Being the Butt of the Joke: The Bard’s Tale

Humor is not always nice to everyone.  Humor has to be subversive in some way to find its mark.  It has to go against expectations, explicit or implied.  And targeted humor goes against the expectation that we’re all good to each other, which, as it turns out, is a pretty core one in this whole human journey we’re on.  Because we’re all good people.  So yeah, making fun of people is one of the more effective ways to get a chuckle going.  Because we’re all bad people.  Making fun of people in real life, when they’re not in on the joke, is kind of a crappy thing to do.  Making fun of fictional people, though, what’s the harm in that?

Aside from making you feel bad for the guy you’re probably not supposed to feel bad for, normally, not much.  Video games bring a new dimension to that, though.  That guy, everyone’s butt monkey, the target of every joke even though he’s not actually all that bad?  What if that was you?

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At least, that’s what I ran across in my playthrough of The Bard’s Tale.  I was going to go for a review, as I’ve been doing around here, but the game’s not enough to make for an interesting review.  “Competent but kind of bad” pretty much sums it up.  The only really notable point is the game’s humor.  It has a lot of it.  It’s in an odd Scottish style, which I wouldn’t have known was a thing before playing it, that may not land with a lot of people, but it does make the humor unique, at least.  A lot of it is at the expense of the titular Bard.  Which, ok, sure, he’s not a good person.  He could use a good few pokes at him.  Thing is, though, he’s also you.

And that leaves me curious for how all these jokes should be landing.  It’s not the only game to be leaving the PC with the occasional thrust.  It sure felt quite a bit different when it’s just so constant, however.  The Bard, and by extension, you, never seems to catch a break.  Even the people who are happy to see you there usually have some jibe in place that the game pulls on you.  And sometimes that has gameplay implications, like when you’re told to find a character and you end up finding 5 with the same name and have to go between them all multiple times over before getting to the next plot point, or when you get to the end of a big old monster sprawl to rescue someone that can point you to the incredibly obvious place you need to go that’s right next to him, but the Bard can’t understand his brogue so you have to spend around 15 minutes backtracking and re-backtracking to bring someone there who could understand him and tell you to just go in the glowing portal thing.  Really, when it gets to the point the jokes are dragging out the gameplay, the joke’s not on the character.  The joke’s on you.

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In any case, for a rather unremarkable game, this is the facet that stuck out at me.  It’s pretty common to have one of those characters in a work.  The perennial lovable loser.  The butt monkey.  The guy for whom luck goes sour in the most hilarious of ways.  And yeah, you can make that work.  Video games play by different rules, though, and no matter who the protagonist is, there’s going to be parts of you there just by virtue of them being your avatar to this world.  You’re going to sympathize with them more.  And good natured ribbing is one thing, but when you’re the butt of every joke and it never lets up, well, it’s not fun to have the whole world laughing at your expense.  That’s an additional level you wouldn’t find in most media, but it’s right front and center in games.

That said, as always with humor, it’s a different matter when it hits right.  A few of the jokes, like when the Bard joins in on a tavern jam session and ends up inadvertantly playing in a song that is insulting him all over the place for accidently setting a doomsday demon free earlier in the game, that was funny no matter how close to home it was.

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5 responses to “Being the Butt of the Joke: The Bard’s Tale

  1. The medium of video games has proven to be apt at comedy, but it’s really something you have to be careful with. You have to ultimately make sure only a few of the jokes are on the player because if you go too far, they’ll, as you say, spill out into the gameplay. Mess up badly enough, and it just comes across as the creator having a massive chip on their shoulder.

    Although it doesn’t quite go that far, I do have to say that is a major reason why I don’t think the Uncharted series has held up well. In hindsight, I feel the creators were just trying to excuse their works’ flaws as features, which makes revisiting them tedious even if they’re not particularly long. To use a comparison we drew in the past, it’s kind of like a worse version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Part of what made that approach endearing in that case was that the crew made jokes at their own expense in addition to the audience’s whereas when the Naughty Dog team tried it, you get the sense that they could easily fix these issues, but actively chose not to.

    • Honestly, I’m struggling to think of a time there was such a joke directed at the player that worked out well. I’m sure you can do it, and I’m sure it’s been done before, but it probably takes a level of wit I’m just not remembering right now. Particularly when it has gameplay implications.

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