Angry Robot

Humour in De Vidiot Games: The Simpsons vs Portal

The two games I’m using here are The Simpsons and Portal. Both spoke to the highly intelligent with their scripts and were incredibly funny. Yet, The Simpsons failed to impress many with its gameplay, relying on old architecture and focusing too much on its cell-shady graphics. Yes, we all know games can look super awesome cartoony, but screw looks, make it feel real! While Portal, on the other hand, blew our skull caps off with not only smooth and sexy graphics but more physics perfection that you could boomerang a stick at. So let’s take a closer look at the humour of each game, since all other matters are irrelevant to this discussion, and you’ll see why one clearly beats the other.

First up: The Simpsons Game. The Simpsons had glitchy controls and was kinda meh in the gameplay but the one liners and achievements were oh so hilarious that it was worth some aggravation. The humour within that game is based off of years and years (and years…) of popular (North American) culture references that many in my demo have literally grown up with. We know the type of humour The Simpsons creates, we know how that show tackles religious, political and social commentary. So when the creators of that series turned their focus to video games of course they were able to take that same technique and use it on the building blocks and constants of game design. Hearing the witty lines in-game was like eating a plate of your favourite comfort food. Just good ol’fashioned and predictable funny, but ever so delightful. The game knew how to make fun of itself and the people playing it without being offensive or boring.

Then came Portal. Ah, what can be said? The completely surreal experience that is Portal not only gives the mind a physical puzzle to tackle but as you navigate each room the journey is enhanced with these completely serious in their delivery and yet so totally absurd lines from an AI. The fact that it is some sort of computer protocol talking to you is part of the reason the lines are so funny. Playing through each level gives pleasure in two ways. One, you are solving these physics puzzles and once you figure one out you feel extremely pleased and proud of yourself, both for figuring our the solution as well as correctly performing the execution. And two, while figuring out the puzzle you are treated to quirky encouragements from the AI or subtle put-downs as well as odd explanations of safety protocols. It’s sheer delight wrapped in fun painted with oddly shiny wit!

Both of these games are similar in that they make you laugh but where one makes you mentally applaud the writers, the other makes your mind stand up in amazement and start up the “slow clap”. Both are solid scripts, but the reason I think Portal blows The Simpsons away is the absurdism of it all. The things that AI says and the delivery of the lines are just so fabulously at odds with each other I could just listen to the lines over and over and not even play the game.

Portal said goodbye to convention and hello to risk. The developers were willingly to say “this is going to work, people are going to love it because we love it”. The Simpsons said hello demo here’s some multiplatform content for you. And although I verily respect all that The Simpsons represents, I would have appreciated some pushing of the envelope and really making gamers look at what they were doing with the humourous eye of the beholder.

So there you have it, Portal beats The Simpsons. The reason being Portal was made by gamers for gamers. The Simpsons was created by a large company and could only get away with so much. The Simpsons had to appeal to a broad range of players, where Portal had to cater only to those willing to experience greatness.

At least that’s my appraisal of the situation.

What do you think?

One comment on "Humour in De Vidiot Games: The Simpsons vs Portal"

  1. D says:

    The Simpsons does make gamers think, if perhaps from a bit of a philosophy 101 angle: “we’re just characters in a game”. But it’s fleshed out quite a bit towards the end.

    In my mind, Portal’s the better game because… it’s actually fun to play. If you took away the scripts altogether, no one would get through the first level of the simpsons, whereas you’d totally play portal all the way through.

    The lesson of Portal seems to me that any game, even a puzzle game, can benefit from a good script and a good story.

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