the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Top 10 Moments of Comic Relief that Define their Game [Spoilers]

The Top 10 Moments of Comic Relief that Define their Game [Spoilers]

We usually think of comic relief as a moment of… well… “relief”, a lapse and a rest in the tragic, a moment to ease our thinking and stop occupying ourselves with the disturbing flow of the events. However, the writer(s) can sneak in very serious messages into these moments as well. Sometimes these moments actually define the whole work, present the theme of the overall theme of the work in a sort of a micronarrative.

I first learned of this phenomenon in my Renaissance Literature course two years ago. Examples of this include the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, the Fool’s ramblings in King Lear, the king scene in Dr. Faustus, and the chef scene in The Duchess of Malfi.

I thought then if this could apply to video games and I immediately thought of an entry on this list. Now two years later, I present to you ten examples of thematic and major comic relief moments in video games.

#10: Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC, PS3, X360)


The whole character of Joker can be considered humorous. Joker is at the same time the villain and the comic relief character of the game, delivering many funny lines that show how hilariously crazy and over the top he is, sort of like if Gilbert Gottfried and Patrick Bateman had a baby. While Nolan’s Batman trilogy presents Joker as some kind of political extremist, in the game, similar to the majority of Batman franchise, Joker seems to be purely unhinged and psychopathic, finding pleasure in tormenting others and causing chaos, but he does that funnily.

Joker’s comic aspect defines him as a villain. He revels in violence, he finds it funny and entertaining. He releases the Arkham inmates into the world, causing many deaths, loss, and damages, and he does it all not for power, or any pragmatic purpose, but for the sheer fun of it. Of course, Joker’s villainy is not the main theme of the game, but his villainy reflects the theme: insanity.

The game questions Batman’s sanity. There are many scenes that Batman seems to devolve into madness, most prominently when he faces Scarecrow. And this is the running theme of many of Joker’s jokes, telling Batman that we are two sides of the same coin, that you are not as heroic as you think, that you also enjoy this, that you are also insane. He describes Batman as “dressed like a lunatic and armed to the teeth”, or “Some idiot is running around the asylum, dressed like a bat…! I know! Crazy! He should be considered costumed and dangerous”. [The quotes are copied from the game’s IMDb page].

Of course, the game is not deep enough to follow this theme into its logical extreme, and it ends with a trite happy ending. Thankfully, we do have another video game which follows the same theme more courageously, and you can read about it in the next entry.

#9: Far Cry 3 (PC, PS3, X360)


I can say the same things in the previous entry about this game as well. Like Joker, Vaas is at the same time the villain and the comic relief character. Like Joker, he seems to combine violence and humor, he seems to genuinely enjoy mindless and purposeless acts of cruelty. Also, the game seems to make insanity its overall theme, making Jason Brody, the protagonist, slide slightly into madness as the game progresses. So far, everything sounds exactly like the previous game.

But Far Cry 3 is more subtle, and takes it to two extremes. First, the hero goes completely mad, which is hinted throughout the game and then revealed in a scene at the end which the gamers who haven’t been paying attention will struggle to explain. But more importantly, the game questions the gamer.

Aren’t we like Joker and Vaas? Aren’t we taking part in mindless and needless violence just to amuse ourselves?

If you look at the game’s posters and ads, they feature Vaas, and not Jason. Why? Jason is not a faceless, silent protagonist. Why Vaas is the face of the game? Is it because we ought to identify with the villain? Have you read my list, “The Top 10 Video Game Assassins?” Am I not being like Vaas and Joker in humorously celebrate the works of fictional assassins?

The game is very courageous in doing so. We, as gamers, are understandably very sensitive to these issues, mainly because of the negative way the media covers us. However, the truth is that there IS a Joker and a Vaas, thankfully, video games are the safe way to access that part with no real harm, and they can also be elevated to say great things about humanity.

In that sense, Vaas’s humor is a mirror to the gamer, and a great criticism on violence.

#8: EarthBound (SNES)


This one was suggested by my dear friend Alice Kojiro (Motherkojiro), who gave me many MANY useful suggestions. Check the honorable mentions for more. I’ll quote her here when she explained the comic scenes to me:

“I have a few for this one. The first is the cult of Happy-Happyism. It has a stupid name, and it is obsessed with the color, blue, even going so far as to paint the entire town (livestock included!) blue. The cult is promising happiness with its name, and forcing people to do completely absurd things, and I’d argue that it’s a very strong criticism of religion in general.

The second one is the mine in which you meet 5 moles, each of whom claim to be the third-strongest of the group. When you fight them, there’s even disembodied text, saying “No. 3” in the background. Why third and not first? Well, that’s the joke; like many loudly-professed causes in this world, it looks completely ridiculous to everyone who’s not a part of it.

The last for Earthbound is Moonside. It has some humorous things, mostly because of how random they are. Yes is no and no is yes, people talk very strangely, and keep saying moonside with spaces in odd places (moo nsi dem oons idem oonsi de). I don’t know if this is accurate, but one could argue that the message is that many people talk without actually saying anything.”

I confess, I haven’t played the Mother series myself. But many smart people whose opinion I’ve trust tell me that the series are actually a criticism on religion and/or tradition, and those comic scenes certainly reflect that.

#7: BioShock Infinite (PC, PS3, X360)


This one seems a bit obvious, but it’s a very nice fit so I’m adding it to the list. The player encounters Lutece siblings, a brother and a sister, from the opening of the game to the very end, occasionally, and always out of the blue. These meetings are filled with hilarious dialogues and a very interesting chemistry between the two characters. Their disinterested, objective, and aloof way of looking at things contrasts with the violence and the horrific atmosphere, and also the fact that they are observing a very strange and mind-blowing phenomena – at least according to the gamer. The ensuing comedy is very subtle and very intelligent.

And I’m sure it’s not news to you that these comedic dialogues actually parallel the events of the game and reveal the mysteries you’re going to unwrap later in the game early on, and reveal their full meaning only in the second playthrough (which is also true about the writings you read in the lightning house). However, these comedic dialogues are not only foreshadowing, but also micronarrative.

I have stolen an entire entry from an email David Kempe (BlueGunstarHero) sent me below. Now I want to steal another of his ideas, because I found it very intriguing and convincing, and that is that the overall theme of this game is actually determinism in choice, and an overall deconstruction of the concept of choice in video games. Now I can never explain this as eloquently as he does, but he uses a specific scene involving the siblings as micronarrative of this theme, which involves the coin toss which always lands on one side of the coin, and that DeWitt’s choice doesn’t matter. BGH fully analyzes this scene.

It’s out of the scope of this top 10 to analyze each of Lutece presences and show how they tie in with the game’s many themes. So I’ll leave it at this superficial level.

#6: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)


This entry is written by BlueGunstarHero, whom you know from his many fantastic lists.

“There are several comedic moments based around some serious topics. My favorite perhaps comes from the postman in one of the most elaborate hidden narratives that you don’t get anything in-game for putting together other than your own satisfaction. The way the game comes up with multiple ways to reward player interactivity (beyond just physical exchanges) that I consider the game one of the greatest of all time.

(to remind you since I don’t think you’ve played it, [this one’s addressed to me, Nazifpour] Majora’s Mask is a game with a repeating time loop where characters move around on schedules)

The postman will sneak out of the post office late on the 2nd night to mail a letter. Talking to him later on, you find out that he wrote the letter to himself. He uses the postal service to write, send, pick up, and deliver a letter to himself. Comedy! What’s grim about it is that the letter he writes is a self-plea to fee town since the moon is falling, but he can’t go through with it because he feels bound by his schedule. Looking at his story against the larger game, Link experiences the same thing; he is trapped by his own schedule, being in an inescapable time loop to relive the same 3 days over and over and he needs to break free. The letter was the Postman’s attempt to break free; urging himself to quit his routine, even though he is ultimately unable to do so without Link’s eventual interaction; just as Link is ultimately unable to solve his own problem himself, needing the help of others in the game to reach the game’s end.”

#5: Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (PC, PS2, XBOX)


There are many in-universe merchandise in Max Payne series, from comic strips about a baseball show to TV series you can watch. One of these series is called Dick Justice. It is a blaxploitation crime show. The story is actually based on Max Payne’s own tragic life, as it is about a cop named Dick Justice whose wife is murdered, and in an attempt to tale revenge, he goes rogue and goes on a killing spree. The show is riddled with cliches, it’s extremely campy and over-the-top. If Dick Justice was real, Tarantino would have loved it and would have stolen many scenes from it. It’s funny simply because of how over-the-top it is, and how its lines are cheesy and self-aware.

And it is a very apt parody of Max Payne series itself. The series reflect everything we know and love about the main story and simply exaggerate them to the point of hilarity. Take Dick’s monologues, that are similar to Max’s musings but they are just corny and funny. But a great parody understands the heart of what it parodies, It’s not only a parody, it’s an interpretation. And that is what this parody also is, the game is not just being funny, but it reinforces its overall themes for the series.

Many have called Max Payne a noire video game, and it is right, but the series is also a commentary on the genre, not only an example of it, and it is very aware of its genre, and references it constantly, and reverses some of its tropes. One is the hero. Max Payne is and is not the typical noire hero. He is a hero who lives in a world that includes noire literature and cinema, but he is self-aware. He is aware that he is having his “15 minutes of fame”, and ultimately this awareness defines Max Payne the hero – he is a real man, and yet a commentary to a genre. He muses about his actions, he becomes depressed and alcoholic, he is not stoic, he is very critical of himself. The world treats him like a hero, but he doesn’t consider himself one – he is an angry and hurt person. Max’s humor and narration is always self-deprecating, he brings nothing but pain and misery to himself and those he loves.

And this funny cheesy TV series shows how the world treats Payne – as amusement. Part of Max’s tragedy is the distance between him and people, and Dick Justice is the symbol of how people perceive Max, ignore his pain and trauma, and turn him to a one-dimensional aspect hero. Max Payne is Dick Justice to the world, and that’s part of his tragedy.

#4: Silent Hill 3 (PS2, PC)


So the hospital you’ve entered has just transformed into a hellish nightmare version of itself. You hear a phone ringing inside a locker. You open the locker and answer that phone, because seriously, what other priority would you have in a hell-infested nightmare but to answer a payphone? As you pick up the phone you hear someone singing “Happy Birthday” on the other end of the line. Now the person giving this call doesn’t know Heather. When he reaches the line that he should address Heather by name, he admits that he doesn’t know her name. Heather says: “Who are you?” And the caller continues to sing like this: “Happy birthday Hooaryou!”

A lame pun, no?

Of course, there are many other hints to the ending of the game dropped in this conversation, like the man congratulating her 31st and 24th birthday, but we’re not discussing those hints because they are not either thematic or comedic.

The obvious symbolism is this: Heather is actually someone else, and the caller hints at this fact as well.

However, I think Silent Hill 3 is actually a game about a girl’s journey through her identity, and it is more than a simple identity mystery. The game is filled with sexual, birth, pregnancy, and abortion imagery, and I believe the caller’s insistence about the fact that today is Heather’s birthday, and her denial of it, shows this psychological struggle with identity and sexuality. Heather doesn’t have a fixed personality, so her is a mystery, her very name is a question. Today is not only the birthday of the god inside her, but also of her own, as she can finally find herself in the game, giving birth and overcoming the split personality.

At its heart, Silent Hill 3 is coming of age game, and this scene encapsulates that theme.

#3: Metal Gear Solid (PS)


You are fighting one of your enemies, Psycho Mantis. This fight results in one of the most glorious meta moments of shattering the fourth wall in the history of video games. It looks at your memory data and mocks the games you have, attempts to move your controller by using his mind (i.e. vibration), and the way to easily defeat him is to unplug your controller and plug it in the second player’s slot. Pretty uncharacteristic shenanigans meant only for fun, no? No.

Metal Gear Solid series deals with many themes, many of them political ones. But one of the dominant aspects of the game is its postmodern aspect. Postmodern can mean many things, from “weird for weird’s sake” [Simpsons reference!] to “after 1945”, depending on whom you ask. Here, I mean it as a game which is aware that it is a game, and serves as commentary on the genre and the medium. In short, a video game about video games.

Many miss the fact that MGS series is also a parody of its own genre and medium, but it has been a running motif in the entire series, continually subverting the cliches the game itself sets up. Of course, like Tarantino movies, Kojima’s postmodern parodies are loving and not bitter. But they point one thing out relentlessly: we are video games. Forget the willing suspension of disbelief. This is all make-belief. It’s a bunch of lies.

And the same theme goes through the political theme of the games: shifting loyalties, hidden identities, conspiracy theories, they all seem to imply that world governments and wars are “games”, make belief, a “virtual reality” if you may. So MGS series are about one thing: deception.

This is nowhere as obvious as the second game in the series, which “trolls” with the expectations of the gamer, referencing the video game structures, making it a deceitful game about deception, never letting us forget the fictionality. The next games in the series make this theme subtler, but the theme of the deceit remains the central thread connecting everything.

In most games, breaking the fourth wall really IS a moment of mindless laughter and rest. In MGS, breaking the fourth wall is the cornerstone of what the game is.

#2: Silent Hill (PS)


Two Silent Hill games in one list? I know, I know, I deeply apologize if I have hurt your feelings.

Harry Mason, the protagonist, is moving down a room. There are many lockers in the room. At the other side of the room, one of the lockers is rattling. You go to the other side of the room, wondering which monstrosity awaits in the locker. You open the locker, but instead of a zombie or a similar grotesque thing a cat jumps out of the locker. Wooh.

Actually, this moment illustrates how horror works in Silent Hill series, and I think it intentionally or unintentionally contrasts itself with Resident Evil horror. If I had to choose a quintessential moment in Silent Hill series to describe their approach to horror, this funny moment would be it. In Resident Evil series, the quintessential moment would be the dog corridor – when you walk down a quiet, seemingly innocent corridor and suddenly many dogs burst in through shattering windows, giving you a good scare jump.

Now compare these moments: one corridor is silent, the other room is filled with an unsettling noise. One ends with a scary note and the other one with a hilarious one. But if you remember the first time that you experienced that moment, it wasn’t necessarily funny, it could be called scary, or at least suspenseful. You don’t know what lies ahead but you know there’s something, so there’s a sense of expectation as you walk the room. In Resident Evil you will most likely feel that this corridor is an innocent place (especially since it’s the first real scare of the game).

So this is the Silent Hill method: valuing suspense over shock, valuing the journey over the destination. It doesn’t matter what monster lies waiting for you at the end of the corridor, because the scary part is the corridor itself.

#1: Final Fantasy IX (PS)


Our heroes are led by a thief called Zidane, who wants to infiltrate the cast of a play called I Want to Be Your Canary and kidnap a princess. The play is supposed to tell the the story of a love between a noble and a peasant, and it is written by someone called Lord Avon, so it’s obviously a Shakespearean reference. This play and how it plays out is quite funny and serves as the comic relief in the game. The script is improvised and it is connected with the kidnapping in the main plot, Adelbert Steiner, princess’s bodyguard, is playing one of the roles without even realizing he is doing so, and the Princess herself is switched with the actress who’s supposed to play the role of the princess. If you haven’t played the game all of this might sound not funny, but it plays out really hilariously.

And the play also summarizes the whole game comprehensively, mirroring the story of each character. Once you replay the game it’ll blow your brains. For example, Vivi, wants to see the play but he is refused entry, because his ticket is and reads “I Want to be Your Crow.” This mirrors the fact that Vivi himself is actually “forged”, he is not a genuine black mage, and because of that he is refused entry to his community. You can draw the same parallels for other characters too.

However, the play reflects not only the theme of each character but also the theme of the game as a whole. The Shakespearean allusion is clearly meant to remind us of one of very basic Shakespearean themes, and that is the theme of masks, and subverted identities. The theme is very strong in King Lear which clearly is alluded to in the play, in the form of the character of King Leo, as the king falls into madness and social deprivation.

Final Fantasy IX is a game about subverted identities, people who are not who they are, masks, and reversals in class and social status. The main hero is a thief who is elevated to the status of hero in spite of his larceny ambitions, the main heroine is a princess who wants to be kidnapped and therefore lose her social status, the main villain (Kuja) is someone who controls things from behind a curtain, as a queen who is actually not a queen, Steiner is an honorable military man who has to team up with the thieves and yet he loses his military rank, Amarant Coral is a social Darwinist who actually teams up with a group of underdogs, and so on.

And the same happens in the play – the roles get confused, the forgeries are made, real people act, and the same thing happens in the main plot. The botched way “I Want to Be Your Canary” is played out is indeed a micronarrative of the whole game. “Life is a stage”, indeed.


Acknowledgment: As you can see, this article is actually a group effort. I need to thank three of my dear friends and fellow writers at GameFAQs and Gaming Symmetry:

Alice Kojiro AKA Motherkojiro: She suggested and wrote the EarthBound entry and also I have quoted the entire Honorable Mention section from her.

David Kempe AKA BlueGunstarHero: He suggested and wrote the Majora’s Mask entry.

David Jerebko AKA DDJGames: He suggested entries 10 (which also caused me to think of 9), and number 1.

Honorable Mentions: As I’ve said before, this entire sections is written by Alice Kojiro.

American McGee’s Alice (PC, PS2): one of the residents of Wonderland will say something completely absurd and silly, but it demonstrates the incoherence of her psychotic episode and gives them a greater impact. If I had to pick just one, I’d cite the approach to the Mad Hatter’s Domain in Madness Returns where Alice and the Cheshire Cat are casually talking in that teapot cable car while they’re under attack by Bolterflies, and the cat says, “Making friends, Alice? You’re as randomly lethal and entirely confused as ever.” It’s a funny line, but he’s also showing her just how bad her state of mind really is, even if you don’t realize it until you find out what’s happening to her at the end of the game.

Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai (SNES) – The entire game has only 3 humorous moments, and although I generally hate comic relief, this is one of the few games that does it properly. Your cousin, Romarl, has a very strong sense of justice, but he’s also kind of a hotheaded spaz about it. He’s a very loyal companion, and a very good person, but he’s a little overzealous and misguided. You’re heading through a dungeon, and you meet a flying beast with green scales. He exclaims that it’s a dragon and he’s going to slay it, because that’s the highest honor of a knight. This idea, of course is completely stupid, and the creature makes a complete fool of him. “A dragon? Look closer, Boy; notice how my talons are attached to my wings? I’m not a dragon; I’m a polydactyl (I’m not sure that polydactyl is actually the word he uses). You know, a wyvern?” The speech is funny, but its main purpose is to make the player stop and think about the romantic idea of slaying dragons and just how pointless it is and how blind we are to romanticize it.

Chrono Trigger (SNES) – Originally, Magus was the leader of the Mystics, who hated humans. The two were at constant war, but eventually, Magus finds himself on the side of the humans, and his head lackey, Ozzie takes his place. When you battle Ozzie in his own fortress, you find that he’s grossly incompetent, and actually winds up getting his ass handed to him by a kitten. Yes, an actual tiny cat. The message here is a demonstration of how ridiculous it looks when you cling to old prejudices.

Secret of Mana (SNES) – In your travels, you are to meet Sage Joch and undergo a trial to continue your quest. However, whenever you go there, you meet only his disciple, Jehk, who always sends you to somewhere in the world that’s in incredible turmoil. The group becomes sarcastic after a while, but eventually, Joch shows up, and allows them their trial. When they return, the old man is gone, and Jehk reveals himself to be the real Sage Joch. Kind of a humorous twist, but the message is that just because you’re some sort of legendary hero doesn’t mean that you’re the only thing that matters. There’s more to saving the world than undergoing some meaningless trial.”

Suggested for Further Readings:

This article by Jeremy Parish argues about the theme of deception and genre awareness in Metal Gear Solid series and I love it:

This article by my friend David “BGH” Kempe argues for the case in Bioshock Infinite and it’s a must-read:

Finally, it feels very good to be writing top 10s again! See you all next time.

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