I watched An American Werewolf in London on a CED when I was a kid. You could go and ask your grandpa what a CED is, but for the sake of this story, I’ll fill you in.
CED was a weird sort of video record that came in a plastic case. The machine that played these discs had a long, narrow, covered slot that you would put almost the entire plastic case into. The machine would grab hold of the disc, and you would remove, the now empty, plastic case from the machine. The discs only held 60 minutes of video per side, so around halfway through a movie you would have to flip the disc over. Since exposing the disc to the outside world in any way would apparently cause a tear in reality, that meant you needed to slide the case back into the machine. The disc would be delivered by some arcane mechanics back into the plastic case, and you could pull it out, flip it over and put it back in again to finish the movie. Laserdisc players that could play both sides of a disc without flipping and long play video tape also existed at the time, so this obviously stupid practice of flipping the disc died with the CED format, and we were all better for it.
I only remember this, because I was scared to flip the movie to side 2.
Billed as a horror comedy, An Werewolf in London is actually a strict horror movie right down to it’s core. The comedy is layered around it as seasoning. It’s a movie that knows what it is, and goes for it. The scares are scary, the gore is gruesome, and the tension is high. Of course it is also an extremely funny movie, but that never gets in the way of the films intent. It is constructed around fear.
Recently I have been playing Wolfenstein The New Order. It is a big, dumb, loud, action spectacular of a game, but in the corners it is also one of the most finely realized, touchingly written and presented games I can remember playing. It only works because this is a game that knows what it is.
I have written before that I had some real problems with the way that the story of games like Uncharted and Bioshock Infinite betray the gameplay that they are ostensibly created to support. Characters and events that carry one very clear tone in the story, lie at hard angles to the actions the player must execute to succeed at the game. The whole is weaker for it.
Wolfenstein The New Order shifts seamlessly from one speculative fiction melodrama to another. The characters remain true to their, occasionally thin, personas. Peripheral events are handled with a subtlety and humanity that is usually reserved for much slower paced games like Gone Home. Through all this, the story is never asked to upstage the bombastic and harried action.
There are several successful horror comedy films. An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead, and Tremors, are a few of my favorites, because they know what they are and remain horror movies first. I suspect that if a joke in the script of any of these movies stood counter to the tension, it was cut or altered. It has the net effect of making all of these movies seem more human and heartfelt than any of the Saw sequels.
Games are a tricky storytelling medium. There are always two stories running in any game. There is the story that the developer has written for the player, and the story that the player is creating through their actions. Some games, like point and click adventures, limit the players actions to put the focus more heavily on the written story. Some, like roguelikes and sandbox games, mute the creators intended narrative in favor of the story the player creates. If a developer wants to influence both, the two threads at the very least, need to agree with each other on tone. If the game is an over the top action shoot fest, the writers have to respect that intent. There are plenty of places that comedy, tragedy, terror, and humanity can support such a game. The creators just have to stay acutely aware of what sort of game they are making.
Take a lesson from the doomed CED player. You can’t get more narratively at odds than making someone to get up and flip a disc over to play media that’s main ask of it’s audience is that they sit quietly and focus for two hours.