The gap between gaming as a medium to be taken seriously and lightly has been narrowing in many storytelling genres. We can find well scripted humor in the midst in contextual-placement of the player in games like Portal or The Stanley Parable, drama in actions that we choose to do or are helpless in preventing in The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite, or walk through the blackness of our paranoia in Amnesia or Slender Man. What’s interesting though is that other mediums like movies had an extremely rough time getting the average story in a game to not feel forced or that the campiness from genre films hasn’t particularly translated well in gaming as of yet.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a difference between campiness and cliché, and it’s easy to spot one over the other. Cliché is taking what we’re used to and regurgitating it back to us in a form that we are already used to seeing. Campy is taking what we’re used to and being almost self-referential to it by exaggerating the parts that make it campy. I don’t mean self-referential like some side-character saying “Do you think this is a game?” or “What kind of game do you think this it?” because this is already a cliché and completely un-original. The idea of the campy-self-referential is that you make the cliché feel original. Being campy isn’t a bad thing either. Campiness worked in the reboot of 21/22 Jump Street, Hot Tub Time Machine and the more recent Guardians of the Galaxy.
The self-referencing bit might be taken exception to from The Stanley Parable since the narrator makes reference to things that you do and do, things that might have been and might be later. It’s the most meta a game could’ve gotten as of now, yet without cliché.
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Conker’s Bad Fur Day for the Nintendo 64 is probably the first game that I can think of that tries to put the campy-factor into its game to build its story from it. By taking tropes and clichés like the “Guy always gets the girl”, “The Hero’s Journey”, “The Grand Quest” and what tropes we’re used to in gaming in general, especially as of 2001, it was able to poke fun at all of these clichés by making your grand quest about money, losing the girl in the end, being worse off than when you started. Very non-video-game stories for back when the game came out.
Broforce, coming out more recently, can poke fun at itself because it’s a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously from the start. You run around with as the ‘roided-out action heroes of the 80s and 90s, from Robocop to Chuck Norris to Blade in a series of jungle combat skirmishes that Rambo spent the past 4 movies trying to get away from but they just keep pulling him back in. In an Asgardian heaven where only the strong can live out their eternity, these action heroes get to shoot, slash and kill for the rest of their days. But the campiness is only in the characters and the scenario, but doesn’t extend past this.
Left 4 Dead takes the major tropes of zombie chases and puts them in a series of Army of Darkness scenarios where hordes of zombies get ever increasing and your locations to fight them ever more outrageous. A race to the rooftop, fighting it out in on an amphitheater stage, having the log cabin that you’re occupying being clawed at till it progressively resembles a pile of twigs is normal for the game, and even though the game keeps you on edge the first few times you play it, the setting of the game is still one that exaggerates the normal expectations of what gets delivered in a survival-zombie horror/chase kind of game.
Saints Row/Just Cause. Let’s take a Grand Theft Auto sandbox, give the player the ability to make a gang, but they can only wear stuff they find from their free-spirited hooker cousin’s closet. Oh, and they can only find weapons from underneath her bed, or the NRA gun-enthusiast uncle-Ned who has a bunker in the back in preparations of the oncoming apocalypse that will show up in the next few years. And let’s have most of the physics rules not feel realistic, hanging onto a helicopter and while shooting a rocket at anyone that’s been “looking at me funny” is just another normal consequence of living in this city. The only kind of campy that should be a gameplay style campy is one that makes it fun and memorable.
There could be an argument that games from before this were particularly campy or genre games like Final Fantasy are completely campy. But I think it’s about how you look at it, dependent on where the line to differentiate cliché and campy comes in, as well as the quality of each. I would argue that games like Bad Dudes and Final Fantasy are the games riddled with cliches and it’s games like Broforce that are the campy versions of it. Final Fantasy can be campy but there is sometimes originality in the story and definitely some in the evolving gameplay.
It still comes from a place where most games take themselves too seriously or try to deliver a serious experience. It’s understandable since the genre is going to struggle being seen as a thoughtfully-meaningful medium, but the gaming community is the group that suffers from the development pissing contest of “Who can make the audience identify with my characters the most,” and when games like Portal or Saints Row come out the entire community becomes enthralled with the silliness that can be had in “serious” situations. You can make something meaningful even if you don’t take yourself seriously, we just need to know how to get the campiness to come out without it feeling cliché.
Comment if you agree, disagree, like pie. Maybe it doesn’t take itself that seriously and I’m being too judgmental, or I’m not talking about a balance that the community does have. I don’t know anymore, I’m delirious from the dental work.