For this post I thought I’d write about something close to my heart – puns. I love puns, and wordplay of all kinds, and whilst I’m generally pretty modest I will claim to be pretty good at punning. Whilst not strictly game design related, puns are something I’ve tried to work into almost every game I’ve worked on (assuming they’ve not already been designed in as standard). Games tend to need a fair few things naming (levels, achievements etc.), and if the tone of the game doesn’t preclude making puns then each of these names is an opportunity to amuse the player, which is kinda the point of making games in the first place. This is especially pertinent for me now, because I intend to throw as many puns as possible at STOMP.
However whilst I love my punning, I’m still not entirely sure why some puns are better than others. So I thought I’d take a look at some puns I’ve come up with for the games I’ve worked on to see if I can make any insights.
I’ll start with the last game I worked on at Blitz as a designer – Puss in Boots (I genuinely believe we made a really good Kinect game with this – if you’ve got kids and a Kinect I recommend it). The puns for PIB were mostly for achievement names, and sadly THQ dismissed some of our better ones – partly because of copyright worries (even when invalid – “A Tale Of Two Kitties” was perfect and Dickens is out of copyright) and partly because I think they didn’t understand them. However one that did make it was “Well Balanced” which was an achievement for crossing a tightrope perfectly. This one pleases me. It’s not funny. It’s not that clever. It’s just an existing phrase that also happens to perfectly describe what you’ve just done. There are no loose ends though, and that helps it a lot. Often a pun doesn’t quite “fit” the situation you’re using it in and that’s unsatisfying. I used “Prevent the meat death of the universe” in my STOMP trailer. I love the wordplay, but it doesn’t fit the scenario well enough – you’re just trying to rescue Earth’s cows – if you fail there will still be lamb and pork and squirrel and all the other critters folk eat around the world. This inaccuracy bothers me, and if I didn’t like the notion of “the meat death of the universe” quite so much I wouldn’t have used it (I’d have saved it for later though – there’s almost certainly a game in there somewhere).
There’s one pun for Puss In Boots that got rejected that I loved to bits though, and again that’s because it fit so neatly. In each of the game’s levels there was a fragment of golden egg to collect. When you collected all of them you’d get an achievement. I understand why my idea wasn’t picked for a game with a worldwide release, but I still resent that achievement not being called “They think it’s all ova – it is now!”.
One of the first games that made me appreciate that puns are a force for good was Fuzion Frenzy. This was a party game for the original Xbox, and the puns here were used for naming the individual minigames. However the minigames for Fuzion were handled by two different teams, and the other team didn’t want to play ball, so around half the minigames were named with puns, but half weren’t. So the game ended up being a bit schizophrenic in this regard. We had games called Tailblazer, Blast Man Standing, Rubble Alliance and Twisted System (I love a (somewhat obscure) pop culture reference), and theirs were called functional names like Collector and Bumper Race. I don’t get why you wouldn’t try to spice them up a bit. (As a side note, one of our minigames involved catching falling sparks from fireworks. I don’t think this was one of my names, but up until weeks before mastering this minigame had the placeholder name “Up the glitter”. Eventually we explained to our American producers about cockney rhyming slang, and changed the name for something a tad more acceptable.)
The last game at Blitz that I provided achievement names for was Ace of Spades (I didn’t work on the game, but was called on for the punning), and I like to think some of these are pretty good despite them having to be done at short notice – Turret Syndrome, Mountain Casualties, Butte Hurt… There are two I thought I’d expand on though. The first is “Pillar Assault” – awarded for shooting out a number of pillars in a certain bit of architecture. I have no way of knowing how many people actually spot the loose homophonic reference to Lot’s wife here, but I love including less-obvious stuff in the hope that a few folk do at least notice it. Once again, the punnish element isn’t funny, and is in no way relevant to the game, but it’s a little extra something for those that happen to catch it. And the name fits the achievement like a glove, so the irrelevance isn’t compromising the functionality at all. The second is another that I’m not entirely happy with, but it was just too good not to use. It’s an achievement for tea-bagging enemies (it would take an entire blog post to explain fully why I love this achievement). The name was “Plumming the deaths”. I sniggered to myself for quite a while after coming up with that one, I must admit. But I’m not actually that happy with it. It’s so close, but it’s just far away enough to be unsatisfactory. It wanted to be “Plumming the dead” to make sense really, but “dead” is far too far from “depths” to make the phrase work. Even “deaths” is a little bit more of a stretch than I’d like (that “p” is really important in the word “depths”), so it sits in an uneasy middle ground of not being ideal in either direction – it doesn’t quite sound close enough, and it doesn’t quite mean what it should, but it’s as close as I could get it. If the verb “plumming” didn’t amuse me quite as much as it does I’d have come up with something else instead.
Following up from the obscure reference to Lot’s wife, perhaps the most obscure reference in one of my achievement names happened completely by accident. In Powerup Forever there’s an achievement called “Bully” awarded for squishing 111 tiny enemies in any given level. Why 111? Why not? Round numbers are boring, and people tend to use them without thinking. I think nothing in game design should be done without thinking – you should have a reason for everything. As I said at the start, all names are a chance to amuse the player. Numbers can be too (see 42 and 69 for easy examples). So why 111 exactly? I’m English and I love a bit of cricket. 111 is the English bogey score – superstition dictates that English batsmen tend to get out more often on a score of 111 (or multiples thereof). This score is known as Nelson. Most of the world will take nothing from the total being 111 (or will be confused, which is a positive in my book – anything to make the world a weirder place…), but the few who do recognise what I intended may be ever-so-slightly amused. If I’d have used 100 no-one would have cared either way, so this is a net gain. Anyway, we now have an achievement called Bully where you need to score a Nelson. Result!
So that brings me up to STOMP, where I’m free to indulge myself to the full. Another pun I used in my first trailer was “That really takes the brisket”. I think this one deserves groans. I try not to use puns that deserve groans (people often groan at puns regardless of whether they deserve it or not – but I will admit this does deserve it). In fact, in the trailer the cows were originally in a green grass field, but I changed it to brown dirt so that if I had time I could have added a tumbleweed pass after the “brisket” pun – that’s how bad I think it is. The thing is the pun was originally a potential level name – “Taking the brisket”, and I don’t think that’s anywhere near as bad. I’d happily name a level that. And this is what puzzles me – why am I happy with that, but not the version I actually used? Is it just the attitude? “Taking the brisket” feels kind of passive – it’s just sitting there minding its own business, whereas “That really takes the brisket” feels much more cocksure and in-your-face, and that bothers me.
One final pun – or rather two takes on the same device, and some thoughts upon them. Amongst my very favourite puns for STOMP is a level called “There’s something about dairy”. I am really happy with that one. However I first came up with the dairy/Mary swap for “Dairy Poppin’s” – which will probably still lead to me creating a new game mechanic (or at least some background graphics). But despite these two using the exact same device, “Dairy Poppin’s” is nowhere near as good as “There’s something about dairy”, IMO. I think the main reason for this is expectation. With “There’s something about dairy” you have expectations of how it’s going to end that are then confounded when the switch takes place, but you’ve been given so much to work with that it’s effortless. With “Dairy Poppin’s” the switch happens at the start meaning you’re expecting something to follow naturally from “dairy”, but then have to work backwards once you’ve heard the lot to make sense of the thing. There’s also the fact that “There’s something about dairy” immediately makes sense as a sentence in its own right where “Dairy Poppin’s” doesn’t – and I think even if I do get exploding cow bombs in the game to illustrate the concept it still won’t ever be as strong.
That’s probably enough for now. I may well revisit the topic again though – whilst I have well over a hundred cow puns lined up for STOMP (I’m hoping I get to use them all), and I’m still coming up with new ones all the time, and I would love to figure out what really makes the difference between good and bad ones.