Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why it's hard to mix humour and gamebooks

get me off this cover!
Any book but this one!
Skylord.  It seems that you never get a break. Outside of Grailquest (which also has a TVTropes page), it is one of the few gamebooks that has attempted to incorporate wacky humour into the game.  And it didn't work.  Humour is very hard to do in gamebooks, so this post is an attempt at the analysis of humour and why it didn't work in Skylord and why a lot of people shy away from humour in gamebooks.

The main problem with mixing humour and gamebooks is that gamebooks are based on your choices which you make because you expect certain consequences from those choices.  However, a lot of humour works by taking peoples' expectations and turning them on their heads.  And also, humour is very subjective and someone's sense of humour may depend of many, many factors.

For example, this Swedish commercial does exactly that.  And I find it funny.

That's my phone.
Gotta fly.
Skylord had very humorous storylines but the consequences of your choices seemed random.  why were you collecting a load of junk of a ship?  To overfeed a blob.  What do all the pitch, yaw and roll numbers mean when I'm trying to destroy that big ship?  What about all of the manouvers I need to do to destroy that other big ship?

The consequences of your choices may have been a punchline to a non sequiter joke, but they also ended with your death.  It's a bit like you were being told 'Haha, that was funny.  Now you've got yourself killed and an army of green dog headed warriors are going to take over the galaxy.  You idiot.'

That's the thing with making decisions in a gamebook.  You make the decision because you think its best for your character.  However, when you discover that you have no way of knowing what's best for your character and if you make the wrong choice, you character dies then it's very frustrating.  And that frustration will override any humour derived from a joke.

It's batty.
Grailquest, however, does not seem to suffer from this problem for the reason that it does not take itself as seriously as Skylord does.  As Demien says in his review of  The Castle of Darkness (Grailquest 1):

'The rules...are actually designed to allow (indeed encourage) a certain amount of fudging.'

The text addresses you as the reader rather than a character, if you die, you go to 'the dreaded' 14 and start again and a lot of the decisions you make (especially the humorous ones) do not have lethal consequences if you get them wrong.

The lesson I learnt from humour in gamebooks is to not use it very often, make it quite subtle and under no circumstances relate the humour to any decision the player has to make.  I tried this in Sharkbait's Revenge with a few throwaway lines such as:

I also learnt that you can't
go wrong with pirates.  Arr!.
In case it's not clear, this is not a successful ending, you QUITTER!

Two pirates in teh corner are having a competition to see who can say 'Arr' in the most pirate like way.

Blackbeard and Brandon have been killed by their greed, lust for power and, most of all, by being shot.

And some references to other programs with lines such as:

'It's a trap!'

'And if you see Jim, tell him "Oogityboogityboo!" He'll know what it means'

I also included humour in Temple of the Fool God where things do seem random.  However, if you behave in a certain way (foolishly) then the book will reward you.  Also, I did not make the book very lethal.  There is only one sudden death paragraph and you will only reach that if you ignore some advice that has been given to you several times.  At no point do you make a decision expecting a certain outcome and end up getting yourself killed.  The fact that the consequences of your choices will not be too serious if they are bad will hopefully encourage readers to experiment and take actions that they wouldn't normally take.


  1. Oh my.

    Working my way through fellow A-Zers and just come across your blog. Gamebook heaven :) I am a happy new follower.


  2. Interesting article... And yes I certainly relate to the challenges you confront trying to do humour in gamebooks! It's a bit like trying to interpret the tone of an email or sms, you only have the words and you can't gauge so easily the way in which it is meant to be conveyed; that and the others reasons you mention... I've seen the humour in Grailquest called "immature" in reviews for example, so even Grailquest wasn't spared I think.

  3. This reminds me of Fallen London. Have you guys played it? If not, you probably should. It's a web-based game that's really not much more complicated than a gamebook (but with tons of content).

    There's quite a bit of humor, but it's usually subtle and wry rather than wacky; your character usually acts sensibly, even if they're confronted with something absurd or bizarre. For example, you may be confronted with the opportunity to get out of trouble with the law. You can bribe someone: 'The Constable in question has signed a testimonial to the effect that you didn't do it, you wouldn't know how to do it, and that you were in Paris at the time it happened.'. Or you can stage a bizarre crime scene to confuse them: 'Why did the robber stack vases in the victim's privy? What does the scrawl of 'MONSTROUS ARE THOSE WHO WILL NOT WITHIN' on the mirror mean? And why all the folded paper swans?'.

  4. I've been struggling with these issues myself. With only very limited success, I should add, so I'm afraid I don't have any great insights to offer...

    I think one problem is that gamebooks ask the reader to identify themselves very closely with the protagonist and some readers will take offense if any stupidity on the part of the main character is suggested. As you said, it's probably best not to relate the humour to the decisions wherever possible.

    Another great article, by the way!

  5. I need to revisit and update this post.