I Was In the War

iwitw1I Was In the War, by Bisse, is a nearly perfect example of everything that I think of as characterizing PC games in the 21st century: an indie effort with minimalist graphics, completable in a single play session, written in three hours by an insane Swede as part of a competition and posted on the web for free download. It’s also one of the funniest action games I’ve ever played, and I think it’s worth looking at why.

It’s got a off-kitler and deliberately stupid style reminiscent of You Are A Chef!, but the key thing is that there is no separation between joke and gameplay. The basic mechanics are themselves absurd. Aside from jumping over enemies, which isn’t always possible, the only way you can evade damage is by switching to the other side of the ground, where upside-down enemies await you. Also, your health is represented by your sprite’s size — getting hit makes you smaller, while going for a long time without getting hit makes you swell up until you’re towering over your foes, which, unfortunately, just makes it easier for them to hit you. That’s a fairly interesting mechanic for automatically balancing difficulty, but it’s also completely ridiculous. (According to Rowan Atkinson, things being the wrong size is one of the three basic types of sight gag.)

Moreover, the introduction of new enemies plays out like a series of jokes. When a new type of enemy is due to appear, a warning scrolls along the line representing the ground. The player is given enough time to digest the announcement and wonder what form “tanks” or “guerillas” might take and how they’ll affect you, and in most cases the answer is absurd and unexpected.

Action games often have a problem being funny. Adventure games have an easier time of it, because they can present jokes as puzzles, thus forcing the player’s attention onto them. But, with a few exceptions (like Katamari Damacy), action games seldom try to integrate humor with the action itself the way IWITW does. I’m thinking in particular of the likes of Earthworm Jim: as much as I enjoyed it when I played it, it seemed like most of the ideas for levels were based on how wacky they’d seem when you read about them in the manual, rather than how they’d seem when you actually played them. There’s also the approach of trying to make a game into a comedy by slapping jokes into cutscenes and dialogue, which at least means you get jokes while you’re playing, but they’re basically orthogonal to the game itself. I think of MDK2 as a good example of this, which is strange, because the original MDK is a good example of the integrated-humor approach I’m applauding here, with its powerups that sprout legs and run away when you approach them and the like. The difference: the original MDK wasn’t a talkie. It basically had no choice but to put its humor into the game itself. MDK2 hired an improv group to do voice-acting for its cutscenes, but it’s ultimately weaker for it.

In the end, the whole game of IWITW has a punch line, and it’s a pretty stupid one. But the real humor is in the telling. Which is true of any joke.

1 Comment so far

  1. Merus on 9 Jan 2009

    “(According to Rowan Atkinson, things being the wrong size is one of the three basic types of sight gag.)”

    You saw that too? I saw a Rowan Atkinson video once where it explains the principles of comedy, and he ends up in a cupboard eating a banana. It’s stuck with me ever since. It’s been valuable when someone claims that suffering is the root of all comedy, something that seems sensible on the face of it but utterly wrong when you think about it for a bit.

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