The Writer’s Game: The DeathSpank Series

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If the title concerns you, the DeathSpank series are a trio of comedy action RPGs from Hothead Games.  You can stop worrying about the name.

Starting in 2010, this series follows the adventures of DeathSpank, a muscley but vacant hero in the vein of The Tick.  Through three games (the titular first one, Thongs of Virtue, and The Baconing), our sword-swinging protagonist travels a colorful world to smite evil and recover magical artifacts.  It has all the trappings expected of a fantasy action RPG – equipment, button-mashing combat, quests – while parodying the genre.

The genre, a staple of video games, had plenty to parody.  Overblown magical weapons, senseless side quests, post-apocalyptic tropes, strange artifacts were all targets for DeathSpank.  I can still remember laughing at the overdone reveal of a magical sword or seeing the realm of the gods as a walled community of snobs.

Comedy is tricky no matter the media.  DeathSpank provides us lessons we can use in other media, even if you find the title questionable.  There are lessons for writers in this series, especially writers of comedy.

Get The Foundation Right

DeathSpank was a parody of games, but it was a game.  The monster-bashing was solid, there were interesting environments to explore, and it was fun to play.  The authors could have made a serious game on the DeathSpank engine, but chose parody.

Fortunately, the authors deiced to be hilarious.

This is a reminder to authors writing comedy that you’re still doing writing.  Much as DeathSpank had the mechanics of the game right, your novel or comic needs to have the right pacing, language, etc.  If you want to write comedy, be a good writer.

Had DeathSpank not had good gameplay, not as many people would have stuck with the series to enjoy the comedy.

Actually Be Funny

DeathSpank had plenty to make fun of – fantasy RPG Action games are both familiar and have plenty to mock.  The crew didn’t just poke a few things and call it a day; they worked hard to make you laugh.

The voice actor for DeathSpank (the character) was hilariously overdone.  The genre’s common devolution into “sidequests” is roundly mocked.  The dialogue is often plain funny, even when the hero talks to a cow or his evil Anti-self.  The comedy writing and acting were authentically good and extremely well written.

If you’re writing comedy, you have to put the work in – and as many of us know, it’s not easy.  Even when you have obvious targets as DeathSpank did, you still should put in the work.  DeathSpank was well-written enough I could have seen it being a film or short-run TV show.

Know Your Subject

The reason DeathSpank had me laughing as I battled monsters was that the creators clearly knew the genre they mocked.  As a fan of fantasy RPGs and fantasy in general, I recognized what they were parodying.  I was the target audience (and still am).

Thus, it’s clear the people behind DeathSpank knew what they were making fun of.  It wasn’t shallow humor, there were a few deep cuts, as well as many medium ones as it were.  Simply put, no one that didn’t know the genre well could have made this game.

This is a reminder for writers that you have to know any subject you’re parodyiny.  If you don’t – or think you do and don’t – your work will suffer for it.  Come to think of it, so will your audience.

There may be a time to look at something and realize you can’t mock it, no matter your writing skills.

Love Your Subject

DeathSpank was there to mock, but it was also  a labor of love.  You don’t craft something this funny without caring about what you do.  Much as The Venture Brothers was both parody and homage, DeathSpank got close to that line.

The game was funny, yes but done with affection.  Time was lavished on the dialogue, humorous environments, and game design.  There is craftsmanship in this game, even if you teleport via magical outhouses (no, really).

Caring about a subject means you know it well enough to parody it.  That intimacy also means you’ll have love and sympathy for the subject matter, saving you from the traps of mean-spiritedness.  Instead, your humor will be true as you know the subject so well.

The audience will respond to that love, as their laughter comes from knowing the subject as well as you.

In Conclusion

DeathSpank managed to be a comedy game that was both comedy and game.  The result was a fun, funny experience that reminds us comedy lies on a foundation of knowing the subjects and the mechanics of your craft. 

Lesson’s For Writers

  • Solid writing matters no matter the genre.
  • If you’re trying to be funny, don’t hold back even if the target is easy.  Put in the work.
  • Know the subject you’re parodying.  If you don’t, focus on something you do know.
  • Care about the subject you’re parodying.  It helps you be funny, leads to good craftsmanship, and saves you from mean-spiritedness.

Steven Savage