Golf Story and Visual Comedy

Golf Story is available on the Nintendo Switch.

An awful lot of games make attempts to be comedic to various degrees. And almost always this comes across exclusively through the writing as quippy dialogue.

Which, let’s be honest, is kind of a cross-media default. TV and movies can do snippy cross-talk, books can do it, many podcasts and radio shows are built around it. It’s an obvious way to work in levity and perfectly functional the vast majority of the time, but the nature of games means there’s an opportunity to do something very different.

The first Kingdom Hearts game showed a step in the right direction, using visual gags like flattening Donald Duck behind a slammed-open door and having him physically pull the frame of view around during early cutscenes. Granted, Kingdom Hearts put a lot of stock in its animation – particularly emulating the feel of Disney Studios works – so it’s not surprising that it borrowed some 1930s animation slapstick in there, but it’s still not something exclusively video-game-y.

The visual gag in question.

But Golf Story is really playing into the strengths and tropes endemic to it not being a cartoon or a scripted show, but a video game.

For example, most everybody in the campaign is, to some degree, self-interested to the point of covering up their intentions with obvious fibs. Usually, this would involve an “er”, an “um”, an “I mean”, or some other crutch word. Fair enough when it’s your only option, but it is very transparent to the reader and very clunky in real-time.

Characters in Golf Story, on the other hand, will literally double back on their statements. They blurt out a full statement then, thinking better of it, will actively rewind and erase the text in their word balloons, replacing it with their more palatable lies. It’s an entertaining joke every time, and besides being the most direct non-audio translation I’ve ever seen of doubling back on one’s statements, it also makes it so that if you blink and miss things, everything looks fine and no, I didn’t say that, which is exactly the intended effect.

Speaking of, the game also gets around the limited-to-no facial expressions its tiny pixel-art characters by instead animating those word balloons, animating them as shaking with excitement and drooping over with disappointment as appropriate. Much more visible and easily-read, and you couldn’t get away with it in any other medium I can think of short of the so-rare-that-most-folks-haven’t-ever-read-one motion comic.

The most obvious unique point to video games, of course, is their interactivity, and Golf Story capitalizes on this in spades, too. Even in the tutorial level, you have to make a putt while a family of geese swarm the green, and (as with all good tutorials), it sets you up for the game-and-story integration making your job simultaneously hilarious and hellish.

A perfectly normal putting scenario (for this game).

Early on, you make a hotheaded rival and begin following a confident-but-ineffectual coach, both of which play exactly how you think. Your rival hits downright impressive and frighteningly aggressive shots, ricocheting off of rocks like a pinball game and regularly overshooting her mark (resulting in every raging reaction short of actually swearing). Your coach, likewise, flubs each shot in some new and spectacular way, making a host of clearly-ridiculous excuses or taking full ownership for the rare times when he actually manages to land on a helpful hazard.

That isn’t to say that Golf Story has totally divorced itself from the norm. The dialogue is dripping with jokes on every topic from modern celebrity to the prestigious standing of the sport of frisbee disc golf. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s what audiences are familiar with, so it’s easily readable for the most part and I can only imagine that it’s much less work to incorporate into the game than actively altering gameplay or fiddling with how auto-advancing text is displayed.

But it really does show when people go the extra mile to do something out of the ordinary and play to the specifics of how they’re telling a story. Golf Story is funny. It’s creative. But it’s also creative with how it’s trying to be funny, which makes this champion of its tour.


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