The Bard’s Tale (2004), or, What Is Parody?

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.

The Naked Gun

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.

Airplane!
 

Tropic Thunder

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.

 

Austin Powers

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?

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

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.
Dale: What?
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.

 

28 Comments

  1. illhousen says:
    I’m glad now I didn’t play this game despite it being recommended to me. Seems like the typical deconstruction/parody clusterfuck where the only thing authors managed to deconstruct is their own understanding of how stories work, why, and what are the actual problems with them.

    The treatment of women sound appalling as well.

    Nice discussion about what makes parody work, though. Sometimes terrible things can serve as a platform to talk about how make things right, barely justifying their existence.

    1. actonthat says:
      Basically.

      Like I said above (or below, I guess, depending on your comment layout) this is why I generally stay away from reviews of good things and things I like, because there’s so much more to discuss and analyze with flawed things.

  2. Negrek says:
    This post makes me realize how rarely I actually consume parody media. Aside from Airplane I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of your examples. And there aren’t that many parody video games out there in general, are there? Maybe more indie ones I’m not familiar with.

    Looking forward to the poofy white clusterfuck!

    1. actonthat says:
      I really can’t think of any parody video games. The only thing that comes to mind for me is Braid, which is more subversion/deconstruction than parody. This Wiki page only lists 41 games, most very old, and many not true parodies.

      Then again, gaming is notoriously resistant to criticism, so maybe that’s not surprising.

      And I can’t wait to see everyone there! I hope I have the chance to actually like sit and talk with people? Also I wonder if I tried to change out of the dress and like slink around unnoticed if my parents would freak out…

  3. SpoonyViking says:
    Finally, I can follow the links! :-P
  4. Roarke says:
    Incidentally, that narrator was Tony Jay, and I believe it was his last credited role before his death. Maybe the game itself killed him, who knows.

    I’m sorry for recommending this, but I’m glad that the post you wrung out of it is truly insightful.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      RIP, Mortanius. The man was a great voice actor.
    2. actonthat says:
      Yeah, it’s one of the reason I’m always wary about doing reviews of things I like. It’s just easier to talk about flawed things, and it produces more valuable criticism.
  5. illhousen says:
    Also, a good fantasy parody: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8753582/1/Overlady

    Technically a crossover fic of ZnT and Overlord, but doesn’t require knowledge of either.

    1. actonthat says:
      I don’t know what either of those are >.>
      1. illhousen says:
        Overlord is a humorous game the script to which is written by Terry Pratchett’s daughter.

        ZnT is an interesting case. By itself, it’s a bad harem anime not worth bothering with. However, it has some interesting setting potential. It’s based on Renaissance era, for one thing, which is rare in fantasy, and it has magocracy as a form of government, which is pretty cool to play with. As such, fanfics of it tend to revolve around eliminating harem elements and focusing on setting exploration, political intrigues and adventures. It’s one of the works where I would say fanfiction is superior to the source material. Often, fanfics also replace the main character (who is terrible and easily replaceable given the premise is that he was transported there from another world) with a crossover character (though, granted, that often leads to Mary Sue).

        The fic in question goes further and focuses exclusively on female lead, exploring her personality (underdeveloped in canon where she’s just a violent tsundere, but there are some hints at deeper characterization potential, which are made prominent in the fic), pushing her into interesting conflicts and playing around with the setting.

        The bottom line is that it’s a story you can enjoy even if you don’t know a first thing about source material, just general background in fantasy would suffice.

        1. Gust says:
          That sounds fascinating. Are there any fanfics you’d recommend?
          1. illhousen says:
            Overlady is linked above. Stuff by the same author is pretty good. A Green Sun Illuminates the Void is a crossover with Exalted. Starts a bit shaky and lacking direction, but grows quite epic in Albion arc. The Fearful Void is a crossover with FEAR. I’m not familiar with it, but the fic is good.

            For fics of other writers, there is Breaking in Rumia: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10196722/1/Breaking-in-Rumia
            A crossover with Touhou and a typical setup with replaced main character, but the focus is kept on Louise, which is rare for fandom and generally improves fics quality, in my opinion.

            Emperor of Zero: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7736264/1/Emperor_of_Zero
            Has a fun premise of Napoleon being summoned in place of protagonist and getting right to scheming. I remember enjoying first chapters, though I didn’t look at the fic for some time now.

            Making Magick: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7667766/1/Making-Magick
            and No Need for Halkeginian Logic: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10093207/1/No-Need-for-Halkeginian-Logic
            are fun, but mostly rely on game humor from their crossover sources (Magicka and Skyrim, respectively).

            Velle Anima: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7314625/1/
            It’s fun, though won’t make much sense unless you are familiar with ZnT already, at least through fanfics.

            Finally, not so much a recommendation as a curiosity to ponder, The Hill of Swords: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6154638/1/The_Hill_of_Swords
            A crossover with FSN. Can’t truly recommend it due to various flaws, minor and major, but that’s the fic that started the trend and brought popularity to the fandom, so it’s worth a note in that context.

  6. Farla says:
    Hm. How do you feel about the idea that guys who act like this are getting targeted by evil for that very reason? There was a recent Gravity Falls episode that people were debating about.

    I read a screw-you RPG module with the princess in the tower setup that I found entertaining. There’s all these clues that something is wrong then at the end the undead princess eats you. Kinda tempted to collect kids and make them play it.

    1. actonthat says:
      That’s an interesting premise. I bet you could get a ton of mileage by taking advantage of the typical male audience’s sexism. You could even make it choice-able — I would be willing to bet, given the chance, male gamers would absolutely choose to rape and pillage their way through saving a woman who doesn’t really need to be saved. Also I bet the reveal that they’re terrible people and that’s why the world is ending would piss them off and that would be hilarious.

      I keep getting told to watch the new crop of Cartoon Network shows ughhh how do I watch TV without having to watch TV.

      The genre is ripe for parody — the only attempt to satirize or deconstruct it I can think of is Braid (which, <3333) — it's just that this… isn't.

      1. illhousen says:
        “I keep getting told to watch the new crop of Cartoon Network shows ughhh how do I watch TV without having to watch TV.”

        Torrents.

        1. actonthat says:
          I meant that I just don’t really enjoy watching TV shows. If someone could put them in book or video game form for me that would be ideal. Or like download the experience into my brain and forgo the consumption process altogether?
          1. Farla says:
            There actually are videogames for Gravity Falls and Steven Universe! Not sure if they make any sense on their own, though. And Gravity Falls put out a book that’s supposed to have been written by the kids and is super adorable, if spoiler-filled.
            1. actonthat says:
              SU has a comic that I’ve been hemming and hawwing about getting. I should just do it.
              Reply
      2. mechablue says:
        Deconstructions are actually pretty popular and well received in the indie market (see: The Stanley Parable, Undertale and Recettear), just not flat out parodies.
        1. actonthat says:
          Recettear isn’t a deconstruction >.>

          Deconstructions are very trendy right now. Which amuses me because then they’re not deconstructions anymore at that point, just the genre itself. Regardless, those tend to be received better than parody, I think because the joke isn’t on the player but the devs.

          1. mechablue says:
            I’ve never been good at figure out what works count as comedy, general parody or
            deconstruction. I think the other two count?
      3. Doortothe says:
        “How do I watch TV without having to watch TV.”

        There’s always licensed games. Usually they’re pretty bad but some have been really good lately. For example, the Adventure Time games by Wayforward have gotten good reviews. I think they released two on the 3DS and one on the Vita

  7. Nerem says:
    Sooo… maybe I should have gotten you to play the original Bard’s Tale instead….
  8. PostguestivePostistPhase says:
    Back from my long nonexistence and I see a thing I liked very much back then is now getting lambasted in here.

    Back then being high schoolish, I’ve been kinda noticing how lame and unfunny the story/setting stuff is on the rare occasions I remembered BT more recently. This review confirms the sneaking suspicion that Bard’s Tale was actually pretty shitty outside of gameplay.

    What’s wrong with high school? Every single student in there being dumb has to be a systemic error.

    Speaking of parody in vidjagaming, it usually happens on internets by random nerds’ jillions of crappy flashgames. Usually with names like Kombat Fighters or Epic Battle Fantasy (that’s actually good). It goes no further because gaming industry (and also gamers themselves) are bad. Sometimes humorous games are made (humorousness varies from Monkey Island to Leisure Suit Larry) but an actual true parody is never ever done because how dare they make fun of nerds’ terriblenesses.

    Also speaking of “humorous” games, you could make a post on good ol Leisure Suit Larry. I love Larry but it’s incredibly, phenomenally bad. Would make a fine giant wall of hate.


    “The wedding is like a fucking week away and the whole thing is a poofy white clusterfuck created by my mother,”
    I never got the point of this (and also nobody had any logical explanation). Why not use all that time and money to, like, get cooler furniture or fancier honeymoon or whatever else you want? Working your ass off to arrange a wedding so other people can have (a debatable amount of) fun doesn’t sound in any way like the happiest day of your life. Yet it happens. Constantly. It’s baffling.

    1. SpoonyViking says:
      I never got the point of this[…]

      Me neither. I used to feel exactly like you. These days, though, I can see my fiancée’s point of view: it’s not just about the couple, it’s about the families as well.

    2. actonthat says:
      I thought I could mitigate it. “I’m a simple, levelheaded person. I was a simple, small, personal wedding. My mother will understand.” I WAS WRONG. I WAS SO WRONG.

      tbh I gave up on fighting it months ago. It’s my mom’s second wedding for all intents and purposes. Though really as long as I end up hitched EOD I don’t care.

      But ELOPE. I’m telling you people, ELOPE.

  9. Doortothe says:
    I know this is a bit late but congrats on the wedding! Hope it all goes well

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