Is Jazzpunk putting the genre of pure comedy on the map in the gaming world?
With the growth of gaming as a medium, developers and writers are still grappling with the right way to connect emotionally with their audience. Big budget games continue to look to film for inspiration, sculpting the experience as cinematically as possible. On the indie side, games like the critically acclaimed Gone Home scale back the level of interactivity to tell a more focused story, and others try to speak as little as possible, communicating whatever they have to say through gameplay alone. These are just a few of the divergent creative attitudes within the industry, but as always, some people just want to make us laugh.
Necrophone Games’ Jazzpunk offers to do very little else, and its focus in this respect is admirable. You are a secret agent sent on a series of missions in a strange Cold War-era world, populated by spies, robots, and robotic spies, and as the player, you are strongly suggested to ignore those missions and explore to your heart’s content. The visuals are heavily stylised, reminiscent of the short-but-sweet Thirty Flights of Loving. Most importantly of all – the real crux of the matter – Jazzpunk is genuinely funny. The humour is generally of the absurd flavour, but diverse, with plenty of wordplay, visual gags, easter eggs, and knowing but unobtrusive video game homages. The player of a certain sensibility will find it a delightful playground quite unlike anything else in the gaming world.
In terms of the gameplay itself, Jazzpunk falls firmly in with the Gone Home, Dear Esther, Proteus crowd. Although there are basic objectives and a plot that must at some point be completed, there are no difficult puzzles or anything major that stands in your way. You could blast through it in a very short time if you were so inclined, but you would be missing the majority of the experience. Its most similar contemporary is probably The Stanley Parable, although that game strays into the realms of serious satire, whereas Jazzpunk revels in pure silliness, as well as offering more diverse and detailed environments.
What we have here is a pure comedy, although there has been a strange tendency to categorise it as some kind of adventure game. This is perhaps understandable, as the comedy game is not really recognised as a thing. You won’t see it among the genre list in Steam or any gaming website, as you would on Netflix or IMDB. Of course, there has always been comedy in games. Modern examples would be the Grand Theft Auto or Portal series, although the jokes are not the main focus in either. In short, comedy has always been propped up by another form of gameplay, as if afraid to stand up on its own.
The classic comedic standbys would be point-and-click adventures like the Monkey Island series and Grim Fandango. Humour is clearly the focus, although they are still tied to a certain style of rudimentary puzzle-solving. This is the main difference, and the main problem: progress gating. Until you find the solution, you can’t move on. Normally this would be the very essence of a game, but this style of classic adventure game is notoriously obtuse, often with very unintuitive and difficult solutions to puzzles. The majority of playtime could often be spent wandering around, stuck in a bog of repeated jokes, trying to combine every item with every other item in the hopes that something would work. This exaggerated but not entirely inaccurate portrayal is perhaps why the genre lost popularity, people prefer more logical and satisfying puzzles, if puzzles there must be.
But must there? Jazzpunk offers an alternative. Discovery, not progress, is the key here. The game is remarkable not only in the amount of jokes tucked away in every corner, and their consistent quality, but the amount of care and attention put into interactions. If you find an item, it’s like a new toy. You will still end up using it on anything and everything in the vicinity, but it’s no longer a chore. You’re not trying to get further in the game, but simply experimenting for its own sake, because you want to laugh, and the game is more than happy to oblige.
There is a common complaint with the new wave of ‘interactive story’ games, that they are not games at all, or at least not worthy additions to the medium if they feature no meaningful interaction. Jazzpunk neatly sidesteps this issue, with the vast majority of jokes coming as a direct response to something the player chooses to do, whether it be locating all the Hunter S. Thompson lookalikes dotted about the hotel grounds, or seeing what happens when I sneak up on this sushi waiter with a flyswatter…
Comedy may well have found a comfortable niche in the gaming world, with interactive environments that reward the player’s curiosity and ingenuity. There is, however, another approach, exemplified in such recent offerings as Surgeon Simulator 2013, and Octodad: Dadliest Catch. These are totally different to Jazzpunk, but equally worthy of being called comedy games, following on from the cult success of the browser game QWOP, where you control the individual leg muscles of an Olympic sprinter, battling against physics to get him to the end. The gaming equivalent of slapstick comedy, these titles pit the player against their own lack of control, like Inspector Clouseau in a Pink Panther film, with the humour resulting from the gameplay itself.
Jazzpunk may not be a revolution, but it is another small step in a larger trend towards dropping the unnecessary baggage and embracing the funny. If there is to be any kind of revival of the comedy adventure games of the 90s, it will surely follow in the footsteps of Telltale’s hugely successful The Walking Dead series, albeit more light-hearted and less harrowing. It is unlikely that these developments will infiltrate the AAA world any time soon, with the current crop of melodramatic stories completely unconnected from gameplay still making money and garnering glowing reviews, but it would be no surprise to see all of these approaches continue to grow, refine, and improve, out of the limelight, and a new wave of pure comedy begin to emerge.
All images: Adult Swim