*Author’s Note: This post is a bit late, seeing as this is a response to a Game/Show episode that aired roughly 20 days ago, but still a necessary response, I think.
Justin Keever | Jun 25, 2014
Proper videogame discussion has been colored by problematic player-centric, anti-narrative rhetoric for some time, but I admit I never expected for these sorts of arguments to arise in an analysis of Goat Simulator. But, in a recent episode of PBS Game/Show – titled “Is Goat Simulator Brilliant or Stupid?” – Jamin Warren presents us with a new source of this tired rhetoric. Warren begins the latest episode of his show by lamenting the lack of intentionally comedic videogames, saying that most of the humorous content in videogames comes in the form of bizarre glitches and behaviors. He then lists off a few exceptions to the rule, citing well-known videogame comedies, like Full Throttle and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, before dismissing them in the very same breath by comparing them to Arrested Development or Louie. Dismissing a comedy by comparing it to two of television’s greatest comedy series is a rather odd way to express dissatisfaction, but Warren is not interested in the quality of the comedy, but the method of its execution: “I don’t think they’re necessarily funny in a way that’s unique to games,” he says. “The game’s writers or designers are the ones writing and telling the jokes. You just sit back and relax.” He continues to posit that this is not case with Goat Simulator, saying that Goat Simulator has now established precedent for “interactive humor that completely relies on the player.” The remainder of the video is essentially just Warren praising the lack of scripted elements (be it narrative, dialogue, etc.) in Goat Simulator, while making a series of extremely problematic, hypocritical, or otherwise reductive arguments and comparisons that wrongfully idolizes Goat Simulator as work of utopian player-centricism, dismissing the importance of the author and an entire history of comedic games.
The crux of Warren’s argument is the notion that “nothing is scripted” in Goat Simulator, that the comedy only emerges from the outlandish activities that the player takes it upon themselves to do, such as putting a jetpack on your goat and flying him/her into a gas station. I will grant Warren that the game never forces the player into said scenario, but to say that scenario begins and ends with the player is to ignore the core design of Goat Simulator. Goat Simulator is a game about nothing, sure, but it’s also a game that is designed around comedy; or, more precisely, the affordances the player is given to interact with the world are all designed around slapstick comedy. The player doesn’t fly the jetpack into the gas station on their own: the joke is lying dormant within the design, waiting to be revealed by the player. Warren speaks of Goat Simulator as though it is a collection of mod tools than an actual game: the player does not engage in any actual creativity in Goat Simulator, but instead works within the rules of the game (loose rules they may be) to reveal the comedic scenarios that lie dormant in the game’s code. If there is no jetpack or gas station to begin with, there is no gag: it is not within the player’s power to conjure these items into existence, so he/she is wholly reliant on the sense of humor of the designer. Just because there isn’t a script through which the developer is able to communicate their sense of humor does not mean that their own personality is removed from the experience, it’s just revealed through different means. Ask Armin Ibrisagic if he thinks the idea of a goat wearing a jetpack and exploding is funny. I’ll guarantee he’ll say yes.
What’s particularly perturbing about Warren’s point here is that he brings in other games that work in very similar ways, apropos of this supposedly player-driven “emergent comedy,” such as Grand Theft Auto and Cards Against Humanity, then dismisses them for reasons that reflect this erroneously utopian vision of Goat Simulator. First, he insists that while GTA offers a similar sandbox of slapstick possibilities, that sort of humor “isn’t the point of Grand Theft Auto,” seeing as there is also a normal mission structure, and that by including a death mechanic GTA defies the benign violation theory (which posits that things are funny because they are simultaneously safe and dangerous). The latter point is valid, to a degree (I think one could successfully argue that GTA fits comfortably within the benign violation theory simply by nature of being a videogame, which inherently provides an inherently safe space to do unsafe things within a fairly realistic simulated environment), but the former point reveals a very reductive point of view of both Grand Theft Auto and the role of humor in videogames writ large. Grand Theft Auto is, for all intents and purposes, a comedy series. It’s a black comedy, certainly, but even at its most serious, the world of GTA is filled with sophomoric puns and gluttonous helpings of (unsuccessful) satire that place it firmly within the genre of comedy, gratuitous gun-violence notwithstanding. Now, the comedy within the series’ core narrative structure is scripted, but that does not mean that humor is not the point (or at least, a point) of GTA. In fact, the kinds of slapstick subversion of reality that Goat Simulator is based on are fundamental to the experience of essentially all open-world games, given the genre’s inherent looseness. Goat Simulator does not provide a revolutionary comedy experience; it merely isolates one aspect of open-world comedy that has been present since the genre’s inception.
But Warren’s argument against Cards Against Humanity in terms of player-centricism is even more infuriating: Warren postulates that it does not provide the same kind of emergent comedy experience because “you don’t write things on the cards, someone else does.” To this point, I respond: You don’t program the physics of Goat Simulator: Coffee Stain Studios did. You didn’t intentionally leave glitches in Goat Simulator for their comedic value, Coffee Stain Studios did. The player is not the creative in Goat Simulator, just as much as they aren’t in Cards Against Humanity: both games are a collection of preset, decidedly limited possibilities. Both are authored, each game offering comedic potential in one specific genre, which that the player is meant to exploit for their own enjoyment. The mere fact that Goat Simulator’s comedy is entirely physical means that it is authored just as much as Cards Against Humanity. This is not an indictment of Goat Simulator, but the opposite: the authorship of Coffee Stain Studios is exactly what makes it entertaining. Goat Simulator is a series of conscious choices that work together to create comedic scenarios, not the utterly blank, player-reliant world that Warren seems to be implying.
Warren seems to unintentionally touch on something much bigger than Goat Simulator when he explains the way in which the player acts as the performer and the audience: “you’re the one telling the jokes, and you’re laughing at the jokes you just told,” he explains. I must admit that I’m perplexed that he can present this scenario as a positive. That’s one of the most narcissistic things I’ve ever heard. But it does capture the essence of the videogame, in a way: most commercial games are built on the player laughing at their jokes, basking in their own exceptionality. That this experience is built on a carefully told lie is what the careless player will soon forget, that the artifice is exactly that. All games, be they scripted like Full Throttle, or open-ended like Goat Simulator, are just a collection of alphabet blocks. Whether you’re instructed to spell a word, or just want to spell out nonsense, you’ve not made the blocks themselves. Your mother gave them to you.