In my previous intro to the subject, we talked a bit about the origins of this strange new bumper crop of short, compact indies based around a single joke idea. Here in Part II I’ve assembled a sort of Best Of list of some of the scene’s more visible or influential titles. Let’s start off with one of this new wave’s most recognizable early entries:

unnamed

Cookie Clicker

The Joke: The raw lizard-brain appeal of Diablo-clickfest gameplay distilled into its purest, most absurd form. There are cookies, and you click them.

I wouldn’t say this ‘started’ this whole oddball short-form of joke games, but it certainly mainstreamed it. Back in 2010, game studies academic and writer Ian Bogost created a social network game on Facebook, Cow Clicker. A parody of low-skill, social-cache-dependant pseudo-games like Farmville that had occupied so much of our feeds, it simply asked that every six hours you click on a cow. For this expenditure of effort you would receive a point. It was almost immediately popular, maybe because irony and parody are confusing, or maybe for once everyone got the joke.

Following in Cow Clicker’s footsteps a few years later, Julien Thiennot created Cookie Clicker, a self-described “non game” with the same objectives and mechanics as Cow Clicker, elevated to the point of absurdity. It would be a landmark in the burgeoning genre of ‘idle gaming,’ a variety of games wherein the smallest, stupidest objectives produced rewards, creating a positive reinforcement loop that ensnared the player to continue proverbially feeding the game quarters.

One can argue that Progress Quest back in 2002 had a similar vibe, and was an early example of an indie game made more as a commentary on commercial games than as something to be played. Yet it was more of a conceptual parody than the fully-realized product that is Cookie Clicker.

There are plenty of people who took clicking cookies deadly-seriously, and there’s reference wikis, JavaScript you can use to ‘cheat’, and a slew of imitators all with significant player bases. Truly a series of Russian nesting dolls, each more ironic and parodic than the last, until you’re not sure where the game begins and the parody ends.

DSYP  eventually got to the point of being mentioned by Jennifer Lawrence on Letterman, which 10 years ago if you’d told me would be a thing that happened, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Don’t Shit Your Pantsdont-shit-your-pants

The Joke: It’s right there in the title, dude.

One would think that this text-based survival horror game would have already expended its humor on that killer title. One would be wrong, because where lesser humorists would have simply taken that line and re-sold it again and again, there’s a hundred other jokes in this game that play on expectation and on gaming convention. There are a dozen different endings and achievements, and you won’t get any of them if you don’t think outside the box.

The devs have managed to do a classic maneuver where you’re lured in with a simple, low-brow joke that establishes a baseline, and then you’re continuously caught off-guard by creative riffs on the theme. People responded so strongly to this it became a focal point for the humor-game community. DSYP eventually got to the point of being mentioned by Jennifer Lawrence on Letterman, which 10 years ago if you’d told me would be a thing that happened, I wouldn’t have believed you.

And for such a “non-game”, Cellar Door would go on to make Rogue Legacy, a title I ardently adore, and would consider one of my favorites of the last few years. I was even pleasantly surprised when Rogue Legacy retained some of their scatalogical roots by utilizing an excellent fart joke gimmick.

Games that have money and marketing behind them can’t afford to be bad, but indie games can take that tragedy and turn it into comedy using that tumultuous gulf between what you’re trying to do with your controller, and what the game ends up using as a canvas for humor.

Surgeon Simulator 2013ss2_1

The Joke: You are a terrible surgeon.

Goofy, broken physics engines create unintentional comedy in gaming. They’re the core of just about every game, and if they don’t work, you’re screwed. For most of the history of our medium, a bad physics engine wasn’t anything more than the driving force of a bad game to be forgotten, maligned, or to be made into its own malicious punchline. Call something ‘Superman 64’, and everyone knows that’s shorthand for ‘invisible walls, floaty controls, and a general ignorance of how to program a hitbox’.

Games that have money and marketing behind them can’t afford to be bad, but indie games can take that tragedy and turn it into comedy using that tumultuous gulf between what you’re trying to do with your controller, and what the game ends up using as a canvas for humor.

They say great comedy comes from pain and tragedy. The oldest joke in the world had to have been a caveman slipping on ice or wooly mammoth blood or whatever, and another caveman pointing and laughing. The advent of the game jam may be what has created the subgenre of ‘bad-on-purpose’ gaming, because what’s more tragic than when you have 48 hours to turn out a working game, and you spend 47 of those hours on a physics engine that never ends up working and threatens to sink the whole thing?

Surgeon Simulator is one of the earlier and more well-known examples of this school of lemons-to-lemonade aesthetic, and it has the kind of morbid, absurd slapstick humor of a low-rent comedy horror movie.

And hey, if you actually like the physics of this game and want to see a more refined product from the same guys, check out I Am Bread.

What Goat Simultator was really demonstrating was the power of YouTube to sell the younger generation on buying a game as a goof.

Goat SimulatorGoat-Simulator

The Joke: “An old-school skating game, except instead of being a skater, you’re a goat, and instead of doing tricks, you wreck stuff.”

A further exploration of the Surgeon Simulator physics-as-punchline school of thought, taken a little further to explore glitches and technical problems intentionally retained in the final game instead of eliminated in beta. The core of what made this game a cult hit was its meta jokiness about the strange joy of breaking a game, unconstrained by an actual game. It took the phenomenon of YouTube glitch-hunting and broken speed-runs and distilled them into a playground where your only goal is absurdity. It brooked a fair share of controversy too; was it an intentional mess, or simply a mess re-framed as irony? I remember the Guardian piece about it had this line: “demonstrates how social media and the internet amplify our supine tendencies”, which is beautifully pretentious but certainly is a fair point. What Goat Simultator was really demonstrating was the power of YouTube to sell the younger generation on buying a game as a goof.

 

nested02Nested

The Joke: An afternoon in a Wikipedia hole as descent into madness.

Made by the guy who brought you Cookie Clicker, Nested is an all-text storytelling experiment, facilitated by random generation. You start by examining the universe and descend through absurdity until you are examining the thoughts of a chickadee on an alien planet. It’s maybe the simplest thing on this list, but it has the familiar procedurally-generated pleasure of an open-world game or a rogue-like, where every player finds something new and weird. A lot of the other games on this list take a very simple premise and elaborate onto it to the point of ridiculousness, whereas Nested takes a different approach: take a very large idea (randomly-generated things to explore) and condense it into its simplest text-based form.

 

Push The Button: ICBMthumb3

The Joke: You are a Cold War-era desk jockey in charge of hitting the Big Red button that ends the world in nuclear fire. You wait patiently for the command, which of course never comes.

There’s menus and text and lots of other buttons that aren’t the Big Red One to push, and switches to flip, and a soundscape of beeping/blipping and nails tapping on a desk. It’s a boredom simulator really, and a further extrapolation of the ‘idle gaming’ idea but stretched like taffy into a slower, objective-less Waiting for Godot commentary on expectation. Easily the most straight-faced of all the games I’ve featured here, its primary objective was to be accurate to the actual experience of people who manned real Big Red Buttons and comedy frequently comes from that kind of bizarre specificity. The added layer of distance from the Cold War and just how ridiculous that period of history is in retrospect doesn’t hurt, and it also happens to be really gorgeous in that pristine pixel-y way MS-DOS games could be. There are five chapters that you can play on five ‘difficulty levels’, and the most significant difference is only in the hardest chapter where your desk clock stops working and you have no idea how much longer your 8 hour shift is. It’s all very American Horror Story: Cubicle.

 

OctodadClumsydad

The Joke: No one realizes you’re an octopus and you must struggle to control the flailing of your 8 limbs.

A slapstick-physics game taken to almost its furthest possible conclusion; just about every other game on this list doesn’t even feign interest in telling a story of any kind, it’s purely a delivery system for a joke. Octodad does a surprisingly capable job at ‘topping’, the comedy parlance for hitting a punchline, then adding jokes on top that feed off the original. Octodad has the set up line (you are an octopus doing a terrible job pretending to be a human) and then delivers a series of punchlines (everyone buys that you aren’t an octopus, despite ever-sillier mounting evidence). Octodad is really enough of a game that it doesn’t necessarily belong on this list, but it is still a single-joke premise extrapolated upon, and I felt remiss not including it when it’s been as successful as it has.

 

My Garbage Cat Wakes Me Up At 3AM Every Daymy-garbage-cat-wakes-me-up-at-3am-every-day-2

The Joke: Cats are assholes.

This little rudimentary cat-simulator sort of blew up on my social media radar the last couple of weeks and I was delighted that it did. It’s an admirable reproduction of the original Game Boy’s color style and look, with the entire idea being that you play as a cat in your owner’s small apartment, making ungodly cat noises in the middle of the night. Your objective is simple: wake your owner by meowing constantly, jumping onto him and kneading your paws into his sleeping face, or simply maliciously shoving items off his shelves. The idea is plenty amusing but I laughed out loud when every little thing I knocked off of my owner’s shelf made an exaggerated and ridiculous explosion noise, and my meowing was a demonic little garbled wail. Which is exactly what every noise my cat makes at 3am sounds like.

But saying that’s what Frog Fractions does is like saying the new Mad Max movie is about a car chase through a desert.

Frog_Fractions_screenshotFrog Fractions

The Joke: 90s edutainment game gone increasingly awry.

This is one of the longer games on this list, taking about an hour to complete. It’s also way more intricate in its sense of humor, but not mentioning it misses it as an important milestone in these single premise joke games. Honestly when someone first said “you should play Frog Fractions” to me and I googled it, the matter-of-fact synopsis of “parody of a 90s edutainment game” didn’t immediately grab me. But saying that’s what Frog Fractions does is like saying the new Mad Max movie is about a car chase through a desert – it may be factually true but all the romance is drained right out of it and you’re not really conveying the extent of its insanity. It starts innocuously enough, as a very authentic looking 90s math game, and then a conceptual wormhole opens and down you go into a maw of ever-mounting absurdity. Saying “it’s hard to describe” is a cop-out but this phrase from the Wiki does a good job of capturing the flavor: “the player must then complete a business simulator manufacturing bug pornography.”

 

Comedy Quest6

The Joke: You are a struggling stand-up comic, hassling people into coming to your brief and terrible sets, hanging out with other hack comedians who hate you, living in a studio apartment, and borrowing money from your parents.

I hesitate to call things ‘Kafka-esque’ but by god, I am tempted. This is an unflattering, cartoonishly-realistic depiction of the shadow world that is stand-up comedy, written by a comedian. Modeled after the point-and-click comedy games of the early 90s, you can go to a variety of dive bars masquerading as ‘clubs’, find jokes, solve some easy but funny puzzles, and toil in crushing obscurity for the indefinite future. The mood is further enhanced by intentionally-unprofessional but tonally perfect voice acting seemingly recorded in a bathroom stall, and an eye-searingly accurate late-80s color scheme.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews/previews of this game that are a little accusatory of being a ‘cash-grab’ but thankfully no one has used the phrase ‘low-hanging fruit’.

scrub-that-dadShower With Your Dad Simulator 2015

The Joke: A meticulous pixelated reproduction of the uncomfortable boyhood experience that is showering with your father.

This is one of the real visible vanguards of the “there’s no way this is real, better click to make sure” school of jokey indie games, and it has the best trailer on Steam. This is also basically the only screenshot I had that wasn’t populated with 90% full-frontal dad, so you’re welcome. Upon playing it I was actually surprised at how much real gameplay there was, and that there was a degree of skill/strategy involved: you play a small child in a public shower stall who must race up to your dad and scrub him down. It relies on some eye-hand coordination to match the kid with the correct dad (nothing worse than accidentally lathering up a strange dad) and there’s a quickness to it that’s appealing. I’ve seen a lot of reviews/previews of this game that are a little accusatory of being a ‘cash-grab’ but thankfully no one has used the phrase ‘low-hanging fruit’. I envy these people for their joyless cynicism, since they cannot enjoy the simple pleasures of pixelated dangly parts.

 

That’s the thing about this genre of gaming: they’re simple pleasures. There’s nothing fancy about a lot of them, and sometimes they were even born out of frustration with how difficult it actually is to make a game. All of them are trying to convey a simple, singular message designed to get a laugh and maybe a dollar, and that’s one of the purest motivations in the world as far as I’m concerned.