On some fundamental level, all videogames are comical. Dark Souls II’s stats screen—overflowing with cryptic emblems and sly description—is comic in its excess. Call of Duty’s AI—shooting a thousand-yard stare into the middle distance until nudged in the right direction—is comic in its absurdity. Even at the simplest level, there’s something comic in the realization that the same button you push to slay a dragon in one game examines a bookshelf in another.
Peel away the narrative grandeur and graphical sheen, and the core language of videogames is unwittingly hilarious. Every idiosyncratic animation and pop-out number is a punchline waiting to be delivered, an in-joke for the cynical eye. It’s the reason why videos of glitches are so popular; why Soulja Boy could famously laugh at the po-faced Braid; or why any given “Let’s Play” is likely to lapse into an impromptu comedy routine. Viewed from the right angle, even a game as self-serious as The Last of Us can fall victim to our laughter.
This is in large part because videogames are artificial—not only insofar as the worlds they present are fictional, but that the workings of these worlds are wholly divorced from our own. Hell-beasts are felled by mathematical calculations, while progress is presented on sliding scales. The systems we interact with are fundamentally abstract, reliant on the player’s unfaltering suspension of disbelief—a willingness to accept a new reality—stats screens, button combos, and all. Whether through blind faith or Stockholm syndrome, it’s a reality that most of us are happy to accept.
Videogames like Jazzpunk, however, ask us to resist. They ask us to suspend our suspension of disbelief, and reconsider the nature of the worlds we immerse ourselves in. A comedy above all else, Jazzpunk derives its humor from the tacit acknowledgement that all games are artificial, and does everything it can to remind us of this fact.
In a surreal twist, opening a pizza box in Jazzpunk’s first area reveals it to be a games console, one that abruptly transports the player into a meta-fictive game-within-a-game; a comic, hack-n-slash world that owes equal debts to survival horror and Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Stuck within its confines, the player has no choice but to play along, held hostage within a game that is clearly a joke, but mechanically feels all-too familiar. For the player, it’s the first reminder that nothing in Jazzpunk is real, that the only thing separating normality from obscurity is a quick texture change.
If the language of videogames is comedic, Jazzpunk changes the phrasing to highlight it. The simple idea of a button press is complicated tenfold, the expected interaction of opening a pizza box, or talking to an NPC, is subverted again and again. Descriptive text becomes a physical construct used to manoeuvre around the environment. In-game computers play Jazzpunk. An NPC coldly states, “You are good at doing things.” This is a game gleefully aware of the medium’s artifice, one that bulldozes any pretence of reality and expects you to play in the rubble, laughing both with and at it.
Yet Jazzpunk never betrays its roots as a videogame: the “interact” button will always interact; the radical difference is what happens on the other side. The player’s conscious goal is to persist: to navigate through the game’s countless abstractions and adapt to a language in flux. They are encouraged to revel in the absurd, and even add to it; to explore and experiment, to probe at its edges. It’s right there in the title: jazz and punk, improvisation and anarchy, coming together.
This approach is not new. Over the last few years, more and more games have started using reflexive comedy to take stock of gaming’s idiosyncrasies. Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving, challenged by the idea that videogaming was veering towards cinematic spectacle, took the concept to its natural conclusion with a narrative full of disorienting—albeit decidedly “cinematic”—jump-cuts. Similarly, his earlier Gravity Bone poked at the idea of player-as-narrator, casting its player as someone who, as it turns out, is little more than a bit-part in a larger narrative—a narrative that they will never see unfold. These aren’t just games with punch lines, but games in which the idea of a game in itself is a punchline.