Getting humor in video games right is tough. While games share a lot with the medium of film in terms of visual storytelling, the presence of a player introduces an unpredictable variable that can totally blow a joke. You never know if they will miss the gag, look the wrong way at a crucial moment, or ignore a punchline because they’re too busy running, shooting, jumping, or looking for their next challenge.
Humor is a big part of Journey to the Savage Planet, the first-person “explore-’em-up” and freshman offering from Typhoon Studios. Savage Planet puts you in the role of a space explorer hired by the fourth-best space company in the universe, Kindred Aerospace, and dumps you on a strange world where it’s your job to explore and catalog the flora and fauna. The creatures are all a bit goofy, like orb-shaped Dodo-like birds that eat slop and poop valuable resources. Interacting with them elicits one-liners delivered by your AI–which is eager to help you explore, but more eager to warn you about limits to Kindred’s legal liability should you meet a horrific demise.
The writing is part of the humor of Journey to the Savage Planet, but it’s not Typhoon’s main focus in getting you to laugh. The game primarily leverages what creative director Alex Hutchinson calls “interactive slapstick,” where Savage Planet’s systems let you create moments that turn out funny, whether on purpose or by accident.
“I think the problem with humor in video games traditionally is people have tried not to embrace the player,” Hutchinson told GameSpot in an interview during E3 2019. “You know, they basically see it as a movie. So all the humor is in the dialogue. And we have what we hope our witty one-liners happening there as well. But I think the true humor in the game is in the actions the player performs, and it’s kind of an interactive slapstick where the player can launch a joke that ends up paying off on themselves. If we get these systemic collisions, then I think it’s a new form of humor, because it’s based on decisions you made as a player and the wacky consequences that float out of it.”
Hutchinson was previously creative director for Far Cry 4, a game known for its in-game systems sometimes interacting in unexpected and hilarious ways. Moments like those served as inspiration for what Typhoon is trying to do in Savage Planet.
“In Far Cry 4, there was nothing funnier than seeing a bear on fire rush into the camp and kill your friend after you’d thrown a molotov cocktail 30 seconds earlier, and it was a joke you created,” he said while appearing on GameSpot’s E3 stage. “So we’re trying to get that sense of interactive comedy into the game, because one-liners and things are funny, but they’re funny once.”
Making A Bet On Laughs
While those moments feel random or unexpected for the person playing, they’re not completely emergent from the design side. Hutchinson said the process of creating interactive slapstick is partially about iterating unexpected moments, and partially about working systems into the game that the team knows will lead to funny moments.
Hutchinson described filling an encounter with explosive pods, for instance, knowing that one stray shot could turn a battle with a dangerous creature into a deadly fireworks display that could kill the player, or trigger other interactions they might not see coming. But the player’s options are finite, as are the behaviors of creatures and other elements in the game–so from a design standpoint, the team knows how things are going to work, and therefore, is often looking to set up ridiculous situations.
“I think there are some [mechanics and level designs] where you make a bet,” Hutchinson explained. “…You bet this is what can happen, and then we have to work on it and iterate to make sure it sort of happens. And then other [funny moments] just start to emerge and when they emerge, you can reinforce them, you know? Then you can make them happen elsewhere in the game, or encourage the player to do them.”
Mechanical jokes might be the focus of its humor, but there also is plenty in the way of comedic writing in Savage Planet as well. Kindred’s position as the fourth-best aerospace company means that it’s perpetually strapped for cash, so despite the fact you work for the corporation, you’re also bombarded with its ads.
Those commercials are largely gags–they look like those old TV infomercials in which some hapless actor catastrophically tears open a bag of chips or slams a hammer through a wall, then mugs for the camera to show us how frustrated they are with their own foibles. But the ads shown in Savage Planet’s E3 preview, for things like gross space food Grob or a mall for sea monkeys, double as world-building. They set up a satirical universe where even on a distant planet, you can’t escape the ever-present force of someone trying to sell you something.
The Gravitational Pull Of The Gun
Several of Savage Planet’s in-game ads focus on the items you wield in your left hand as you explore. Those items are meant to yield clever ways to solve problems and deal with the hazardous life you encounter–as opposed to the gun in your right hand, which provides a more straightforward solution.
Hutchinson said he had hoped to keep that gun out of your hand in favor of goofier, nonviolent solutions to problems, like using bait to draw creatures toward other things that might eat them, or planting springy pads in their paths that might send them over cliffs.
“The biggest challenge is always to rise above the noise and to offer something compelling and unique that will hopefully resonate with people,” Hutchinson said. “So, you know, we chose to be optimistic and upbeat and colorful and humorous, and also to try and get you to use different tools, you know, than just the gun. Because we’re never going to be the best shooter on the planet.”
Despite Hutchinson’s best efforts, though, Typhoon couldn’t manage to keep a gun out of Journey to the Savage Planet, he said. But the studio is still working on making it possible to avoid firing it if you don’t want to when the game releases in 2020.
“We tried really hard to emphasize that stuff, but this sort of gravitational pull of a gun was too much to bear,” he said. “A player, after playing, was like, ‘I love these tools, but sometimes I just want to shoot him in the face.’ … So the goal for the game is to say that you don’t have to use the gun, but obviously you can–we’ll see how it pans out. At the moment, we haven’t figured out a way to make it so you can beat the bosses without the gun. But that would be the goal.”
“I have a very soft spot for nonviolent approaches in video games,” Hutchinson also said on the GameSpot stage. “There’s a joke at the start of Far Cry 4, which is, essentially, if you just listen to [Pagan Min] and wait, he lets you do the thing you came for without having to murder anybody. So these things, I’ll sneak it in as much as I can–I wanted to do it again on this game. It’s very tricky but we’re getting closer and closer. I can’t promise that there will be a purely nonviolent way through the game, but there’s often a way to avoid [using a gun] if you want.”