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.
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.