Comedy is hard. Making a good comedy game is almost impossible. Writers, artists, level designers, and game designers must work in perfect harmony to create a cohesive, engaging experience. It’s not enough to be funny; comedy games need to have the variety, freshness, and interactivity to make players want to finish the story. Enter Jazzpunk, a spiritual successor to spoof comedies like Airplane! and The Naked Gun (minus Leslie Nielson).
Every comedy game must address three elements that make the genre inherently difficult: timing, repetition, and replayability. Funny dialogue, on its own, doesn’t make a good comedy game. Telltale’s Sam & Max has an absurdist sense of humor, but its comedy is only realized through dialogue and puzzle-triggered cutscenes. The timing and musical cues are always perfect because scenes in Sam & Max are directed. Meanwhile, clicking random gags always results in the same dialogue. Repetition is the cardinal sin of comedy, but games are expected to have a replayability factor. As a result, comedy adventure games quickly lose their appeal. I love Sam & Max, but it’s hard to replay Season One of the Telltale series because it’s too familiar, too predictable. It’s always the same.
While far from perfect, Jazzpunk manages to mix up the comedy game formula in a big way. Jazzpunk feels like a playset you’d open on Christmas morning. While the story can be completed in about 20 minutes, the meat of the game comes from exploring each level’s sandbox.
In many ways, Jazzpunk is little more than a few dozen set pieces waiting for interaction. Like a traditional adventure game, most NPCs stand in one place until the player interacts with them. Many of these characters cycle through dialogue, but most have 5-6 lines.
Now to the point. Why does Jazzpunk work as a comedy game? Two reasons. First, Jazzpunk has variety, a diversity of content that offers something for everyone. If sending a bystander flying into traffic with a Wilhelm scream isn’t your cup of tea, maybe the deadpan delivery of “I have fourth degree burns all over my entire face,” is. That’s the beauty of Jazzpunk. While it leans heavily on slapstick and visual comedy, it has the diversity of mood and style to reach a wider audience.
The second reason is pacing. Jazzpunk’s comedy bleeds from every pore. Your screen is full of gags to interact with as you make your way to the next NPC. From the allure of a “tooth cola” vending machine to the Cold War themed “Fission Chips” complete with the ticking of a Geiger counter, something is always happening in Jazzpunk. The pacing and placement of jokes works hand in hand with the variety. If a joke doesn’t land, you don’t have much time to think about it because you’re already on to the next thing. If it did land, you can laugh as long as you want before moving on to the next set piece.
In some ways, Jazzpunk manages to address the problem of repetition in comedy games. Take, for example, a frogger minigame in the first mission. If you fail the minigame, the frog gains a black eye and a cast, then bandages, then another cast, another black eye, etc. What could have been a short, repetitive minigame becomes a challenge to see how many times you can fail. Where many comedy games only have one response per object, Jazzpunk sees these interactions as an opportunity to insert more jokes.
Though Jazzpunk is technically a comedy FPS, it pushes the envelope for comedy adventure games. A consistent tone, but a variety of jokes. A clear objective, but plenty of side content. Multiple responses for the same interaction, but an enormous amount of content to keep players occupied. The comedy doesn’t come from perfectly timed, musically synched cutscenes, but the player interacting with the environment, absurdist scenarios, and whacky physics.
What do you think of Jazzpunk’s comedy? What could it do better? Tell us in the comments!