On Mass Effect and the Purpose of Humor

You probably think that I'm going to comment on humor in the new Mass Effect game, Mass Effect Andromeda. For that to be true, however, the game would have to actually have a sense of humor. Unfortunately, it does not. I have laughed out loud once in the first 24 hours of the game. In the past games, I would have at least chuckled ten times by now.

Why? Well, it's pretty obvious the authors just aren't that funny. The characters still banter. Their conversations are at least moderately clever, but they don't come off the mark into being witty. My friend Dan Willis put it best. He says that the game has spectacular story, but only workman writing.

No, instead I was just going to point out that I've been playing Andromeda since Wed night. I'll probably do two playthroughs before I do a new draft of DbC 4. That assumes the first playthrough doesn't take too long. In the first few days, I've played 24 hours and 8+ multiplay matches. I hope to finish the first world, post-prologue, tonight (last night when this posts.) I love these games and I didn't really start in time to see the bad animations, except in youtube videos, which seem exaggerated. Compared to Mass Effect 3, they are amazing. I spent the first hour and a half of ME3 nauseated by the uncanny valley.

But back to humor. Why do we need it? Well, at its core, I believe humor is an interrupted defense mechanism. It's what happens when our brain's natural defenses short circuit. The horror mechanism. The fight/flight mechanism. This is why in almost all jokes, someone gets hurt. We're taking the human mind's normal revulsion to that topic and subverting it.

And this leads us to the most useful aspect of humor. Humor tears down our brains' normal defenses and allows us to accept information that we'd normally reject. Jokes allow us to discuss topics that venture into the taboo. So much humor is transgressive because it can be. Humor, by its nature, pushes back the borders of what the listener considers inappropriate. A lot of comedians use this just as a mechanism of the humor itself. Transgression triggers our humor reflex in an of itself. I've heard black comedians say that certain offensive words make a joke six percent funnier, and they are probably right. There's a certain "I can't believe they said that" factor in any offensive joke.

Of course, this is a mixed bag, because everyone has a different idea about what's too transgressive. My mother's favorite joke contains a shocking amount to implied spousal abuse. My grandfather used the f-word as punctuation, but comics like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin could offend him with their swearing (not in the seven dirty words routine, ironically).

But here's the practical use: a joke can drift into areas where a civil conversation can never go. People are willing to laugh at things that they can't discuss rationally. Politics. Social issues. Touchy themes. You still can't go far with these things, but you can address them.

I remember a moment in The West Wing where flag burning finally came up. I braced myself for a giant political argument on free speech. Instead, Bartlet just said, "Is this really a problem? Really? Do we have a flag burning epidemic going on that needs to be brought before the president?"

In another show, I would have thought that a dodge, but The West Wing usually tackled those issues head on. This time, however, they took the time to use the scene as a giant comic drop on everyone arguing about the issue, and it did it in such a charming way that I, who had very strong views on the issue at the time, just chuckled and felt foolish about myself. So foolish that I've rarely thought about it since, outside the context of that scene.

However, humor used as a polemic must be funny. It must be well done. If it's attacking cherished beliefs, it should be subtle and light handed. (If it's attacking ridiculousness, just go to town). The fact remains, the funnier you are, the more you can get away with. If your jokes aren't landing, you can't pull this off. If your jokes kill, you can get away with a lot. If you only care about preaching to the choir, you can get away with more than if you're actually trying to reach across to people who disagree with you, but if that's the case, are you just pandering? Then again, there's something to be said for punching Hitler, as it were.

If you really are trying to reach across an ideological gap, this kind of delicate work requires a lot of test reads. You likely need to get a disparity of viewpoints in your readers. If you attack someone's belief's and you don't want them to be offended, you damn well better have them over-represented in your readers, and you need to listen hard to their advice. I've never written a story that I've taken that far, but if I did, I'd probably do multiple drafts with multiple sets of fresh readers, guiding me until you got the tone perfect because it would have to be perfect.

I personally go for a lighter hand, using humor to deliver a payload of theme that the reader might not notice at first. It's not typically a shocking theme, but the humor acts a delivery mechanism used to implant it more deeply in the reader's mind than it would have landed without the humor. Probably because the most shocking political message I have to deliver is something along the lines of, "Hey. Let's not fight so much."

So, yeah. Shocking.