Throwback: "Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2" Comedy Style Guide
When we were in the planning and preproduction phase of writing Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2 I wrote up a document detailing some of the stylistic guidelines for how to write the characters, what kind of language was appropriate, etc. One of the sections that I spent the most time on was a section titled "On Comedy," which I thought might be fun to share below - It's a combo of thoughts on comedy specific to the MCSM universe, as well as some of my thoughts about interactive comedy on the whole. Hope you enjoy!
Comedy is an inherent part of MCSM, but the tone can be a little tricky for some folks to nail right away, which is why I wanted to do a section about Comedy in Minecraft: Story Mode --
Oh gross. Like a “How to Jokes” section?
Not exactly, but a section about some of the best practices for comedy when writing Minecraft: Story Mode. See, in a movie or TV show you could just pack every possible second full of gags, wordplay, etc. but in an interactive game it starts to feel like you’re just “along for the ride” if it’s a never-ending spree of jokes.
For example, imagine the player chooses to say “I want to go into the spooky house.”
JESSE: Come on everyone. Let’s go get up in that spooky house’s business.
IVOR: Excellent! I know all about the spooky house business.
LUKAS: [sarcastic] Oh I'm sure you do.
IVOR: [oblivious] It's true! Back when I was a haunted real estate agent they were my speciality.
The player choosing to say “I want to go into the spooky house” became the setup for a funny line from Ivor which could probably get a laugh, but it kind of took the player’s input hostage. They hit a single button expecting to go to the spooky house but instead got an entire conversation between two NPCs. (A funny conversation, but not exactly what they were expecting from that button press.)
So what should you do instead?
Honestly, the answer is that less is more. Jesse’s line alone is already “written funny” (the phrasing about the spooky house’s “business” could probably get a decent chuckle) so the whole joke could be pared down to just:
JESSE: Come on everyone. Let’s go get up in that spooky house’s business.
Dir: Ivor looks INCREDIBLY EXCITED.
IVOR: FANTASTIC! Just as I’d hoped!
Let the visual of Ivor's excitement plus the actor’s voice sell the comedy - Those two things together can carry a lot of comedic weight by themselves. (Seriously, you've heard Paul Reubens, right? The man could make reading the ingredients list on a Hostess cupcake funny.) With this new minimal version, the game isn’t holding the player hostage and they instead get to feel like they elicited Ivor's funny response. (And thus made them feel “responsible” for the comedy.)
Yeah, but what about the part about being a haunted real estate agent?
Well, if you really wanted to get in the joke about selling spooky houses, the first moment could then be followed up by something like:
IVOR: I tell you, I love spooky houses. They bring back so many memories!
- Let’s just walk quietly.
- SPOOKY memories?
- You are so weird.
Ivor has now offered the player an “invitation” for comedy combined with a grounded roleplaying choice.
- 2 and 3 let the player “opt-in” for some comedy, which would both lead into Ivor’s past as a purveyor of spooky houses.
- 1 and 4, on the other hand, are the “no comedy for me, thanks” options.
Obviously that isn’t the same thing as a rat-a-tat of jokes like the original was, but it allows the comedy to play out in a way where the player still feels like they’re in control of the action.
Uh huh. So what about, I dunno, like pop culture references as jokes?
Glad you asked! I wanted to talk about that but couldn’t think how to transition into it properly!
Don’t look at me like that! Anyway. Pop culture references. They’re a great source of “Comedy for grown ups in an all-ages thing” but it’s also so easy for them to cross the line into being eye-rollingly cringeworthy.
My general rule of thumb is that so long as the joke/reference can come and go without introducing friction into the story you’re good to go.
“Friction” meaning anything that impairs the pace or the player’s enjoyment. In other words:
DON’T use references that are obviously “references” even if the player doesn’t get them. So don’t have a character see two cities and then say “Oh man. Best of times, worst of times, amirite?” Dickens fans will be delighted, but anyone not in the know will be left scratching their head wondering what in the world they’re talking about.
And DON’T lampshade the references you’re making. A character saying “Hold onto your butts” before something exciting happens is a fun chuckle of a Jurassic Park reference. If another character then says “Huh. I feel like I’ve heard that before”... You killed it. That button isn’t cute, it’s not ironic - It’s just hacky. Please don’t be hacky.
Are you done rambling about comedy yet?
No! Never! Well. Almost. The last thing I want to do is revisit a phrase I dropped earlier: “Writing funny.” That’s stolen/paraphrased from a drawing teacher I had back in college. He used to talk about how when designing sets for animation you had to learn how to “draw funny”; drawing props and environments in a slightly skewed or “strange” way so even if normal stuff is happening in them it still feels fun and funny.
In a similar way, a huge portion of Minecraft: Story Mode’s comedy just comes from simply “writing funny” - Taking lines that aren’t jokes and finding slight variations on wording or structure to make them just a little bit “goofy” or “silly.”
Obviously it can’t be done with every single line (that would get exhausting), but using it in the right places can produce the kind of lines that our hilarious actors can weaponize and hand to the cinematic artists to make a comedic killing with. (This metaphor ran away from me).
Cool. So be funny all the time then. Got it.
Now hang on, that’s not what I said at all. Just because we’re aiming to be The Best Comedy Game and have tons of great humor, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing but funny. Just like how you can’t have light without darkness, you can’t have comedy without drama.
The awesome, funny characters we’re going to craft need to be put through real dramatic situations; choices and obstacles that test them as characters and force real growth. Character arc crap, y’know?
So how meta does this game get?
The simple answer? Not very. Characters don’t refer to themselves as being “on a server” or throw around technical jargon and they definitely don’t know that they’re in a game. All of our characters are just people who have always lived in this world and lived by its rules.
So they shouldn’t be expounding their philosophical thoughts about everything being made of cubes, wondering about spheres, marveling about the way some things float, and they shouldn’t be calling out that they don’t have fingers.
I heard there are super strict language rules.
Yeah, kinda. In E7+ you can TECHNICALLY say a few swear words, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to. Minecraft’s audience skews young, and there are lots of parents who have a very strict cap on what language is “appropriate.”
That means no *** or **** or ****** and ABSOLUTELY zero instances of ****, ******, or ****-****. There are a few “Minecraft-y” replacements like “Slimeblocks!” or “Gravel!” as cursewords that we’ve used, but they can feel cheesy if overdone. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Do you worry that you sound like a pretentious tool writing all of this?
Yes I do. Because I don’t want people to think I’m laying down “rules” or “restrictions” on comedy or storytelling. Instead, think of this document more like the pirate code. And we all know what they say about the pirate code:
I’m not sure that pop culture reference fits your “guidelines.”