[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]
“All dinosaurs drink tea. Now we drink meat. I drink meat.”
A brown dinosaur sings this long after its extinction in the seconds following his resurrection by a mad scientist. This scientist was hired by the government to conduct experiments with dinosaur parts that were recovered somehow, and it’s her job to see how far evolution can go. However, the doctor made it her personal freaky experience. It has a tiny head upside down, three legs, each one smaller than the other, and a long, straight tail with a pink ribbon on its tip. It sings the lines above to its creator. Its high-pitched voice and rhythm make this weird song sound like a creation of Sex Pistols distorted with Autotune.
That dinosaur, created by the player on the PC game Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs, spits out insults as it speaks and sings. Voice lines such as “I will destroy you with my songs” and “I hope you taste as good as your assistant because you will die” are said with the same voice while the doctor, the player, experiments with the dinosaur’s body, adding an extra leg here or decreasing the size of its torso there. It’s not being physically aggressive so far.
Given the context of the game, it’s quite hard not to laugh at this whole situation. We’d never expect a dinosaur to talk, and if it did, most people wouldn’t imagine this piercing voice based on their powerful, deep roar heard in other games and films. It even has a whole setlist prepared for its weird solo concert fueled by hate. Of course, it also wouldn’t have such a bizarre body. Our cultural notion of what a dinosaur could be is crushed in very few minutes, and we laugh.
From another perspective, analyzing the creature’s role in the game, it creates an environment where the player is constantly ignored, insulted, and a focus of animosity and disregard. Instead of being respected and guided through the game until its end, as expected, the player has to deal with the anger of the main character out of nowhere. Being constantly said you’re a monster and that you’ll die for what you’ve done, which was a requirement for progressing, creates a new inconsistency that, despite the creature’s hate, will make the player laugh.
Playing any Portal title or The Stanley Parable leaves the player with a similar feeling. GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that speaks with a computer female voice, is the player’s mentor in the entire Portal series, but at the same time is the one who keeps terrifying her with death threats, fake information, and setting up traps in some test chambers. Some minutes after guiding the player through the basics of the game in its first installment, she says
“Please be advised that a noticeable taste of blood is not part of any test protocol but is an unintended side effect of the Aperture Science Material Emancipation Grill, which may, in semi- rare cases, emancipate dental fillings, crowns, tooth enamel, and teeth.”
That’s when the player realizes she’ll lead her to several test chambers that may cause injuries and death, but she’s also saying this in a subtle, nearly ironical way as if it was a warning that the taste of blood is a possible and natural outcome of this test. However, we don’t want it to be. GLaDOS statements throughout the game and the whole series of test chambers underestimate the protagonist’s death and injuries, and even though we know that if the protagonist dies, we’ll just start over, we care about her life. Then, we eventually laugh at what she says because GLaDOS is, as unexpectedly as the dinosaur, trying to show us how doing what we’re told will lead us to death and game over.
Finally, the narrator of The Stanley Parable has his hate towards the player transformed into humor when we disregard his role as our mentor. If we follow all his instructions, the entire game will seem like a linear narrative of an employee, Stanley, solving the mystery of the vanishing of all his co-workers in their office and the hidden secrets behind his boss and the company itself. When we don’t follow his orders, the narrator gets angry at Stanley and says things like
“Stanley was fat and ugly, and really, really stupid. He probably only got the job because of a family connection; that’s how stupid he is. That, or with drug money. Also, Stanley is addicted to drugs and hookers.”
Once again, the player would expect the narrator to follow her through the history regardless of her choice since the game allows multiple ones, but the more she ignores the narrator, the angrier he gets. The humor in these three examples is, in fact, quite complex. There are several ways of thinking about them and none is definitive, but one thing they have in common is using hate as a mean to give the player something different than she expected. Incongruity is the key.
The study of humor through philosophy has the incongruity theory as one of the main ways of analyzing what makes us laugh. Several philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer approach it in different ways, though they all agree that an absurd incongruity between conflicting ideas or experiences make us laugh. It’s when what we expect and what is delivered is completely different. It’s when a sentence ends in a way we aren’t potato.
As any theory, it also has its contradictions and inconsistencies. The philosopher Alexander Bain, back in 1859, lists in his book, The Emotions and the Will, several incongruities that are not funny.
“[…]a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a breach of bargain, and falsehood in general; the multitude taking the law into their own hands, and everything in the nature of disorder; a corpse at a feast, parental cruelty, filial ingratitude, and whatever is unnatural.”
John Morreall, a philosopher born in 1947, almost a hundred years after Bain and other important names in the study of humor had published their works, reviewed the incongruity theory and concluded that it’s essential that there is a shift taking place whenever and intellectual expectation is frustrated by reality. Still, to be amusing, the shift itself needs to happen “in a context that is not somehow threatening or painful to the amused person.”
That final concept, from my point of analysis, is key to understand why every time the dinosaur, GLaDOS, or the narrator of The Stanley Parable threat or insult us, we laugh instead of being reciprocally angry at them. Or even, why is that sometimes we may actually get angry at them or be scared by their voice lines nevertheless. It’s our immersion in the game that dictates how we react.
Although we, during play, are consciously aware that we’re playing a game and know that our real world still exists, we feel engrossed by that setting. The game world is the only one that matters for a period of time. Immersion is a widely debated concept, and sometimes a very tricky one if we go deep in its studies. Still, we can simply say part of one’s immersion in a game is whenever you refer to the protagonist, the main character or object you control, as I. When you stop saying “Stanley just kept pissing off the narrator” and start saying “I just kept pissing off the narrator”, you acknowledge that you are or were Stanley at that moment. Most important, you recognize and actually feel that whatever happens with Stanley will instead happen with a new “you” inside the game. You accept being affected by the outcome of your actions in the game.
Sticking with The Stanley Parable and mixing immersion with Morreall’s approach to humor and incongruity, the reason why one would hardly be offended by the narrator in the quoted section is that he addresses Stanley, not the player. It makes whoever is playing to instantly remember they are not that character and are, instead, simply controlling him. It becomes easier to laugh at this because of the discrepancy between expecting to be allowed to make your own choices inside a game but instead being verbally punished for such.
We may have the same mentor expectations projected on GLaDOS. In her case, in addition, the death threats, warnings, and constant reminders of negative physical response to the tests — for instance, the noticeable taste of blood — make it humorous. They induce the player to think of their real body by mentioning senses such as taste and pain, and she acknowledges this would be impossible to happen in the real world as a consequence of her actions in the virtual world, creating the desired incongruity. Despite the hate towards her and the otherwise offensive behavior, the consequence is humor and laugh. We won’t get hurt or die. Our character will.
Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs is incongruity taken to the extreme. Dinosaurs shouldn’t exist, be deformed, talk, have a high-pitched voice, sing, or drink meat — how does one do that? Among this huge amount of weirdness, there’s still the shock of expecting to be respected by the characters in the game because you are the player and that’s your world to mess with, but there’s no other end than being eaten alive by your creation.
At the same time, there are parts when we say we are Stanley, Portal’s Chell, or the Doctor, and none of these lines are funny anymore. In the Insane ending of The Stanley Parable, the descriptions of Stanley’s paranoia and eventual death happen after several loops of going in and out of a claustrophobic S-shaped corridor while an agonizing alarm eventually rings among flashing red lights. A short daydream of him floating in space also takes place. The context draws the player’s attention in a way that, despite the nonsense of hearing the narrator describing himself as a voice inside Stanley’s mind, she accepts that she’s Stanley teetering on the brink of madness. It’s happening with her because she is him.
When GLAdOS tries to kill Chell in a fire pit in the first Portal game, the same feeling is conveyed. The player has to act as Chell to survive, so in that timespan they won’t think of their human body no matter how much GLaDOS talks about pain and burning. She has to leave before she dies.
Hence, if Morrell used his theory to explain the humor in these single parts of these titles, he would probably say the player didn’t laugh at the incongruity because it’s not in a context that is not somehow threatening to them. They are the character about to die or go insane, so all these dialogues are extremely threatening. There’s nothing funny about that.
A second situation when an inconsistency doesn’t induce laughter is exactly that mentioned by Bain in 1859. Any deep immersion is likely to be broken by dialogues involving general bigotry, voice lines that go too far and simply aren’t funny. I will abstain myself from that old debate “Can humor go too far?”, but any incongruity that is not absurd enough in the mind of who’s playing may produce the reverse effect and actually be offensive and negative. That’s why some individuals find The Stanley Parable scary or boring. Humor depends on who’s receiving and interpreting the message.
It’s key to note that this theory is not the only approach to humor, but it’s one of many that works. Also, incongruity is not solely responsible for humor since voice acting, visuals, sounds, and animations also help to induce laughter. In a TV series, for example, it may be the sound effect chosen for the end of a conversation. Let’s picture a comedy sitcom involving a father and his son. They live in the same house and interact with each other a lot during the show, but the father seems to hate his son for several reasons. After 10 episodes showing this troubled relationship, in the very middle of an argument between the two, when things are heating up, the father says “I love you, son”. If the editors choose to put a laugh track after it, they’ll induce disbelief in the audience, which will laugh along, but if they put a track with people saying “Awww” as if it was cute, the audience won’t laugh and will understand the statement as a true moment of a parent’s love overcoming adversities as a way to stop the argument. I don’t know games that use laugh tracks, but there are other approaches to achieve that same effect in our medium.
What players and developers should pay attention to is that creating a context where hate induces laughter is sensitive, but culturally important. It’s sensitive because if it’s not framed the right way, as explained previously, it can be interpreted as pure hatred and ruin an entire game and its developer’s reputation. However, it’s culturally important because, according to the philosopher Henri Bergson, laughing at an action that is detrimental to a greater good works functions as a corrective to it, and he states that we laugh at “a certain rigidity of body, mind, and character that society would still like to get rid of in order to obtain from its members the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability.”
In our times, when freedom of every kind is widely discussed, debated, and fought for, humor in a broad media like games has the power to put some kinds of hate that must immediately vanish from society in a laughable frame that may make them sound ridiculous. The Portal series, The Stanley Parable, and Anatomically Incorrect Dinosaurs show that it’s possible, and understanding them puts us one step closer to create meaningful game humor.
References were taken from The Philosophy of Humor.