POLYGON CARTOONS: Humor and Sadism in Video Games
[This is an article for Aevee Bee’s games writing project ZEAL, funded on Patreon! I’ve really enjoyed working with her and you should definitely check it out!]
I don’t remember exactly who first told me about WELCOME HOUSE, but they said something to the effect of “this seems like a game you would like.” It’s a clunky PS1 game with horrible controls and primitive polygon graphics, so they were absolutely correct. You wander around a bizarre mansion and solve puzzles, so it’s basically Resident Evil, but here’s the twist: instead of survival horror, the game is a slapstick comedy.
As the player, you control a hapless schmuck named Keaton Paxman, who’s visiting his Uncle Parkinson in Florida for April Fool’s Day. The instant he pulls up to his enormous mansion, Keaton’s car breaks down. That turns out to be the least of his problems, because he’s the only person in the house, the front doors have locked behind him, and pranks, gags and practical jokes from his uncle are hiding around every corner.
Welcome House is billed as a “Polygon Cartoon” by Gust/Highwaystar, who released it back in 1996. It’s actually episode one of a Welcome House series, as it was followed up by a sequel, Welcome House 2: Keaton and His Uncle, which takes place on Independence Day instead and is all about things blowing up in Keaton’s face. (In this article, the blurrier screenshots are from Welcome House, and the sharper ones are from Welcome House 2.) Gust reallypushes the cartoon angle in these games, with Keaton and his uncle getting star billing on a title screen that shamelessly apes the well-known opening and ending of Looney Tunes. There are even cartoons within the game, in Uncle Parkinson’s private theater.
I’m going to discuss both games as a unit here, because even though Welcome House 2 has way better animation and throws jokes at you constantly, both of them fail spectacularly at being funny. It’s a shame, because in all the other stuff of the game—the walking around, the puzzles, the really weird gradient palm-tree backgrounds—there are some surreal setpieces that shine through, like a scene where Keaton suddenly encounters himself sitting in a room that looks uncannily like the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks.
The gags are supposed to be the centerpiece of the game, but most of them are really simple, predictable jokes: Keaton picks up a ringing phone and it explodes, or he lights a bomb, watches it fail to go off, and creeps closer only for it to blow up in his face. Occasionally there are some flashes of really inventive stuff, like a typical videogamey deathtrap room where Keaton has to be flattened in order to escape through a crack in the wall, but they’re few and far between, and even though the characters have neat designs and the animation is pretty expressive, I think I went through the series without cracking any more than a smile.
Most of it (if not all of it) has to do with Keaton’s relationship to his uncle. That little paragraph about the plot I told you up there? That’s literally all the setup there is—a guy walks in and starts getting beat to shit by his uncle’s house. Parkinson calls you from time to time to taunt you, give you clues, and make jokes, and in the second game you can see him laughing and skittering away after pranking you.
Uncle Parkinson is clearly set up to be a Bugs Bunnyish “ain’t I a stinker” type prankster, with Keaton as his Elmer Fudd, but the magic ingredient they’re missing is the underdog dynamic that made Bugs and Elmer so successful in the first place. Yes, Bugs Bunny is a stinker, but as Chuck Jones himself writes in his autobiography Chuck Reducks:
"All the directors who worked with Bugs at Warner Bros. followed certain rules, the first of which was that Bugs must always be provoked rather than being the aggressor… Bugs never engages any opponent without reason."
Part of the reason audiences love Bugs—American audiences, specifically, which will be important in a second—is the thrill of seeing an underdog triumph over someone bigger and stronger. That’s pretty much exactly the opposite of what’s happening in Welcome House, where Parkinson’s nonstop pranks on his nephew come off as straight-up malicious. Like, I understand wanting to crush your relatives in a deathtrap, but really?
This is also a cultural thing, too. One point I realized as I was outlining this article was that the whole “horrible things happening to one hapless dude over and over” routine is something that’s very visible in Japanese comedy. It reminds me a lot of Gaki no Tsukai, where the hosts undergo challenges like “let your friends throw pies in your face for 24 hours straight, and if you ever react to it in any way, people run out and spank you.” That’s way, way closer to the type of dynamic that’s actually present in Welcome House, and it makes the hyper-American presentation of that humor really jarring. The moments in the games that ring most true are the moments when Keaton looks like he’s finally about to snap and give Parkinson a taste of his own medicine.
If you’re familiar with MAD Magazine’s Spy vs Spy, there’s some fascinating stuff in the Spy vs Spy Complete Casebook about cultural differences re: humor and sadism. The strip’s creator, Antonio Prohias, was originally from Cuba and worked as a cartoonist during Batista’s dictatorship and Castro’s rise to power. One of his most well-known creations at that time was El Hombre Siniestro (The Sinister Man), a totally amoral character who played sadistic, sometimes deadly jokes on other people for fun. When Prohias was forced to flee to the US under threat of execution, he had to find another publication for his cartoons and zeroed in immediately on MAD Magazine. At first he considered using El Hombre Siniestro, but was worried that the strips were too violent, or that the idea wouldn’t translate well in the States. So he did a little research about the US’s political climate and decided to spin it into a Cold War rivalry between two characters, the Black and White Spies, who would instead do horrible things to each other.
(Top: El Hombre Siniestro. Bottom: Spy vs Spy.)
At certain points Prohias would even reuse his jokes wholesale, but because the Spies have an established rivalry and are basically just doing their jobs, it feels less meanspirited than a character picking on people for no reason. That context makes all the difference, and it’s a difference that can really make or break a cartoon’s success with its audience.
So, that’s one explanation for why Welcome House misses its mark: there’s a lot of friction between the dynamic it’s going for (Bugs Bunny and Elmer) and the dynamic it actually presents (a dude getting punished by a faceless voice for no reason). Add that to the fact that the jokes are pretty ordinary in the first place, and you have a game’s attempt at humor that falls flat immediately.
Given all that, are there any games that succeed where Welcome House fails? There are, but most of them don’t trade in the dynamic that Bugs Bunny and co. do, because “spunky underdog triumphs over a bigger foe” is the plot of practically every game ever made, so it doesn’t have the same subversive feeling. Instead, most video games that make good slapstick comedies are the ones that capture that feeling by toying around with the player’s expectations. Here are some recommendations!
- Tiny Sorceress by L (playable in browser) is maybe the perfect cartoon game. It’s short, punchy, and every scene is a surprise. It only has one concept and a few scenes, but it gets some really big laughs out of it. If you like that, Terra Tam (also on his page) has the same idea.
- On the other hand, there’s an entire genre of games that are designed to be brutally difficult in explicitly unfair ways, to the point where they become a long string of practical jokes on the player. The first example of this I remember seeing is the romhack Super Mario Forever, although games like I Wanna Be the Guy and La-Mulana’s Hell Temple have taken this idea and ran even further with it. I’m not sure if there’s a commonly accepted term for these, but I tend to call them “kaizo games,” after another super-hard romhack, Kaizo Mario.
What these have in common is that the physical humor is the play. In Welcome House, the gags are just cutscenes that passively happen to Keaton as the player steers him through the house. In Tiny Sorceress, each scene is a self-contained joke that doesn’t happen without the player taking an active part in it, and in super hard, kaizo-style games, the jokes are reactions to specific actions on the part of the player—zigging when you should have zagged, jumping when you should have stayed still, stumbling into a trap you should have known was there.
The director of La-Mulana, Takumi Naramura, actually gave a presentation which talked, in part, about this kind of humor, and how to create specific scenarios to bring out certain reactions in the player. In particular, the more time a player spends with the game, the more skilled at it they become, and they’re able to spot the director’s tricks more easily. He mentions a point in the game where a deadly trap kills the player immediately after they’ve beaten a very hard boss, at a moment when players are usually celebrating, catching their breath, or just generally letting their guard down.
"Once users have gotten this far, they don’t feel angry at the game. They think “it was my fault for faltering!”.
I’ve seen many videos players have publicized of themselves playing, and everyone gets surprised, frustrated, and finally laughs at this scene.
I think that this is the result of us trying to let people feel that the game is fun even with the high level of difficulty.”
This kind of practical joke depends on the player forming a relationship with the game and, through the game, with the designer themselves. It relies on the designer predicting what the player will do before they do it, and it relies on the player guessing (or trying to guess) what kind of situations the designer has put into the game. Like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck continually trying to outdo each other, incredibly hard kaizo games are about endless one-upmanship between the creator and the player.
Even if Welcome House isn’t successful at being funny, or even being particularly cartoonish in the way it was aiming for, it still provides a really good case study for what makes a joke work and what doesn’t. In the end, I’d give it a 1/10 for execution, but 7/10 for launching a discussion on cartoon humor in games. You did good, Welcome House. You did good.