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Full Steam Ahead – BattleBlock Theater

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 4 hours

What makes something funny? Most people can agree on a definition of comedy just vague enough to be nearly pointless. Some definitions acknowledge subjectivity, and define comedy by its intentions as opposed to specific content. In short, comedy is intended to be funny. However, most definitions, while striving for accuracy as to what is funny, fail utterly in describing how something is funny. Furthermore, what one, or even most people may find funny can be unamusing, or  offensive or hurtful to some. Comedy in a social context requires a careful balancing and understanding of others opinions and feelings.

In a way, comedy as entertainment should be easier. After all, it stands to reason that the audience of a comedy movie or show comes with a expectation and the desire to be entertained. Yet even this can come up short. At a live show, one can’t possibly gauge the individual preferences of an entire theatre of people. At a movie, jokes that aren’t working can’t be rewritten or altered to suit the audience’s tastes.

This being the case, I do not envy The Behemoth, the studio behind BattleBlock Theater. Good comedy is hard to pull off in any medium, especially an interactive one like video games.

Welp. Looks like I forgot to get a screenshot of the title screen. Oddly enough, this is pretty representative of BattleBlock Theater.

BattleBlock Theater was released in 2013. I had a couple friends who bought it at that time, but I didn’t pick it up until 20XX. My brother-in-law had it one his steam wishlist, and I got it during the 2015 Steam Winter Sale. I thought it might be a way for me to spend more time getting to know him, but as it turns out, neither one of us spent very much time playing it. I can’t speak to his experience, but I know a big part of the reason I stopped playing: BattleBlock Theater is cussin’ hard.

BattleBlock Theater is a platformer game, and obstacle course with cartoonish animations and characters. While BattleBlock Theater may not be the most difficult platformer I’ve ever played, it is by no means easy. The levels of BattleBlock Theater are filled with fiendish traps and dangerous obstacles, many of which require split-second timing and force me to divide my attention across several different areas at once. This is nothing revolutionary to the genre. After all, I’d argue that platformer games make their mark by taking a simple concept (in this case, run and jump through a level to collect gems, unlocking the level’s exit), and making them as complicated as possible.

True, there are enemies in this game, but they are rarely more than an annoyance, easily defeated or overcome. The true moments of rage-inducing, knuckle-whitening, controller-threatening annoyance more often than not come from a pit of spikes, or pools of water; stationary objects are startlingly hard to avoid when moving through a level at ludicrous speed. If only spikes and water were the worst of it. There are plasma vents, sticky walls, icy surfaces, high-powered fans, red hot coals, and many more. What’s incredible about the design of this game how frequently its obstacles are not specifically lethal; rather, their design will put you in lethal places. Like spike pits. And water pools.

This showcases a couple of the obstacles of the game. It’s hard to get good screenshots when you’re scared of letting go of the controls for more than .325 seconds.

Now hold on. I spent a lot of time earlier in this article rambling about comedy, but now I’m talking about mechanical difficulty? What the cuss buddies?! Where’s the funny? I’m failing at making this article funny!

This is ironic, because most of the humour comes from the game’s narration of my actions. Since most of my actions are failures, the humour is at my expense. I say humour in a loose, ill-defined kind of way. The quips and shocked remarks at my failure were, admittedly, pretty funny at first. However, I fail with remarkably high frequency. By the game’s third act, I’ve pretty much heard all the things the game has to say about that. Who knows, maybe if I was a better player, jokes at the expense of my failure would come less often, making them more refreshing. I’m not though, so I’m pretty tired of it by the end of the game.

Also, BattleBlock Theater is not a terribly long game. I don’t generally mind a short game as long as it has something interesting to say, or a mechanical component that it new or exciting in some way. Granted, there is a plethora of user generated content that I barely scratched the surface of. There is also a lot of multiplayer content, for both co-op and competitive play.

However, my experience with BattleBlock Theater was primarily a singleplayer game, playing through the story. The story mode has me taking an adorable, customizable character (although in a game that allows me to be sloth, I’m going to be a sloth, just saying) intent on rescuing their friends from a series of fiendish obstacle courses, set up on an abandoned island. Every time I complete a chapter of the game, the excitable narrator offers a fraction of the story, telling me how I got here, how do I work this. (and where is my large automobile? And, my God, what have I done?! [sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads lately]). This is where most of the game’s madcap comedy comes into play. I can’t speak for anyone else’s comedic preferences, but I think it’s funny. The end of chapter cutscenes are easily worth the frustration of my many, many deaths.

There are other things I could be besides a little green sloth, but why would I ever?

All in all, the game reminds me of classic Terry Gilliam animations. The surreal sense of humour and frequently violent ends wouldn’t feel out of place in a Monty Python show. I personally find that style of humour pretty funny, even if the gameplay itself is hard to deal with sometimes. I’m plenty happy to give it a revisit, but I’m just as glad it doesn’t take up too much time. Especially considering the time I’m going to need for the next game.

Next Episode: Mass Effect 2

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