There are plenty people who argue comedy and video games don’t mix. Sure, there is the occasional exception, but there are far more examples of comedic failures in video games than successes. While I may not agree with the notion that comedy and games can’t get along, Jazzpunk does not prove my point, though it does not dissuade me that comedic games can’t work. While not the first effort from Necrophone Games, Jazzpunk is easily the largest-profile game that the duo of Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse have produced. Not only is it the biggest game for Necrophone, it is equally a big release for Adult Swim Games whose catalogue usually includes online games and smartphone applications. At the indie-standard price of $14.99 Jazzpunk is an evolution for publisher and developer alike, while both deserve respect for the ballsy effort, the final product doesn’t quite shine through.
Jazzpunk is more than a game, it is an attitude. Necrophone seems to go out of their way to smirk at video game tropes, but their scattershot development lacks focus. It is hard to categorize what the game looks like or how it plays, because it is so busy being bored with itself that it jumps around at a mile-a-minute pace, hastily building thematic elements to make sense of its world, then dismissing them in search of something better. The aesthetic supports this by being a jumble of different ideas brutally shoved together. Rooms are claustrophobically cluttered with random things and people to interact with, a veritable fun house of toys. It is all communicated through an art style that feels less like it is trying to communicate a world and more like it is interested in being different than the place before. There’s some subtle hints to indicate that you’re in a cold war era world, but little subtext to suggest what kind of world that is.
If you think the art in Jazzpunk is an assault the senses, the gameplay is every bit as strange. The game pretends to be an exploratory puzzle game, in the same vein as Gone Home, but there are enough quirky instances that are deeper than the game’s simple nature would suggest. The most obvious examples are the mini games hidden throughout Jazzpunk, like a wedding version of Quake where you battle enemies with champagne bottles or a fight against a car which is a nod to Street Fighter. The games are a mixed bag of fun, not really explained, but completely optional. Sticking the sections of the game you must play, Jazzpunk pushes you to walk around and meddle with objects made available to you. It will tell you when to sit down, or interact with something, but at times it will leave stay mum, making you toy with its bizarre atmosphere. Discovering these puzzles and wandering through Jazzpunk’s insanity can be fun at times. The game is so obsessed with moving things along, it always feels like something new is just around the corner. Bored with this sushi kitchen? Don’t worry, soon you’ll be at a tropical resort. Bored with this resort? Soon you’ll be shooting champagne at bots.
The problem is that Jazzpunk almost seems bored with its entire self. It will rush you through whatever objectives you have at that minute, only to shove something completely new in your face. Its fun enough, but when forced to actually reflect on the time spent with the game, one can’t help but feel the experience was frivolous. It feels like this statement of fleeting interest and lack of depth is Jazzpunks point, to show you how shallow video games really are as a medium. It would almost go hand-in-hand with its whimsically satirical humor consistently demonstrated in Jazzpunk. It is hard to assign too much meaning to any aspect of the game as it appears Jazzpunk isn’t trying to take itself too seriously. So again, you’re confronted with the painful realization that your entire time with the game is rather pointless.
The exclamation point to Jazzpunk’s wandering bizarro world is its story. It might be unfair to say the story is confusing as–again–that seems to be the point of Jazzpunk. The game plops the player in the shoes of a spy, Polytron, who is infiltrating communists…I think. Polytron’s descent into the rabbit-hole of Jazzpunk is passive. He must save humanity because he is told to, he must get the file because he is told to. There’s no agency, nothing to really relate to, but who cares because in ten minutes you will be doing something completely unrelated to your current objective. Jazzpunk shoves you through its world, dangling dumb things to laugh at, and hoping you enjoy the ride. The game almost assumes that each story point is uninteresting and that the players needs something else to stimulate them.
There’s nothing wrong with Jazzpunk’s ever-changing nature. There’s possibly a handful of people who would enjoy its crazy world. The rapid-fire change of objective, in some ways, is a credit to the talents of the designers at Necrophone. However, the game constantly seems to be making sure its audience isn’t bored, unsure of its own premise. I was spending too much time trying wrap my brain around who and where I was that I never actually got a moment to laugh at some of the jokes Necrophone planted. Jazzpunk seems to be going for the Monty Python style of bizzarro humor, but its insecurities wrap up the package in cellophane, making the humor unnatural and forced. You can almost feel the developers hoping you will laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of certain moments instead of constructing something you would find organically entertaining.
Comedy can exist in games and Necrophone can deliver the comedic experience that it is aiming for in Jazzpunk. What is lacking is the surefooted narrative. We don’t need something typical or something rote, but Jazzpunk outright dismisses itself as stupid before you even get the chance to do so yourself. Instead of ribbing other games and pushing the player along, it would be nice to see the game invite the player to a world and let them discover the laughs all on their own. Jazzpunk threatens to do this on several occasions, hiding jokes for those interested in finding them, but it so violently shifts location and tone that it never seems to be interested in itself. If the game isn’t interested in itself, why should we be interested in it?