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Cat in the Hat Simulator: Valve and the Decline of Humor

Discussion & Analysis Valve

This is an editorial by Lilgreenman which discusses the involvement of humour and comedic elements in Valve’s more recent games. All views expressed in this article are his own.

With all the noise Valve makes about Team Fortress 2 being “The world’s number 1 hat simulator”, their creative staff seem to have neglected a grounding in hat-based literature. Specifically, it seems they’ve never picked up a copy of the best selling hat-based book of all time (eat it, Oliver Sacks!), Dr. Seuss’ 1957 classic The Cat in the Hat.

Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read C-I-T-H: The moral of the book is related to the two young protagonists by the titular feline, after he helps them clean up after a rowdy playtime session; “It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” Which brings me, in my roundabout way, to my point. Valve’s top writers – internet comedy alumni Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton – don’t seem to know how to have fun.

Cat in the Hat Simulator: Valve and the Decline of Humor

After their work on oldmanmurray.com and Double Fine’s cult classic Psychonauts got Faliszek and Wolpaw hired by Valve, their first games were the Half-Life 2 episodes, which were still largely under the creative control of series writer Marc Laidlaw. When they had an opportunity to make Team Fortress 2 and Portal without this control, as well as the support of Cracked.com writer Jay Pinkerton, their sarcastic, parodic and referential humor shone, making both games among the best-received of all time.

It’s worth remembering that the reason TF2 and Portal were so surprising was that previously, Valve was a pretty serious developer: Their titles were action-heavy FPS’s with an emphasis on gameplay and structure, meaning that they were relatively humorless overall. Though Valve made a point of hiring the cream of the crop from their modding community, the developers of comedic mods like Scientist Slaughterhouse weren’t getting any e-mails.

And it looked like this trend would continue in Valve’s first game after the Orange Box, 2008’s Left 4 Dead. The game was hyped up as being a genuinely scary cooperative horror game, with you and your friends fighting back against a sinister “AI Director”, who would tweak your gameplay experience to maximize the terror of every Special Infected attack.

In practice, the problem with this is that terror comes from the unknown, and any multiplayer game will become familiar after a few replays. And when the horror becomes familiar, the inevitable result will be humor. Valve tried to plan for this, by giving the four player characters a rich array of darkly humorous dialogue, but this only hastened the game’s collapse into another comedy, which was aided in no small part by the release of L4D2 less than a year later. The sequel abandoned most of the game’s horror elements in favor of a more traditional humorous and actionized feel, and suffered for this in the eyes of many.

Valve’s next big release was Portal 2, which previews implied would be an intensification of the darkly-humorous original. When the game was released in April 2011, it was lauded as a worthy successor to a classic, but still received some criticism for yet more broad, repetitive or one-note humor, which was becoming more and more prevalent among Valve’s games, thanks to the myriad of lighthearted TF2 updates, blog posts, and so on – which are of an even lower class than the updates. Speaking as an internet comedian (read my movie and game reviews, folks!), these are just about the lowest form of humor: Inconsistent, unimaginative and lazy. Usually it’s mostly filler surrounding major announcements and whatnot, but this is Valve – I feel I’m justified in holding them to high standards.

Now, a note here: Comedy is subjective. If you think Valve’s recent stuff is funnier and better than ever, I have no problem with that. But even speaking objectively, the fact that Valve have moved their focus almost entirely onto humor is incontrovertible. And speaking once again as a comedian (which, come to think of it, I’m doing in this whole article, so I should probably stop being so redundant), the best comedy always has a point to it. In Psychonauts, Wolpaw’s dialogue was always tied in to the plot or developing the rich cast of characters. In Portal, the humor actually added to the tense, insecure and horrific atmosphere, showing some dissonance in GLaDOS’ function and her motivation.

In Left 4 Dead 2, an attempt is made to emulate both of these, but the contextual nature of a multiplayer shooter means that there isn’t any real narrative or characters that the comedy can work toward, and the atmosphere has the same problems I mentioned earlier, which means the jokes get just as played out as the scares. This problem wasn’t really improved by Portal 2, where the lengthened campaign really wore down on the comedy – a few test chambers worth of Cave Johnson would have been fun, but almost a third of the entire campaign alone with him, and I want Valve to release that planned DLC where he’s been stranded in a robot body for centuries, just so I’ll know that he suffers.

Of course, I was optimistic at the announcement in the fall of 2011, that Valve would be taking up the reins on the venerable multiplayer mod and inspiration for World of Warcraft, Defense of the Ancients. At least this grand old MOBA (or Action-RTS, but let’s not start that here) wouldn’t succumb to Valve’s ever-lowering comedic standards…

…Aw, come on, guys. You haven’t announced a new game in two and a half years – there’s nothing on the horizon but a gushing stream of TF2 and DOTA 2 updates, each packed with more eighties movie references and one-note self-deprecation than the last.

It’s a grim view of the future, folks. Erik, Chet and Jay have spread their influence into the whole of Valve Software’s creative staff, and right now this influence seems the greatest obstacle to Half-Life 3’s greatness. It’s the last deadly-serious story that Valve has left, and I’m genuinely scared that the Old Man Murray/Cracked brand of humor will compromise that.

As the Cat in the Hat said, “It’s fun to have fun”, but there’s also nothing wrong with being serious. And that’s definitely something that Valve’s writers should remember.

8 Comments

  1. I didn’t agree with this article, but regarding the humor theme, Dave explained my thoughts about the matter better than I ever could, so the only question I could make is: Dave, is it nice to be a psychic?
    But, in the article, you said that terror comes from the unknown. That’s wrong: SUSPENSE comes from the unknown (and, even then, it doesn’t rely entirely on it). I’m no expert on the theme, and I’m not sure I’m explaining my theory properly (could use a little help here, Dave), but I think terror comes from the distortion of the familiar, either physically or psychologically, which, when done in the right way, doesn’t go away as quickly as being unfamiliar with multiplayer gameplay. No matter that I have 500 hours on L4D2 on Steam, and that I had played L4D for quite a while before moving onto the sequel, the L4D intro still gives me the chills.
    Part of the horror from the franchise comes from the atmosphere, and the other, from the zombies: and they nailed it on both (although I feel like the first part wasn’t as well made on L4D2). I still can’t decide which special boss infected is scarier: the tank, or the witch. And the special infected introduced on L4D2 are even scarier than the old ones, something I didn’t think would be possible.
    The zombies’ animalistic movement and eyes; the hunter’s feral agility and scream; the smoker’s distorted face and tongue; the boomer’s unnatural body; the jockey’s hunched body, maniac cackling and perpetual grin (much like a skull’s); the spitter’s saggy movement and destroyed face; the charger’s gigantic and “petrified” arm and skeletal face; the tank’s grotesquely muscular body, angry howl and gorilla-like movement and the witch’s cry, along with the music for the two boss infected: that’s just not something you can get used to that easily.
    Besides, for my next point, I’d like to share a little story (I know, I know, but I’m finishing soon, don’t tl;dr me): I was in the Hard Rain campaign, focused probably on a particular special infected I heard, when I hear Ellis saying:
    - Wow, that’s a nice crash.
    What crash? What’s he talking ab…
    And then I noticed. Right beside me. Two cars, almost completely destroyed in a accident, right in the middle of the street. Even today, I’m surprised at how I ignored something so hard to be unnoticed.
    The point is, on a game with a multiplayer gameplay as frantic as Left 4 Dead 2 or Team Fortress 2, it’s REALLY easy not only to ignore details, but to dismiss the game’s artwork, without reflecting about it. So it takes a lot more time to get familiar with such artwork.

  2. I don’t agree with this article at all (or almost all). The following rant maybe a bit fanboy-ish but I will try to make a reasonable counter-argument. So I think the exact reason we need gaming companies like Valve and Double Fine is to have someone who is not always so freakin’ serious all the time. An occasional joke in the game bother you dear reader? It feels forced? It feels way much more forced (for me) when it’s in a game that is not supposed to be funny (as in: the developers made it to be taken seriously). Or even that would be okay if the jokes would work, but most of time they don’t (example: Starcraft). Take companies like EA or Activison for example, or even Nintendo, they would never joke around, which is especially weird for Nintendo since they are basically based on colourful and happy video games.
    Valve understands how to pace games, and also understands how to balance between comedy and drama, and that’s not as an easy skill as it looks like. They understand that a concept like: “an insane, science-maniac AI” or “5-5 heroes fighting each other and against the other group’s glowing rocks” or “A single, civilian man carrying 10+ weapons and saving the world from an alien invasion” isn’t a concept that is 100% serious, so they put some jokes in it to ease the tension. The jokes work because from all of the drama and sometimes dark and depressing environment the humour comes as a refreshing relief. It works the other way around. That’s why every Futurama fan remembers “Jurassic Bark” episode, or to stay with Valve games, every L4D fan remembers when Bill died.
    Also it’s not like Valve was more serious before, remember the “Yore dead Freeman”? or the “What d’ya mean Overcharge” from the first Half-life?
    As for Half-life 3, I wouldn’t worry about it, I’m pretty sure they will deliver and Valve can do serious games if CS:GO is any indication. Will it have jokes? Undoubtedly. But they will be in the right place and in the right time.
    As we grow up our humour changes a lot, but I think Valve is still trying to keep it fresh and hey, they don’t really like memes, so at least we can be glad for that. Portal 2 had only one single reference to cakes. I can imagine some other gaming companies who would probably made at least two more Portal games, all full with cake jokes.
    And if you want some “Take me 100% seriously” games, there are plenty of others you can choose from.

  3. Agree with the whole article though I can’t comment on L4D or TF2 as I don’t play those games. Portal 2 is a great game but I did feel like the humor was a little bit “forced”. I, too, am worried about Half-Life 3 with regard to humor. I want Half-Life to stay more serious and dark like the original Half-Life. To be honest, I don’t even like the whole Alyx thing, she makes the game feel too lighthearted and… social. I preferred the solo nature of the original Gordon Freeman fighting his way through a massive, cavernous research complex…

  4. Although Counter-Strike has no story, they’re still keeping that serious.

  5. Great article overall, this fad-catering to the large mainstream crowd needs to stop. I’ve grown so damn tired of it.

    Also, an artist stops being an artist the very moment he compromises his artistical integrity and own style for quick profit. Don’t stop being artists, Valve. Do your best and give us HL3.

    • Don’t be so black and white about artistic integrity. Remember that Samuel Johnson quote: “Only a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

      I’m not annoyed because this compromises their artistic integrity, I’m annoyed because they’re being lazy, and everyone knows they can do better.

  6. Nice article! From the title I didn’t think I was going to agree with you, but by the end I am convinced of your argument. I had the exact same problem with Portal 2 which I found overall to be disappointing. I think a large part of that was down to it being so inconsistent in tone compared to its predecessor. Whereas Portal was very dark and mysterious, the sequel verges on slapstick at times. Yes there was humour in the first game, but as you explained it serves to add to the atmosphere rather than clash with it. This is an opinion I have often failed to explain to people.

    I’m not sure whether the comedy in TF2 is really an issue since the game has always had that sort of attitude, but I must admit I am far from a regular player. As for Left 4 Dead 2, I always felt that the character development was pretty futile on Valve’s part, since most people pay little to no attention to this when in multiplayer. I suppose comedy here is an attempt to make the characters more noticeable but whether that works is up for debate.

    As to your final point, I think it is a risk but the stakes are so high at this point (in the narrative as well as in reality) that I would hope there will be little time for comedy. Considering the Episodes stayed mostly consistent in this regard I would hope that Valve is still able to pull it off in Half-Life 3.

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