Serious vs Ridiculous Video Games
There is a theme, or feel to some video games — or some parts of some video games — that lend to a serious tone. You’re a soldier in a war, or a surgeon at an operating table. Perhaps you’re the captain of a ship responsible for a medical shipment that will save lives. These are subject matters that are no laughing matter…. at least in the real world.
Video Game Atmosphere
Reality has no end of stressful, heartbreaking, or humorless moments where a laugh is less than appreciated. Though I think more people should laugh and that laughter is great, there is a place for everything.
Video games tell stories, and create fictional environments to serve our desire for escapism from the hardships of reality. A brief respite is offered in becoming a soldier, surgeon, or captain when reality is more desks and fluorescent lights than harrowing adventures. In the delivery of these pretend worlds video games offer us their own individual reality. The reality of any given game is as crafted as any piece of dialogue or slab of rock in a path.
It is the collection of the art and craft of the video game’s world that creates its environment. That environment has a feel, or tone. It can carry a weightyness or burdened feeling by imitating those important people doing important things.
Take this feature image from a fairly recent first person shooter. What does this title image say to you? What do you think is trying to be conveyed by this image?
I see a badass soldier walking away from an explosion unphased. The hero of every action film. The pinnacle of awesomeness, and unstoppable combat expert. You don’t want to be on the business end of this person’s bad day. It’s serious, and it wants you to feel it.
Suspension of Disbelief
Why would a video game opt into such a heavy emotion? Well, there are many reasons, but the first that comes to my mind is that it’s more lifelike. Suspension of Disbelief is when you allow yourself to believe something clearly ridiculous so that you can enjoy it. You would otherwise be in utter disbelief that the Modern Warfare 2 guy could be walking away from an explosion without being thrown about by the shockwave this explosion would let out. You suspend that feeling, opting in to the notion that such ass-kickery could be real.
This is easier for some people than others, and easiest for children whom have sampled reality the least. The further a video game pushes the boundaries of reality the harder some people will have suspending their disbelief. A serious tone is, depressingly, more realistic than one that is ridiculous on purpose.
The second reason a video game developer might choose to model their game after reality comes with development time. I’ve written before on some of the monetary hardships game development can face, and if there is a way to make a game more quickly someone will find it and employ it.
Time spent making video games exists not only in sculpting trees, animating monsters, or programming cutscenes. It also exists in the definition of reality the game adheres to. This is mostly in the coding of scripts and algorithms that tell objects how to interact, and can often exist largely as part of the game’s engine (as distinct from the game itself.)
If your game breaks the laws of physics, then exactly how do your new imaginary physics work? What strategy do you employ when you use magic or some technology that acts as pseudo-magic? How does the world work when it’s not like the real world? You have to make those up, and that’s clearly very doable, but it’d be easier to look at the world around us and model our game or engine after that. We have the perfect starting place for how two objects collide given specific conditions — just make it realistic.
That “make it realistic” may be easier said than done, but you know what the outcome should look like, you’re not making it up as you go along. This may save some time or headache.
No, I’m not facing a Boggart. Though, on second thought, maybe I am. Maybe I’m a wizard that knows magic. Maybe the world I live in is so unlike the real world I don’t know what I might be facing. Anything is possible, if you’re just creative enough.
Video Games don’t always take themselves seriously. It’s entirely possible a game’s design has no reason to stay true to our reality, and can instead break out of the shackles of reasonable expectations to create something impossible. Video Games like TF2 (Team Fortress 2) exemplify this very well. TF2 is silly, outrageous, ridiculous, stupid, funny, and often absurd. There is no badass soldier, but if there were a soldier it’d call you a MAGGOT, point its rocket launcher at its feet, and blast himself sky-high (not that that would hurt him, because he’s using special ammunition.)
Look at this guy. Look at this buffoon. Does this look like a man with a plan? No, this looks like a spy with too many hats. Hats on hats. If TF2 is known for one thing — that’s hats. Hats for days, hats left and right. Baseball caps, fedoras, top hats, bunny ears, dinosaur hats, captain hats. You name it, TF2 has a hat of it that you can wear while turning your enemies into icicles. That soldier I mentioned earlier? That’s a hat. The surgeon? Well there’s a mask but that’s headwear so I’m calling it a hat. The captain? Oh you know TF2 is a tricorn.
TF2 does not take itself seriously, and it’s all the better for it. Seriously, if this game tried to be serious it wouldn’t have been even remotely as popular as it is. The game has seen a hit in its player base as its age becomes apparent, but even still its servers still see a significant amount of traffic.
GTA vs Saints Row
One of the prime examples of serious vs ridiculous is when you look at the game series GTA and compare it to the game serious Saints Row. As mentioned GTA (Grand Theft Auto) takes itself seriously much more than it lets itself relax and be a bit silly. Saints Row used to be like this. The first few installments saw a similar game to GTA. This is a tug of war for play time. When it comes time to buy that next open world shoot-em-up game which does the consumer choose? History has decided that Rockstar’s GTA would be the winner, and it has seen continued success there to this day.
Saints Row didn’t just go quietly into the night, however. In order to persevere it had to take a sharp left turn into crazytown. It needed to fill a niche, and that niche was GTA — with hats.
I kid, of course, but not as much as you think. Saints Row dove head first into a focus on things that were fun, regardless of how much sense they made. Though it doesn’t see the sales of the GTA series, it has survived by leaning on that suspension of disbelief. It’s like the developers threw up their hands and put in whatever crazy idea they could think of.
By the 4th game you’re the president of the United States when an alien invasion puts you into a matrix-like simulation where you need to free the minds of humankind from within said simulation using your super-human super-powers. You want a gun that destroys things with the power of dubstep? Alright, game on.
Bit of a jump from the gang wars of the original games.
¿Por qué no los dos?
Just because a game has serious elements doesn’t mean it can’t share that space with the ridiculous. You can do both, but funny is a slippery slope. GTA is mostly about making it big doing mostly illegal things, but in GTA 5, for example, you can find some cacti that make you hallucinate. That’s a bit of a nice break in your murderous rampages.
Blizzard’s Overwatch is a great example of having both aspects. The world they create is futuristic, and allows for magic without calling it as such. Just enough to feel magical without using that word. This puts them in a grey area, and a position to ride that line between stupid and somber. Overwatch has a diverse cast of characters, some more colorful than others, but all with their own distinct personalities.
Their design choices to avoid the pure-chaos that is TF2’s situation is highlighted in their dance emotes. Most characters got the ability to dance in game with the push of a button, and those dances often fit the character’s theme. The electronics hacker is shuffling while the DJ character magics up a mix table. However, one character’s dance emote is different — because he doesn’t dance.
Dancing is silly and fun and light-hearted. Reaper, the character most often seen as the digital manifestation of teenage angst, does not dance. Reaper doesn’t dance. He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t joke. He is as serious as a heart attack. That is who he is, fundamentally. The character only makes sense if he’s consistently himself, so his “dance” is just him tapping his foot impatiently. Like the kill-joy at a party waiting for everyone to just get on with it — whatever it is.
At the same time, though, Overwatch has skins — alternate appearances — for all of their characters. The diversity of the skins is the only thing to exceed the racial and cultural diversity of its cast. These skins can be serious, like Reaper, but they can also remind you of a Power Ranger.
Fun goes both ways
In the end there is no “right” way about this. Sillier isn’t always better. Games have an atmosphere to them just like movies. They tell a story, and immerse you in different worlds just like any book. What is an enjoyable environmental feel for you may be ludicrous to someone else. What makes you laugh and have fun could make someone else cringe.
Remember, the point of video games is to have fun. That’s the only reason they even exist. For the sake of fun, every other aspect of a video game must take a back seat. That is of course except for money, because tech demos are certainly nobody’s idea of a weekend adventure.