Shovel Knight is now adding in The Battletoads in homage to the hit 90s beat-em-up series. While this is not something that fits with the game’s canon, after filling their gamer with Trout/Apple hybrids and the like, it is clear that Yacht Club Games prioritizes fun/classic ol’ goofs over elaborate world building.
This reflects the attitude of a lot of indie developers, who are no strangers to references, and jokes galore (some better than others). This can be good and bad depending on how the dev chooses to implement this. Done wrong, developers can completely break immersion in an otherwise good experience in favor of a gag. Done right, it can help to ease tension and give the player a laugh in a lighthearted section. This all comes down to whether the jokes flow and are integrated into the story, or if the storyline has to take a backseat to the humor. Moderation is everything when storyboarding your game, and the jokes must meld with the story in a way that either eases tension in a moment where it is needed or provide a respite of laughter before an emotion-filled section.
Many Indie Developers take this the wrong way and believe that their game must be funny because ALL independent games must be funny. This issue can also be seen in the AAA industry, with villains stopping the progression of dialogue to make a pun or witty remark. However, the indie game scene sees this much more than others. Some whole games can be boiled down to a joke in the title, or a single pun. I am of course not ragging on game’s that want to take a more lighthearted tone, but I am going to explain how it is done badly, and why it is done in the indie space more than other sides of the industry.
This attitude that all indie games must be funny springs from the success of games like Shovel Knight; Shovel Knight used humor in the story because that is what the developers intended the overarching attitude of the game to be. Shortly after, a little game called Undertale made a big splash in the industry with its whimsical attitude. This contrasts severely with AAA games; which are so often gritty, dull, and serious that they are completely devoid of life at all. These black and white examples are the most prominent and can lead to future game designers holding the mentality that the humor is the sole aspect that contributed to their success.
This is not nearly the case, and in fact, both of those aforementioned games had moments of sadness and serious periods throughout to tamper the lighthearted mood. The games succeeded because they were well designed, and satisfied genres that were deserted by the big wigs on top. The jokes were a cherry on top of the metaphorical cake, and in an industry that people take so seriously, it was nice to play a game that laughed at and with the gaming audience.
The key to maintaining a good joke to game ratio is down to two things, moderation and integration. Just like your mom always told you “moderation is the key to everything”; and even though she may have just been telling you to eat less food, this rule can be applied to jokes in the industry. You have to balance out the jokes with moments of sadness or gameplay to make those snippets of humor all the more poignant. The integration comes into play as well here, and the humor must mesh with the dialogue instead of feeling awkward and segregated from the rest of the writing.
This may have seemed fairly anti-humor in games, but I actually love taking a break from my day to day life to chuckle at a well-written joke. The key word there, of course, is well written, and I believe that many people share my sentiments/ideology towards humor. It is crucial to remember that not all games must be funny, and the ones that are need well integrated, spaced out jokes.