So Sunset Overdrive didn’t make me laugh. Maybe it made other people laugh, it wouldn’t be the very first time I was left behind by the rest of the consuming masses (by which I mean entertainment audiences, not some kind of amorphous Lovecraftian being). Hell, people still seem to persist with the notion that Joss Whedon writes funny dialogue. Who was it who once said that ‘sanity’ is just the most prevailing form of madness?
But while a lot of comedy is subjective — I personally think you can’t go wrong with a well-timed fart to the face, but some people get sniffy about that sort of ‘low-brow’ entertainment — there are a few universal rules, at which comedy scientists have been working away for generations. And I know Sunset Overdrive is very proud of its little post-punk smartmouth attitude with its ‘rules were made to be exploded’ tagline (except the rule that says you can’t play the game on anything other than Xbone, we’re flawlessly fine with that rule evidently), but keeping in mind a few rules of comedy won’t make you a boring fusty old law-abider. It will, at worst, make your gags less fucking awful.
I’ll give you an example of one gag in Sunset Overdrive that almost worked. At one point, you rescue one of your entourage of support characters, and a third character, who’s not physically present but doing the Otacon radio voice thing where we hear them through what we assume to be a concealed earpiece, talks about the next plot point. And when he’s finished talking, the NPC who is physically present looks confused and asks, “How are we hearing your voice when neither of us is holding a phone?”
Now, this was leaning vaguely towards funny. It is then, as is Sunset Overdrive’s pattern, driven straight into the fucking ground. The protagonist replies “Lol movie games lol” (I’m paraphrasing here) and then they attempt to sustain the gag by talking about how the NPC will now walk off-screen and mysteriously vanish by the time control comes back to the player.
One of the most significant rules of comedy (and indeed most artwork) is to finish strong. A joke needs to end at its funniest point. Dangling around after that is, for me, like writing down a joke and putting an exclamation mark on the end. It’s like instantaneously following a joke by going “DO YOU GET IT? IT WAS A FUNNY JOKE WASN’T IT?” in a desperate funk at the thought you might not be coming across as the raconteur you picture in your head. The reason why the joke was halfway decent with the very first breakage of Sunset Overdrive’s amazingly brittle fourth wall was because, at that moment, whatever humor value is inherent in fourth-wall-breaking was being bolstered by it also being a surprise. Up to that point, the scene had been relatively straight.
And that brings us to another general rule of comedy: the importance of juxtaposition. Many jokes are massively enhanced when delivered with a flawlessly straight face. It’s about peaks and troughs – you let things lodge down to one level and then unexpectedly hop back to the other. Sunset Overdrive has Sacred Trio’s problem in that it feels like some poor bastard was given the job of going through every dialogue line and crowbarring in some kind of ‘witticism’, regardless of context. And by attempting to stay on that level via the entire practice, it comes across as compelled, and it loses the audience.
I’m not telling a gag can’t stay funny if it draws itself out longer, but it needs to be able to keep the energy going. What springs to mind is the Every Sperm Is Sacred musical number from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. In a behind the scenes interview I once spotted, Terry Jones made the point that if the energy in that sequence had dropped, even for a moment, then the effect would have been lost, and I agree. It had to be big smiles and high kicks from commence to finish because the joke lay in the utter hyperactive glee being juxtaposed against the song’s subject matter. Sunset Overdrive was attempting to keep the energy high with snarky sarcasm, a school of humour better suited to a lower-energy deadpan route.
But I’ll say this for Sunset Overdrive – it did make me go back and replay Saints Row Four, and I’m glad I did, because in comparison, it’s a fucking masterwork. I think ‘not taking yourself gravely’ is overrated as a virtue (certainly seems to come up in online dating profiles a lot), because Saints Row four takes itself totally gravely, and that’s why it’s funny. It doen’t make so much as a dent in the fourth wall: everything that takes place is consistent with the overarching story that we’ve been put in a cyber-prison by aliens. No need for wink-nudges or compelled gags, all it needs to do is put on a straight face and, in a entirely serious voice, say “Here is a gun that shoots Dubstep. Use it wisely.”
And I think Sunset Overdrive falls so brief in comparison because it comes across as being too good for itself. It’s aloof, it introduces shallow concepts and characters and then mocks them for not being as brainy or cool as people like us, right viewer? Whereas Saints Row four is entirely on the level. Downright down and conveniently lodged in the insides of uncompromising silliness and it wants you to come down and join it, so we can all have joy and not care about how we must look.