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August 25, 2010

Death and Comedy

Limbo DeathSpank

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” --various¹

Over the course of approximately a week I managed to play both Limbo and DeathSpank, and with the recent announcement that the DeathSpank sequel is shortly incoming, it seemed like a good idea to jot down my thoughts before too much time had passed.

What surprised me most about these games is how much I laughed in them, by which I mean what quantity of laughter each elicited. I expected to laugh quite a lot at DeathSpank, coming as it did from long-time comedy adventure game Ron Gilbert, and based on the foreboding atmosphere which began Limbo, I expected to laugh not at all. Pleasantly enough, my expectations were thoroughly turned on their heads.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, Limbo is a short puzzle platformer in which the player controls what appears to be a little boy lost in a forest². The controls are fairly simple, and the player interacts with what is a very hostile environment, but the shadowy presentation often obscures the puzzles, which would be immediately obvious were the game rendered in the bright colors of DeathSpank.

I don’t think Limbo is intentionally humorous, but I have to say, nearly every time death came as a very sudden and shocking surprise, I found myself giggling. Partly, I expect, it was because I was primed for laughter from having finished DeathSpank only shortly before, but most of the time I think it was just the shock of the unexpected and the bits of death animation. It was a bit like watching a formulaic teen horror movie; the deaths are gruesome but still often meant to entertain, and you laugh because it’s not happening to you.

Later in the game, this response was less frequent, and I think that’s largely because the puzzles became more involved, and death was slightly more costly. There were a few puzzles that stymied me through several attempts, and this would lead to tedium as I would often know exactly what was expected of me, but lack the skilled timing to bring it off³. Dying ceased to be easy, and so the comedy was much harder come by. My friend and colleague Chuck Jordan has written up his opinions about the last bit of Limbo on his blog and I don’t have a lot to add -- I agree that once the puzzles get a little trickier and the world a little more technical, the game loses some of its charm, and the whole experience got a little more somber.

Which brings me to DeathSpank, a game I thoroughly loved and played every chance I got4, spending time before and after work on it. But it wasn’t because I was laughing, or at least, it wasn’t just because I was laughing.

DeathSpank’s laughs for me also mostly came from surprise, but after a while my funny circuits burned out as the game constantly assaulted me with certain elements. The environments were funny, the names of the weapons were funny, the main character’s voice was inherently funny (and I can hear it in the back of my mind even now), the quests were funny (Orphans? Really? Audacious), the villain was funny, the quest-givers were funny, the critters were funny, the advanced healing options were funny, funny, funny, funny, funny. It was a constant stream of funny and after a while the humor seemed to rely on quantity rather than quality; I can’t now remember anything in particular that made me really laugh, because I can’t remember any particular event that had anything more than a very cursory level of setup. I do know that I laughed or chuckled any number of times. There was a constant level of silliness, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; it just meant for less memorability of any particular element (okay, except for maybe the voice, which I find running a commentary in the back of my head at times; I have a strange brain to live with 24/7).

What kept me coming back wasn’t just that level of humor, sort of a "humor? You’re soaking in it!" constancy, but also a really slick action RPG. While certain elements fell flat for me5, the pure button-mashy with a little bit of health and power management was really deliciously fun and a graphic fidelity that was really terrific.

Hothead Games really impressed me with the first couple episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures6, not just because of the constant humor of the writing, but because of the competent JRPG-style game underneath that skin. It’s a really winning formula, and I find myself really looking forward to a second helping of DeathSpank in September, as well as whatever Hothead applies themselves to.

Join me again in a day or two when I return to thug culture discussing more of my delve into thuggery and spend some more time discussing the things I thought about while making my divorce.

¹Actually, it might as well have been "Dying is easy. Attributing quotes is hard." because the origin of this particular quote, which everyone has heard, is quite difficult to track down. This one is attributed to Edmund Kean (actor from the 1800s), Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Alan Swann (fictional character citing one of those), and others. So I’ll leave it at "various" and soldier on.
²The character is rendered entirely in shadow. For all I know, he has tentacles for hair and a third arm growing into the third dimension erupting from his stomach. Games admit of multiple interpretations, and I’m sure one could come up with an outlandish but internally consistent justification incorporating the details I’ve just thrown out. Its stylish presentation reminds me just how much I’m looking forward to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
³Nothing makes me feel so old as to write that I am losing my reflexes for videogames. Pretty soon it’ll be all turn-based stuff for me. Roll me away to the Old Gamers’ Home...
4I’m fairly certain that I would have gotten my divorce out a week earlier had I not downloaded DeathSpank when I did.
5I don’t think I ever managed to pull off 98% of the combos, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t find all the instructional runestones therefor.
6Sadly, Episodes 3 and 4 will never see the light of day, though I gather the scripts will.

Posted by Brett Douville at August 25, 2010 07:30 AM