Witty, novel, and completely mad
Posted by David Will (Quill) on Feb 13, 2014 - 9:30pm EST (167 days ago)
Videogames and comedy commonly have what could best be described as an arm's-length relationship. There is something of a tendency, in this gritty cynical age of ours, for games to take themselves just a little bit too seriously, and even those that are lauded as centrepieces of hilarity – whether through their dialogue, or their text, or their propensity for letting you wade into combat wielding a giant purple phallic symbol – often treat comedy as more of an extraneous feature than their primary goal. There's a simple reason for this, of course: a joke cannot survive being re-told (something that a large percentage of Portal fans need to get into their heads) and, in a mainstream game of any reasonable length, avoiding repetition is nigh-impossible. Even a game stuffed with unique content courtesy of the greatest wit money can buy still risks becoming grating if a player gets stuck on the giant robot spider boss for twenty tries or so. So when Jazzpunk, a game created specifically to be funny, petered out after a measly three hours, its comedic reserves utterly exhausted, I didn't resent it too much. I had paid my meagre sum, the game had done its piece, and we both went our separate ways. Then I sat down, and started to write what I thought about it. More in a minute.
Jazzpunk is one of those games that is liable to get a lot of conflicting labels assigned to it by self-important reviewing types, largely because the TV Tropes pages that list it at an example are likely to be a bit on the hazily-defined side. The overarching theme feels like a parody of a Cold War spy flick, filled with all the things you'd expect to come with the package – exchanging briefcases on park benches, receiving espionage orders from shadowy men in duster coats, swirling cocktails in exotic remote resorts – but it's all viewed through an Airplane!-esque lens of absurd slapstick, and there's just enough of a focus on makeshift retro-futuristic technology to earn it a provisional place at the cyberpunk table. You play Polyblank, a nebulous agent whose defining characteristics begin with his name and end with his willingness to ingest whatever is handed to him, whether it's mystery reality-augmenting pills or an obviously spiked drink. You start by taking a mission to infiltrate a Soviet embassy and then... well, it all gets just a little bit hazy, which is probably entirely intentional. The connection between your environments – not to mention whether or not you are experiencing Jazzpunk's definition of reality or not – is something that gets kept deliberately in the dark. Sure, it ends with all wrongs righted and the antagonist smeared across a pavement somewhere, but the path towards it is a shaky one, not to mention extremely silly.
Silliness is the order of the day, naturally. Gameplay is essentially a first-person explore-em-up, consisting of a number of areas full of things to poke, push, prod, and some other P-word that means 'talk to'. Interacting with your surroundings elicits dialogue, reactions, set-pieces or entire hidden areas (I promised myself I wouldn't use the word 'vignette' here, because I have a feeling that if one more person overuses that word then we'll awaken some kind of game-journalism-themed Lovecraftian entity) and thus, comedy is born. In a way it feels like a heavily cut-down spiritual successor to old first-person point-and-click adventure games like Normality and the later Tex Murphy sequels, though the puzzles are limited to 'receive item, follow clearly-worded instructions to use item', so you're free to wander around provoking whatever insanity you please without worrying about inventory puzzles that run on bug-person logic. The attention to interactivity is something that warms my heart in this age of obsessively-detailed static environments, and lends the comedy a lovely feel of being player driven that tends to be in short supply in, say, Portal, which was more about telling you the jokes over the intercom than letting you cause them.
And yet, there's something disappointingly inorganic about Jazzpunk. Often it feels more like a gallery than a sandbox, a set of rigidly-controlled gags strategically arranged like the exhibits at the local science museum. Of course, the best comedy is often heavily dependent on its delivery, so a certain amount of control is necessary, but neglecting to mix in some more free-form elements feels like a missed opportunity. Once again I remember the Saints Row games, which demonstrate neatly just how much catharsis can be gained from the simple joy of smacking innocent bystanders about the chops with a giant disembodied tentacle. A game like Jazzpunk, rich with visual humour and overblown slapstick, would have benefited from such a brand of D.I.Y instant gratification to fill the gaps between the scripted sequences, but as it is all you can do is bumble around looking for something else to rub your 'use' button on.