Amidst all of brain-beguiling first person puzzler Portal 2’s many achievements, the greatest is perhaps that the game manages to be so damn funny. My playthrough of Valve’s 2011 masterpiece was rudely interrupted by some misguide hoodlums recently, so I’ve yet to see the end of the game, but what I had seen frequently brought me out in fits of convulsive laughter. This is in no small part due to the excellent vocal performance from Stephen Merchant, who brings an impeccable sense of comic timing to the bumbling chatterbot Wheatley, as well as from the welcome return of Ellen McLain as the sardonic, acerbic, vengeful GLaDOS.
Portal 2 is in fact an excellent example of the magic you get when great writing is given the privilege of great performance. The dialogue from Jay Pinkerton, Erik Wolpaw, and Chet Faliszek is sharp, punchy and peppered with the kind of zingy one-liners that make you splurt juice from your mouth mid-gulp because they’re so funny. In the mouths of McLain and Merchant, these lines gain an added dimension that means you rarely go through a level without having at least one genuine, hearty chuckle.
The gaming generation finally gets its Laurel & Hardy.
Humour is something that games seem to be attempting less and less these days, unless you count the infantile belches of games like Bulletstorm or the bleakly comic nihilism of the Grand Theft Auto series. Borderlands was a game that made me laugh, largely because Its tongue was placed knowingly in cheek, and the sequel looks like it’s retained that humorous tone. Apart from that, it’s hard to think of many games that have even attempted to be funny over the past few years.
Why so serious? Probably because getting laughs in a game usually requires hiring a writer, and for some reason that’s still not as much of a prerequisite as you’d expect in the industry. The Portal series are noted for employing actual writers to work on their games, often working closely with the gameplay developers, which seems to me integral if you’re trying to make a funny game. Comedy is largely about timing, and the level designers and gameplay testers will largely be responsible for pacing. This close working relationship between development team and writing team really shows in Portal 2, because sections of levels often feel like setups for jokes, build ups towards those moments when GLaDOS’ voice chirps robotically over the intercom and lays down another wry punchline. There is an excellent moment where you repeatedly bounce up and down through a hole in the high ceiling, and each time your head pokes through the hole at the apex of the bounce, Wheatley starts excitedly nattering about being attacked by a bird. As you fall down to the ground his voice trails off, but when you bounce back up again he’s much further through the story, clearly unaware that you are disappearing for large sections of his animated anecdote. It’s hard for me describe how that moment displays such a sublime melding of writing and design, so I’ll just say that I cried with laughter. Which is kind of true.
Portal 2 also graduated from the Fallout School of Comedy Signage.
To look for games as funny as Portal 2, you have to make a trip back to the sepia-tinged halcyon days when point-and-click games ruled the Earth. LucasArts held the comedy crown in those days; between the jauntily quick-witted whimsy of the Monkey Island games and the trippily surreal absurdist comedy of Sam & Max Hit The Road or Day of the Tentacle, LucasArts had the funny business on lockdown. One of the reasons these games were so funny was because they had insanely inventive (as in, the inventions of an insane person) premises that left plenty of scope for gags. The Monkey Island games are about a painfully inept wannabe pirate who gets locked in a battle with an undead Voodoo Pirate Captain. Sam & Max is about a dog and a psychotic rabbit working as private eyes. Day of the Tentacle is about a group of misfits who travel through time in interdimensional portaloos to stop a sentient mutated tentacle from taking over the world. I would love to meet the kind of people who can come up with these premises; working for LucasArts in the 90s must have been like going into a circus every morning.
It is probably easier for adventure games to be funnier than games in other genres because of their leisurely pace – you never have to kill anyone in any of the games I’ve just mentioned, nor can you ever die yourself. With the risk taken out like that, there’s more room for humour, and not having to murder anyone means that the games focus more on chatting to people and learning what they know. Usually all the conversations you have with people are just excuses for funny dialogue, but I’m totally fine with that, especially when that dialogue is written with the flair and wit of people like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert. Like Portal 2, these games elevated great writing with great vocal performances: Dominic Armato’s cheerfully inane Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games is an old favourite, and Denny Delk’s disembodied skull Murray is a creation of comic genius we rarely see in videogames.
Speaking of skulls, and their occasional removal from bodies, not having to murder anyone probably helped to make these games funny. It’s harder for a game to crack a joke after you’ve killed a truckload of people, stumbling through a room of corpses makes comedy a little harder to swallow. The Hitman series is a rare exception to this rule, and the games often found humour in presenting you with darkly comic ways to carry out your murders. There’s a level in Hitman: Blood Money in which you can dress up as a clown to infiltrate a birthday party and murder the host, which displays the kind of bleakly funny sensibility you might find in a Coen Brothers film.
I’m not saying that games are funnier if you don’t have to kill everything that moves, but it certainly helps if the game is aiming to get some laughs. Portal 2 has the pacifist streak of adventure games running through it, and that’s probably what allows it to be so funny. So maybe gaming should set aside its combat gear and power armour every now and again to indulge in the occasional comic jaunt. God knows gamers could do with some cheering up; current release schedules are so humourless it’s like a My Chemical Romance concert out there. Maybe if every now and then we had a game that attempted to be charming and funny instead of psychotic and murderous, we might be a little less depressed all the time.
Cheer up, emu kid.