Friday, July 16, 2010

I Know You Are But What Am I

Videogames don't have to be funny. They don't even have to be fun. They can be difficult, they can be stressful; they can be epic, they can be cathartic. They can be terrifying. They can be intellectually engaging or compulsively playable; they can make us look forward to and dread playing them in equal measure. But they can also be funny, and they can also be fun.

DeathSpank is really, really funny. It's also fun. In fact, I'll go so far as to say it's the most purely enjoyable gaming experience I've had in recent memory.

That's just me, of course - I like funny things. I like wordplay, I like puns; I like when humor is so well-done that my laughter is half out of admiration for those who wrote it. Of my favorite games of all time, most are funny - Portal, Grim Fandango, Bully, The Secret of Monkey Island, No One Lives Forever 1 & 2.

But for some reason, these days I own almost no funny games. I can't speak as to why that is (though to his erudite, theatre-understandin' credit, Michael Abbott actually can) but there ya go. A quick inventory of the games on my shelf (most released within the last three years) leaves me feeling a bit sad about it, frankly. Some of the games have amusing bits, but most are simply not funny at all. Mirror's Edge, The Force Unleashed, Left 4 Dead 2, Oblivion, Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 2, Final Fantasy XIII, Metal Gear Solid 4, God of War III, Alone in the Dark: Inferno... the only game I own that could truly be called a comedy is Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time. Perhaps that's why I've been playing DeathSpank with such gleeful gusto, why I've been enjoying it as much as I have been. I've been starved for laughs.

A little background on DeathSpank for those who haven't played it - it was written by Ron Gilbert, the man behind the first two Monkey Island games (his media-name might as well be "Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame") and pretty much one of the funniest dudes in gaming history. It was designed by Hothead Games, for whom the very cool Nels Anderson is a gameplay programmer. (Salsa-related disclosure: I like Nels a lot and I got to eat a burrito with him at GDC this year.)

The game plays like an unabashed Diablo clone - simple but gratifying, easy to pick up and play but also deep enough to remain engaging for long play sessions. Gameplay mostly involves blasting enemies with a combination of ranged and melee attacks, then vacuuming up the absurd amounts of loot that litter the battlefield. The story revolves around a purposefully pointless MacGuffin called The Artifact, the pursuit of which leads the titular hero DeathSpank through various dungeons, graveyards, forests and swamp pits, fighting gradually leveling enemies while acquiring vast stores of trinkets, armor and weapons. Combined with all the hackin' and slashin' are some light adventure game elements, with selectable dialogue options in conversation and some hilariously obtuse fetch-quests. (The retired adventurer wants a spicy taco, but Tina the Taco Wench won't serve spicy tacos after "the incident." What am I to do?)

It really is an almost perfect blend of Diablo and Monkey Island, but it also feels like its own game. The main reason for that is the game's look, which is highly stylized, drenched in vibrant color and placed on a sprawling map that feels like a pop-up book stretched over a small globe. Its spherical nature is really cool - as DeathSpank jaunts from place to place, the world slowly but perceptibly rotates as new environments trundle up on the horizon. It lends things a feeling of constant motion and makes the world feel more three-dimensional than most "realistic" AAA-games I've played lately. The world of DeathSpank feels like a diorama brought to life, in ways even more than LittleBigPlanet.

But at the heart of DeathSpank is Gilbert's writing, which is both ridiculously funny and spectacularly deep. Nearly every joke works for me, and there are so many of them... every menu, inventory item, character name, enemy name, weapon name, weapon description, map location, dialogue option, quest log entry... truly, every single thing in the game contains a gag or a riff. DeathSpank's voice-actor Michael Dobson brings this hilariously overwrought enthusiasm to his line deliveries, announcing each one with with an air of enthusiastic double-entendre. "I'll grab your tacklebox with ease, Fisher-man."

The last piece of writing I enjoyed to this degree was Michael Chabon's brain-splittingly wonderful book The Yiddish Policemen's Union. As I read it, I was regularly taken aback by the density of its style and humor, by the sheer verve of the thing. I wrote a similar post to this one about that book, actually.

And after I raged about its awesomeness to all of my friends, some of them read it, and I got surprisingly negative feedback. They didn't love it, were "meh" on it, or couldn't even finish. And it stung me a bit, though it was also a reminder that taste isn't universal, that something that I think is impossibly brilliant might simply not be for everyone. In fact, the aspects I find to be so amazing are often the very aspects that turn other people off.

So I feel a little bit protective of DeathSpank, and my profound enjoyment of the game leaves me feeling weirdly hesitant about my endorsement. I'm sure there are people out there who will hate it. Plenty of folks don't want to play funny games, or don't like it when writers go out of their way to "try" to be funny. And that's cool, but I never like it when my critique of something is so wrapped up in my basic aesthetic values that it is impossible to have a real discussion about it. You either think this game is funny, or you do not. We can try to talk about what works and doesn't work, but in the end we're just pirouetting about domes and buttresses.

So if you like funny games, you'll like this funny game. If you downloaded Monkey Island 2: Special Edition on day one last week, if you did a happy jig after hearing the news that Tim Schafer's Double Fine studio is working on not one but four new games... well, I'm betting that DeathSpank is for you. Actually, if the above things are true, you probably already own it. And if you're on the fence, I really do recommend that you at least download the demo off of PSN or XBLA and give it a whirl.

I hope that Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer make a hundred more games each, but I also hope that we can get some new blood going in the world of comedy gaming. The fact that the two guys who made Monkey Island in 1990 are still the world's most famous comedy game writers twenty years later strikes me as odd... what has become of all the jokers they must've inspired?

Perhaps comedy has been too great a risk for publishers - the current market would suggest that it is far safer to pump out a humorless Gears of HaloZone than to take a chance on a game that lives or dies on something as ephemeral as wit. Hopefully the rise of the independent developer and the smaller, more experimental downloadable game can bring some much-needed humor back to gaming. After playing DeathSpank, I'm optimistic.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some unicorn poop to collect.
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