PBS Game/Show, Goat Simulator, and “Interactive” Humor

*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.

Advertisements

6 Comments

  1. Great post, very interesting and I agree with most of it. And as someone who designs games, and thought a lot about one of the things you mentioned early on in the post. And something which is often ignored/willful ignorance over, even in the professional crowd in my experience.

    That was this: “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.”

    The problem is, at least on how I see it (and the dictonary) is that we somewhere started to define what a videoGAME is very loosely to the point that it started to mean “anything interactive for entertainment”. In the real world that definition of what a game is doesn’t hold any water, something entertaining and interactive can as easily be a toy, contest or puzzle. Yet when talking about videogames they are suddenly seen as so similar that they should be together. But that distinction is still there, if we ignore it or not.

    Personally I wouldn’t classify goat simulator as a game, but rather as a toy. In which comedy can be found. But like most videos, articles and talks relating to matters of game design they talk about story, often even directly theories used for film and writing directly applied to videogames. This is largely because a good portion of those people came to videogames as the next frontier of storytelling.

    But when looking at purely the mechanical structure digital interaction and the structure of scripted narrative they are vastly different. And I think no one is going to argue with me that Ocarina of Time, Goat Simulator, time trail racing modes and Chess all have a different mechanical structure.
    And only one can fit traditional/scripted storytelling; Ocarina of Time. Which is structurally as a whole a puzzle.
    But for instance Chess, a game proper, doesn’t need or have any form of traditional/scripted storytelling. But it does have narrative of play and some light thematic to make it easier to understand for the player. Just like most if not all games proper.
    In that same way Goat simulator can’t have timed comedy but only comedy through the context in which the system is put in. If goat simulator wouldn’t have context it would be a block flying into another set of blocks, instead of a jetpacking goat flying into a gas-station.

    So to have any form of constructive talk about gamedesign/ interactive entertainment design/puzzle and interactive story design/digital toy design as a whole you need to first separate the kinds of interactive entertainment/”videogames” into those categories. Because as it stands right now, we are trying to make specific theories for drums that all also need to fit with the flute and triangle and vise versa. Instead of having a general base and having 2 more specific set of theories.

    Sidenote: tabletop interactive entertainment never had this kind of identity crisis.

  2. I don’t understand how Goat Simulator cannot be considered a sort of “discovery comedy” game. Granted, the humor may lie “dormant within the code”, as you say, but the combinations of the humorous elements are entirely discovered by the player. It would be adequate to posit that the experience is both somewhere between the player and the developers.

    As with the Cards Against Humanity example: Those cards may very well have been written by some intern at Cards Against Humanity LLC. But when someone presents the black card: What’s that I hear? And you decide to throw down: Pac-man guzzling cum, THAT combination was not explicitly intended by the developer; it was discovered by the player.

    Claiming that the creativity lies “dormant” within the code removes all agency from the players themselves. This would be like saying that everything any person created in Minecraft is really the creation of the developer -I believe that’s legally true for Mojang- because the potential for such architecture and worlds are “dormant” within the code.

    It would be more precise to say that the developers actually act as limiters. Imagine the game world is completely blank, empty. A construction set of some type. The developers come in and create the limitations: This area looks like this, with this lighting, with these physics, with these objects, etc. etc. That seems to me to be the heart of sandbox game design (mind you something I’m still new at attempting to do myself). They are trying to create parameters which provide a creative environment where the player can let loose with their imagination- that’s what Minecraft does so well.

    So, in Goat Simulator, there is definitely a degree of “discovery humor”, or player-centric comedy. The developers are not forcing you to discover the world in any particular way. (I’m wondering if this boils down to a free will argument).

    P.S.
    I get your idea about player-centrism, not sure about narrative-centrism… Would that be something with a cut-and-dry story? Like Halo?

  3. The video really annoyed me too, and I felt like the argument was just insanely weak, not to mention that games did this kind of thing way before Goat Simulator anyway, like Garry’s Mod or Noby Noby Boy. But the worst thing is the way it devalues comedy writing, claiming it to not be relevant in games which is just flat out dumb.

  4. I want to say I’m going to enter between you and Warren on this one and say I believe that Goat Simulator and similar games are sort of a conversation between the player and developer.The developer creates the world, yes, but the difference between game development and other media is that the player is an unknown, so long as the developer lets them be. The player can be given choice and as long as the player is given choice between more than two things, they are given freedom to express themselves.
    If I have no shirts, I can’t express myself, if I have a red and a blue shirt, my choice is expressive of what I prefer. I can choose my shirt, look down at it throughout the day and say “Yes, I did that, I’m happy with that, I chose right, I like this.”
    In a game like Goat SImulator not only am I able to express myself because there is more than one path, but there are also presumable more paths than measurable. No matter the fact that carrot top has set abunch of props on the stage for me to use, he doesn’t know what I’ll use and how I’ll use it.He, as a comedian, can predict me and say “Oh good choice” or “Oh, he picking up the carrot, he saw what I wanted him to do” but regardless, my part in it, the fact that I have control over the actions I’m taking, means I am expressing myself with his tools as he is expressing himself with the tools he’s given me.
    In this article you seem to have set the kind of idea that games that allow you to express yourself are really entirely an expression of the developer anyway, but I disagree. The developer has set down the tools for me to express myself, to myself, but the developers as well are also inevitably expressing things about themselves in the rules of the world, unlike TV where only the creator is expressive and the watcher has no choice or entropy. Because in a game both the player and the developer are expressing, I call it communication.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s