Why aren’t video games funny?

When you walk into a video-game store, you’ll notice that they don’t sort boxes by genre. If they did, the comedy shelves would be completely barren. Lists of the most influential video games of all time are filled with fantasies, first-person shooters, puzzle games, and sports titles. Comedies don’t get even a passing mention.

Why are video games so humorless? Teenage video-game addicts are the same people who enable the careers of Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell, and game designers love to imitate movies and television shows. Still, games have been so somber that when two comedy titles were released last month—the Animal House-like Leisure Suit Larry and the Princess Bride-esque Bard’s Tale—it qualified as a laugh renaissance.

Perhaps the biggest reason that games aren’t funny is the difficulty of integrating comedy into game play. One of the earliest gags in arcade history came when the ghosts Inky, Pinky (Don’t forget Pinky!), Blinky, and Clyde chased our hungry hero off the screen, only to return fleeing from a giant version of Pac Man. Less important than the scene’s complete unfunniness is the fact that it was stashed between levels. More than 20 years later, game humor is similar in content and positioning to the lame post-gunfight wisecracks you’d find in a Schwarzenegger movie circa 1987. Comedy is typically marginalized into background sight gags and interstitial cut scenes. Even games that generally strive to be funny incorporate humor into window dressing: In Grand Theft Auto, you can sow mayhem while listening to a mock-NPR that’s broadcasting a roundtable discussion on violence.

It was a bit easier to play for yuks when games were more primitive and gamers were less distracted by bells, whistles, blood, and guts. In 1984, for instance, the tongue-in-cheek Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was adapted as an early text-only adventure title. The pre-Pentium era had occasional comedic hits like Space Quest and the original Leisure Suit Larry. George Lucas’ game company, LucasArts, even developed a reputation as something of a comedy house, producing cult favorites like Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road.

But what had seemed like a movement was nothing more than a blip. By the early ‘90s, improving technology led to story and dialogue getting pushed aside in favor of advanced graphics, physics, and immersive action. With those priorities, it was only natural that programmers focused less on punch lines than on the trajectory of a forward pass and the sound of a bullet.

Games are now rated based on what players can do and how good things look while they’re doing it. The result is that even games one would expect to bring the laughs value interactivity at the expense of all things funny. While an episode of the Simpsons is a shower of funny lines and visuals, the many Simpsons-themed video games focus on players making Homer, Marge, and Bart do something—wrestle, drive, bowl. The funny bits are usually little more than a “Cowabunga” uttered as an aside.

One of the difficulties in trying to create funny moments is that gamers aren’t audience members so much as actors. It’s easy for a game designer to make someone feel like Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone by putting a virtual gun in their hand. But how do you go about making someone feel like Charlie Chaplin or Bernie Mac? Can you make a gamer actually commit comedy?

Perhaps the best solution is to make the player a straight man. That’s the approach of last month’s genuinely funny Bard’s Tale, a distant cousin of a more serious-minded game of the same name from 19 years ago.Through the world-weary bard, the player explores a medieval world gone Monty-Python-mad: There’s an overly dramatic narrator, drunken louts who won’t stop mocking you, and a succession of “chosen” heroes who meet grisly ends.

The Bard’s Tale also shows that fantasy games have the critical mass of clichés—melodramatic quests, conveniently solvable riddles—that’s necessary to inspire a wicked parody. Brian Fargo, who created the first and most recent version of The Bard’s Tale, says he intended to make a straight-faced game until finding it impossible to do anything but give gamers their Spinal Tap. The last major video game billed as a comedy, 2001’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day, was borne of similar discontent with games like Super Mario Bros.

Conker is now being remade for the Xbox. New Mario games feature characters who make fun of old Mario games. The creator of Halo just announced his first independent project: a zombie action-comedy called Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse. Even if the games aren’t funny, at least they’ve proved that they’re learning how to laugh at themselves.