As one might have guessed from prior entries in The Help Files, I’m playing a bit of Warframe. Like most multiplayer online worlds, it has its share of in-jokes. The two more prevalent ones in particular surround Clem and potatoes. Some time Sunday morning, I finally got through the quest line that reveals why everyone makes jokes about Clem, and why certain pieces of equipment are always referred to as potatoes.
I’m not really here to talk about whether or not the references are funny—or what they even mean at all. The thing I will mention is that the content that inspired the Clem jokes is compelling and, more importantly, memorable. Digital Extremes, the publisher of the game, also knows when to run with a joke and while that’s not always necessary in keeping the fire going, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
The thing about Warframe, though, is that it doesn’t ever really take itself seriously. The game is full of sarcastic narrator characters being played against the mostly effective straight man that is the primary narrator, Lotus. Lotus is basically your space mom, and she barely tolerates the antics of all these weird friends you keep making that are constantly getting you into trouble.
Amidst all of that, Clem still manages to stand out.
On the other hand, in-jokes can also be effectively derived when a game world does take itself seriously. Champions Online, for example, has a tutorial scenario. Near the end of it, one of the primary lore characters is directing your actions with a bit of narration and delivers an utterly cheese-filled line straight out of Silver Age comics:
This, in and of itself, is perhaps a quick laugh. The real meat happens when you’ve done the tutorial scenario over and over, making new characters. Most of the tutorial—and the game—is a rushdown. You can fly through most missions with relative ease so quests that slow you down, like the beacons in the end of the tutorial, become far more memorable.
The thing these two pieces of cult humor have in common is that they aren’t forced. Neither the slightly off-beat comedic relief character in a world that is basically nothing but comedy relief, nor the b-grade piece of cheesy narration, feel like they came from a boardroom with the word “viral” scrawled across a white board.
People, especially gamers, don’t like being told what is funny or interesting. It is incredibly important for memorable in-jokes to form within your community and world, but it’s for the community members to put the pin in that. Make content that is funny or memorable to you personally, and put it on the table without fanfare or emphasis and don’t punish the community for picking something else. I’ve witnessed too many times a MUD being built as a tunnel with a thousand blinking arrows pointing inward, and the staff reacting with hostility when the players decide it’s more interesting to walk the other direction.
Just remember that if you have to explain the joke, it probably isn’t funny to anyone but you.
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