Jazzpunk and South Park: Make laughs, not War

Aside from the point-and-click adventure genre, games centred on comedy have been rare beasts. For every Portal 2, Psychonauts and No One Lives Forever, there seem to be many more titles that lean into action and drama. But in the past few weeks I’ve played two recent games that suggest things could be changing, or perhaps already have.

The origins of Jazzpunk and South Park: The Stick of Truth are quite different. Jazzpunk is an indie, first person game made by Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse of Necrophone Games, who didn’t initially intend it to be a comedy. Stick of Truth is an RPG based on a beloved and long-running franchise, made by Obsidian Entertainment and published, after a troubled development history, by Ubisoft. But if they seem different on paper, I feel there are elements that unite these two in play.

2014-04-13_00012
Jazzpunk wears its cyberpunk and other influences on its sleeve

Jazzpunk features a world of Cold War filtered through the lens of Fifties advertising and William Gibson. You play a silent protagonist whose “trips” take him on missions that include shooting pigeons with degauss guns, playing Frogger clones and chasing cowboys. You could argue that the game belongs in the adventure genre, and to an extent it reminds me of the nineties’ first-person adventure Normality, but I think its subversive design makes for a unique experience. For a start, there aren’t any real puzzles in Jazzpunk, beyond simply accomplished environmental goals like getting past embassy security. It possesses a mission structure closer to a modern first-person shooter and sidequests more like an RPG. And the humour is delivered through gameplay and slapstick, rather than dialogue.

In Stick of Truth you play the New Kid, another silent protagonist, who is quickly drawn into a conflict of humans and elves, aliens and Taco Bell conspiracies. Unlike Jazzpunk, the game uses an extensive script packed with sharp writing. But just as much humour is imbued in the design of the game and it clearly plays with RPG tropes; one of the character classes is a Jew whose special abilities include performing circumcisions that leave enemies with a “bleeding” status. And its use of environmental puzzles, navigated through your character’s accumulated powers, also lend it a touch of the adventure game.

2014-04-15_00002
I was free to create an Asian, Emo, Jew class in South Park

Where these two games really seem akin is that both have mechanics which feel like they’re meant to take a supporting role, rather than intrude on the player’s ability to poke around these strange worlds and discover their lurking jokes. Ron Gilbert, the creator of Monkey Island, once wrote that the game’s dialogue puzzles gave him the chance to tell four jokes at once. And while these games exude the same richness of humour as that classic, much of their comedy is derived from careful world building. The use of silent protagonists also seems to lean into the player’s humorous exploration. Many comedy games (with the notable exception of Chell in Portal 2) feature well “voiced” protagonists, such as Monkey Island’s Guybrush Threepwood or Cate Archer in No One Lives Forever. And while there is admittedly some variation to such characters through dialogue choices, the protagonists of Jazzpunk and Stick of Truth are truly blank slates for the player’s self-image.

Most importantly, Jazzpunk and Stick of Truth are very funny. Neither game always hit the mark, but I laughed more times than I care to remember while playing them and would thoroughly recommend them to anyone seeking a little laughter. What’s really surprising is that these two games aren’t alone in being notable comedies this year. I haven’t had the chance to play Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Goat Simulator yet, but perhaps the emergence of such games show a promising time ahead for humour taking a bigger role in the medium.

For more information, see necrophonegames.com/jazzpunk or southpark.ubi.com


Posted

in

, ,

by

Comments

Leave a Reply