don’t like the recycling of locations and characters, the lines are spot-on. They have a fluidity that so many (German) games lack, because they try to do something more original with crazy ideas. Just the thought of having a therapy-group of old-school videogame consoles, a phone and an arcade box is pure genius.
Okay, so after all this bragging about the German humor industry (if there is a thing like that), aren’t there any positive examples? “Edna bricht aus” (=Edna Escapes) and to a lesser extent “The Whispered World” have an interesting approach. I’d prefer the former to the latter in that “Edna” tells a more mature story with flashbacks to the past which are intricately linked to the gameplay. But what is even more important is the cast of characters. There are so many whacky people in the asylum Edna finds herself in that it feels natural the way they talk and behave so that the humor never feels childish. “The Whispered World” is an altogether different beast of comic entertainment, because the humor relies heavily on a character who is weary of the world and expresses himself with depressing comments. Still I found him more likeable than all the “funny” characters in other modern comic adventures put together who try in vain to pull your leg… but the only thing they pull is my leg of impatience which soon comes off…