On the face of it, so-called parody games shouldn't be too difficult to pull off. Or, perhaps more accurately, they shouldn't honk quite as badly as they usually do. Decades of gaming foibles and memes ought to give us a fertile stock of stupid genre clichés to mock, characters to lampoon and all manner of little grievances to rip to pieces. Surely it should be easy for a developer to trawl some forums, find out what we both love and hate about games and then extract the urine with reckless abandon.
Yet most parody games tend to stink, especially those that actively seek to riff on other games. Even the few successful examples, such as the recently-released Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, tend to fall short in one key area; committing one of the seven deadly sins in the process. Sloth.
See, the vast majority of parody games (even the good ones) fall prey to the laziest and least amusing form of satire. Mocking something... but then doing it anyway. Like cutting off your nose to spite your face, nothing kills a joke faster than a bit of good old fashioned hypocrisy, and it's holding the genre back.
I'm sick and tired of seeing this time and time again, so to explain what I mean, let's take a look at DeathSpank. Ron Gilbert's odd genre hybrid was definitely funny in parts. It made fun of fetch quests and unnamed incidental characters. It mocked grinding. Hell, we even met someone who was practically called 'unnamed incidental quest-giver.' "Yes," we all said, "dungeon crawlers are a bit silly. Their characters are basically cardboard cut-outs and we do have to grind too much. Thanks for pointing that out."
"So why aren't you doing anything about it then?!" We still had to grind until our thumbs fell off. We still had to embark on repetitious fetch quests ad infinitum. And the characters... well, beyond a couple of memorable faces, they were still just a couple of lines of dialogue with a recycled model attached. DeathSpank's entire thing was riffing on the clichéd RPG systems we've been laughing about for years, but the joke stopped being funny once we realised that not a damn thing had changed, and we still had to endure everything that Deathspank set out to lampoon. Only most other traditional RPGs did it better.
Don't get me started on Duty Calls. EA's poxy Bulletstorm advert accused the genre of forcing po-faced storylines, pointless multiplayer unlocks and linear levels on us, while promising that People Can Fly would totally do away with these fripperies. Except that Bulletstorm came out with more inappropriately serious dialogue, useless MP progression systems and tight QTE-ridden levels than you could shake a Painkiller at.
Eat Lead: The Return Of Matt Hazard is an much more despicable example of lazy, brainless parody. I'm not sure where to start, but here's one of my favourite lines of reasoning. 'Some shooters have lots of crates and boring respawning arenas,' posits the game, as the point sails merrily over its gormless developer. 'So let's make players fight in arenas full of crates against idiotic respawning enemies. Won't that be funny? Huh? Isn't that just so totally hilarious?" NO IT'S NOT FUNNY YOU SON OF A
Blood Dragon, while a fantastic pastiche of 80s action movies, also proves this point perfectly when it comes to videogame references. At the start, you'll have to sit through an incredibly long and unskippable tutorial that's designed to make fun of... incredibly long unskippable tutorials. Yes, you'll laugh out loud to see menus asking you to 'Press A to demonstrate your ability to read." Yes, Michael Biehn is a legend. But, ultimately, you're still sitting through several minutes of patronising screens even though 80s games almost never had a tutorial in the first place. Wouldn't it have made more sense for Colt to start doing the tutorial, only to bust out of it in some totally radical mega way?
"I'd better not have to collect any f*cking feathers," drawls Biehn as you discover another random collectible dotted around the island, moaning at every arbitrary pickup and nonsensical side mission. And then you just have to do them anyway to collect all of the weapon attachments. Again, surely the joke would have been more effective if there was just one pickup - perhaps a flag or a feather - at which point Rex refuses to collect any more because he's just too awesome to bother, or discovers that they actually factor into some sort of optional meta-story. It's all in the delivery, of course.
So what do the most effective parody games do, then? First and foremost, they deliver a solid gameplay experience that doesn't - ever- try to do the things it makes fun of. Magicka is an excellent case in point; after being tasked with a traditional RPG quest by an NPC with a question mark floating above their head, you'll walk across the screen, grab their item and bring it back within a couple of seconds. Quest complete, Magicka intones. That's the only one, you idiot. This isn't an RPG. Now get to the spellcasting!
Robert Boyd's Cthulhu Saves The World is another glorious example. As both an homage and parody to the classic 16-Bit RPGs of yesteryear, it irreverently poked fun at every turn, yet ensured that the RPG mechanics, battles and characterisation improved on the games it targeted. Rather than just copying what came before, Boyd sat down, worked out what made classics like Final Fantasy and Phantasy Star so enduring, discovered what they lacked, and then went to town on a game that offered something beyond just nostalgia value and cheap laughs.
And that's the point. The best satire stems from being better, allowing you to dole out the funnies from a position of strength rather than sinking to their level. It's about making players laugh at the contrast between the game and its targets, and not forcing them to sit through the very same tired old conventions that you're supposed to be railing against. And it certainly isn't about delivering worse versions of games that already exist, just to point out their inherent flaws.
Come on, you naughty lazy parody games. Time to wake up.