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That's The Joke: Writing Humor (And in Dredmor)

how to write funny in a video game
2016 July 13

This post has been pulled from the drafts bin and dusted off for the 5th Anniversary of the release of Dungeons of Dredmor.

Has it been so long? Yes! Wow.

I've always found writing humor to be the easiest sort of thing to write. Maybe it's just that earnestness is more difficult. Maybe it's that earnestness is more difficult to write because it makes you emotionally vulnerable, or reveals your identity, while humor is easy. And maybe that's cynical, and maybe humor can be a form of social amelioration. Maybe it's a way of saying "I love all this dumb fantasy stuff but I don't want to be judged because it's dumb so I'm going to make it a joke and not really have to own how much I earnestly love and find comfort in this dumb fantasy stuff". Which may or may not be a big part of Dredmor. Couldn't say.

Whatever it is doing, humor seems to me to work when it flows, when it feels natural and right. Knowing this is intuitive, maybe. But maybe it can be described technically; in terms of a delivery which aligns with sound and content. (Ah, and so maybe not so unlike the composition, aesthetic, and content of a piece of art.)

A joke, I think, starts with an idea and then a reply to that idea which negates or critiques or makes it absurd. And here I just now realize that I'm describing a dialectic! (Now we're making sense!) - perhaps humor lies in a tension between conflicting or paradoxically combined ideas. The rhetorical or philosophical dialectic may be after truth, and we may find some form of that in humour, but we may also find an absurdity that feels truthful for at least the moment of illogical comprehension.

Perhaps humor is like art or poetry in that it poses a not-necessarily-rational yet evocative syllogism. At least when it's any good. I think one should not mistake noise for well constructed absurdity (or artistry, or poetry). Consider the typically adolescent hilarity of "being random" by exclaiming "rubber yak penguin!". This is not at all random, it's the sloppy delivery of an unrealized joke.

This seems like a good place to bring us to Dungeons of Dredmor!

Dredmor is dismissed - when it is dismissed (and this is not about how I feel about that; that is fine, everything isn't for everyone) - it is often dismissed for being "random jokes and references". Or perhaps it's simply that the humor isn't to someone's taste. Or it translates poorly. (To this day, I swear that Czech reviewer simply didn't get the writing and thus, I feel, experienced a Dredmor effectively without the writing - quite a thought!)

Trying to replicate Dredmor's humor by the "being random" somewhat misses the point too, I think. I'll certainly concede that Dredmor is only very loosely structured and often messy, but there is some discipline in delivery there, and something more than references and randomness. So I'd hope, anyway.

Looking Back To Dredmor

Take a joke, be it visual or textual: sometimes it needs to be cut down to focus the delivery. Sometimes it needs to be drawn out. "You'll know it when you see it" and all that. Let's see how various examples hold up to dissection five years later.

(I will be explaining the jokes. This might not be very funny and might ruin the jokes. You've been warned.)


For my part in writing Dredmor, it is filled with references to whatever the heck came to mind when writing or drawing whatever I was writing or drawing at the time. In hindsight, this can be a rather cheap method of humor and it can come off poorly. Dredmor seems to have done alright with this however. I recall some speculation that this is because Dredmor's "indie charm" allows it to borrow popular culture without appearing to be a corporate entity trying-too-hard to ingratiate itself with fandom.

I'm not sure I'd be so blunt about it if I had to do it over again. But let's look a few examples, all from the maces item category (just because).


Stop. It's that time again.

Yes, if you're a certain age or exposed to pop culture of a certain age, you've completed the joke for me: it's hammer time. This is indeed one of those painfully direct reference-"jokes", but at least it doesn't completely lay it out for you. There's a blank space that you, the player/reader, have to fill in. You can't just google the phrase and find the answer (except via a Dredmor wiki or the Dredmor TV Tropes page). So the reference isn't, at least, a simple drive-by bludgeoning with a pop-culture meme, ie. if it said "Stop. Hammer Time." (which would have been terrible). The reference is one-step removed and requires the intellectual participation of the audience. That's what makes it okay. Ish.

Aluminum Tube

This is irrefutable evidence of Dredmor's nefarious plans.

Joke level one: We know Dredmor is evil. This is a stupid and not particularly dangerous looking aluminum tube. It's absurd to think that this means Dredmor is up to evil because it's so dumb. Ha ha!

Joke level two: If you're familiar with the lead-up to the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003, you might recall the "aluminum tubes" talking point provided as evidence for Saddam Hussein allegedly having a program for enriching uranium to use to construct nuclear weapons. Dredmor appears to be up to the same trick, which is absurd because Dredmor is a lich in a weird fantasy world, not a tin-pot middle east dictator. Ha!

Joke level three: Of course, the "aluminum tubes" talking point turned out to be false in real life. There was no (legitimate) nuclear weapons program. So it's not really "irrefutable evidence", is it? ( -Except perhaps in a realpolitik sense that it doesn't matter if the evidence is real or not, just that the talking point served its purpose of contributing to the casus belli at the time). Ha?

Joke level four: Maybe Dredmor isn't up to nefarious plans, maybe your Heroic Quest to destroy him is the product of cynical realpolitik. Maybe this game world's entire notion of good and evil is a manipulative construction to make you, the player, the hero, the rube, do things. And your perception, as the Hero, can't see any of that. You only see Irrefutable Evidence of Evildoing.

Upon consideration, I really like the Aluminum Tube reference. The best jokes work on multiple levels of increasing depth. On the surface is the mere silliness, below are deeper, darker paradoxical absurdities.

Flail of Pleiades

This flail is imbued with burning, mind-bending power drawn from the shining stars of the sky.

This is a reference but not a joke. I just think the Pleiades star cluster is really cool. I have fond childhood memories of my dad pointing them out to me in the night sky. Also I think they're really pretty.

So it's my joke on whoever thinks everything in Dredmor is a joke. Maybe I just tricked someone into looking up "pleiades" in google and discovering how neat they are. But this does make a point – if there's no joke to offer, offer something. There's always time to sneak in some beauty, art, poetry, and a personal touch, whatever the context.

Playful Writing Structure

I must have had some kind of alliteration kick when writing these maces:

Crude Iron Mace

This crudely crafted caricature of an iron mace was ruggedly wrought from raw iron.

Rough Iron Mace

This roughly-finished mace is made of iron, roughly.

Steel Mace

A sturdy steel mace good for smashing down sturdy steeled enemies.

These are simply fun to read. Don't have a joke? Give 'em an interesting aesthetic experience with silly words and playful structure. At first, re-reading these, I was disappointed in myself for repeating the word "sturdy" in the Steel Mace description but it acts as a callback to the Rough Iron Mace which acknowledges its own awkwardly repeated word-use. Basically, the joke is that it's badly written. Then once you acquire a Steel Mace, you can think back to how it's kinda like the Rough Iron Mace - this isn't necessarily funny as-such, but it sets up a reference earlier on and pays it off. (Yes, referential humor! But it's in the same work, so it feels a bit more honest.) If you were paying attention earlier, you'd feel good about seeing the parallels.

Finally A Self-Contained Joke

Surely there are a few jokes that are neither referential or structurally playful. Oh, here’s one!

Mace of the Misunderstood Warlord

Sometimes people cannot distinguish between a leader who solves problems efficiently and a leader who is evil. These people are efficaciously silenced through the application of this mace.

With the art I'm pretty sure I was recalling Sauron's mace in the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie, but you know. More generic. Is Sauron evil or is he just effective? Are you evil or are you just effective when you use his mace? Do people who play roguelikes and action-RPGs really care about anything other than effectiveness when it comes down to it?

Although a bit on-the-nose, I like how this one plays toward the same idea of the Aluminum Tube in that there's a superficial tension/contradiction which can be taken as a critique of the game world's implied morality.

I'll cut it off here. Yes, I think this ended up being about only the maces in Dredmor because that's the first wiki page I stumbled upon to look up the descriptions, and it turns out there was plenty of material.

Perhaps another day I will dig deeper into some other aspect of the Dungeons of Dredmor! Certainly we don’t want me spoiling any more of the jokes.

(And no, the TV Tropes page did not get all of the references in Dredmor.)

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