We talk sometimes about how people think writing is very easy because it seems like a thing everyone can, theoretically, do and how it’s actually not easy and this causes a lot of crap to get into the system.
Within writing, I think the genre that gets the worst end of this stick is parody, and within that lowbrow parody, because it seems really simple– make fun of cliches everyone knows, tell stupid jokes, and it’s a hit! But the truth is low parody is very, very hard to write. When it’s good you get Airplane!, but when it’s bad, it’s really, really bad. And while as a game Bard’s Tale has some redeeming qualities and is actually pretty fun to play, as a parody it’s really bad and falls into some very obvious and self-destructive traps.
But what makes a good parody? When we’re talking about this particular type, I think there’s a few key things.
1. It knows it’s stupid, and embraces it…
Fart jokes, puns, visual gags… they’re all stupid. They’re also all hilarious. A good parody embraces both of these things.
I mean come on, that’s ridiculously dumb and I crack up every time.
The beauty of these kinds of parodies is that no one has any pretensions. We’re all here to act like idiots and enjoy every second of it. There’s a very genuine, honest element to a low parody that I think is why they endure so long when done well. So often storytelling is couched in these kind of stressful elements of symbolism and criticism (hi guys!) and it means that it’s distinctly a relief to encounter something that is okay with not trying to be anything other than what it is.
2. …but it’s still actually very witty.
Of course, a parody that’s just stupid and not actually clever behind it all is a bad parody, and therein lies the really difficulty in the crafting of these types of stories.
Actually being clever all while maintaining the facade of not caring at all is really, really tough, and that’s on top of how hard it is to be actually funny in the first place.
“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
“I’ve heard that what they call fortune is a flighty woman who drinks too much, and, what’s more, she’s blind, so she can’t see what she’s doing, and she doesn’t know who she’s knocking over or who she’s raising up.” ― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
And listen up when I tell you this
I hope you never use quotation marks for emphasis
You finished second grade
I hope you can tell
If you’re doing good or doing well
Better figure out the difference
Irony is not coincidence
And I thought that you’d gotten it through your skull
What’s figurative and what’s literal
Oh but, just now, you said
>You literally couldn’t get out of bed
That really makes me want to literally
Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head
-Weird Al Yankovic, “Word Crimes”
The beauty of stupid humor is that it is always catching you off guard with how smart it is. It’s a delicate art that, when done right, is possibly the most clever form of humor out there.
3. It has to engage tropes, not just acknowledge them.
I don’t know when this started or why, but back in the late nineties someone in moviemaking decided that simply pointing out a trope was a joke, and that saying, “Hey, this is a thing that happens a lot!” was not just sufficient criticism, but absolutely hilarious. And while TV Tropes is certainly a riot, that’s not why, and I’m not sure why this started or why it keeps happening.
The truly great thing about parodies is that they can take their tropes to their logical conclusions, and those conclusions are ridiculous. PrinceLess is more satire than parody and is more serious than what we’re really talking, but it still does this well. It doesn’t stop at, “Princesses are always locked in towers, LOL,” it also asks how the hell that could happen in the first place, and what kind of situation it would create.
Two movies that do this really well are the original Austin Powers and the brilliant Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.
The trope in question here is “the bad guys always have ridiculous traps with things like sharks.” The engagement is the question “but would that even be possible?” and the punch line is, no, sharks are endangered and they wouldn’t be able to just go grab some. The reason it works, and the reason it’s funny, is that it doesn’t stop at the acknowledgement– it doesn’t actually have the sharks and then point out that’s stupid. It takes the idea to its logical conclusion and lets us all bask in the absurdity.
In a similar vein, Tucker and Dale asks, who the hell deals with all the dead bodies after a slasher movie?
You can get a lot of mileage just on the pure ridiculousness that happens when you apply real-world logic to basic genre tropes. The absurd is funny. It just is. And this connects back to the first point, because if a movie is willing to totally own how absurd it is, wonderful things happen.
Tucker: All right… I know what this is.
Tucker: This is a suicide pact.
Dale: It’s a what?
Tucker: These kids are coming out here, and killing themselves all over the woods.
Dale: My God, that makes so much sense.
Tucker: Holy shit. We have go to hide all of the sharp objects!
All of this brings us back to The Bard’s Tale.The biggest problem with this game, far and away, is that despite the fact that this game is legitimately clever at times, not only is it constantly basking in its own cleverness, it thinks it is much, much more clever than it is.
It attempts to create a smarmy character that makes fun of the hypermasculine wRPG hero, but it’s so proud of itself for realizing that character can be parodied that it just recreates it, because there’s no room for it to make fun of itself or admit it’s stupid. Instead of mocking the asshole characters in RPGs, it just creates another, worse one and then laughs hysterically as if this is so clever and amazing.And while the game is witty, it’s not witty enough to make up for its own smarm. Like seriously, the songs are not that clever STOP FORCING ME TO LISTEN TO THEM.
So those are points 1 and 2 — it fails one, and its failure there bruises its ability to succeed at 2.
Then there’s 3.
Despite the fact that the game is nowhere near as witty as it thinks it is, it does make some good observations. I particularly liked the running gag of everyone assuming they were the Chosen One and getting themselves killed — that’s some quality genre-savvy! The problem is that all of those types of things are ancillary to the main story, which falls into the trap of broaching cliches without examining them in some really bad ways.
So one thing I didn’t mention above because it’s not part of this subgenre in particular is the idea that satire by its nature attacks dominant institutions. “Satire” that goes after the disenfranchised isn’t satire, it’s just propaganda. The point of satire is to expose damaging popular thought patterns, and (sometimes) propose alternatives.
The problem is that the game doesn’t really seem to think there’s anything wrong with the popular power fantasy narrative — it just thinks that either they don’t go far enough, or the rewards for the hero are incorrect. This is a game that asks such burning questions as, “Why would a hero want to save a princess when they could instead bang a princess?” It doesn’t matter that the princess is a reward anyway in the first scenario and probably ends up a sex toy, without an explicit promise of sex, why would the hero even bother? That’s why male power fantasies don’t make sense, not because women are people!
The game has… a lot of hangups about women. I mean, I’ll be straight and say the writers really hate women. It seems to think the only problem with the hypersexual male hero is that games don’t actually portray just how insane and possessive the women he sleeps with really are. A dude who sleeps around town would never be able to go back not because he’s a jackass who uses other human beings, but because the psycho harpies he banged would be squawking incessantly about how now he had to spend more time with them. Don’t game writers know women are too stupid to realize when someone doesn’t have any interest in them?
Then, of course, there’s the “princess” here, who is portrayed as being confident in her sexuality but — and I didn’t even get past her intro sequence — is obviously evil because of it and using it to manipulate the Bard, because what other kind of desire or power could women possibly want or have?
And actually I want to stop and talk about this for a second, because this was some of the worst writing I ever saw.
Right after we meet the princess via like astral projection or something, there’s a scene where we see the anatgonist send monster-guardians into the upcoming dungeon area after the protagonist. This is odd, because we know, going into a dungeon, there will be monsters, so why do we need to establish monsters in the dungeon? The scene lays on the evilulz thick, and shows him treating the captured princess terribly. It seems them the purpose of the scene is to establish the villain as evil. But he’s already kidnapped a princess. Why would you need to establish a kidnap-happy antagonist as evil?
Here’s what we know up to this point:
– The Bard is a dick-brained asshole
– The Princess has been kidanpped by Antagonist
– She has promised him she’s sexy and will be sexy to his benefit is he saves her
– The game has had nothing but contempt for female sexuality
– The game then went to great pains to show how evil the Antagonist was
The only reason — only reason — to at this juncture have a scene that establishes someone obviously evil as evil is if they are not in fact evil and the game doth protest too much.
This of course, makes things make sense. The sexy princess being evil explains why her sexuality is presented uncritically. It explains how Dickbrain is going to remain anything resembling a hero after basically telling a women he’ll help her in exchange for raping her, and it explains the baffling existence of a scene that’s only purpose is to hammer in how evil a man who locks a princess in a tower is.
It was at this point that I stopped playing the game. If it was going to spoil its own ending for me I wasn’t going to humor it. I actually was so baffled by how terrible this series of events was that I went to make sure I was right, and sure enough, yes, the sexy princess is evil.
This game was a clusterfuck of some genuine creativity dispersed haphazardly through a terribly hateful game that was so proud of how awful it was that it literally had a narrator there to explain the jokes to you.
The gameplay mechanics were fun, though.