Character and Comedy in Citizens of Earth
by Dave Proctor
I got Citizens of Earth on a Humble Bundle, the recent collab between Nintendo and a bunch of great Indies, and I had been looking forward to the game for a long time. I didn’t know what to expect, but the quirky idea of a large-party RPG where everyone is a standard job that you might teach a child in a nursery rhyme (Baker, Gardener, Homeless Guy, etc.) really made me giggle. That was as far as I thought about it until I sat down to play it. I was not ready to sink 30 hours into the game, but it wouldn’t let me stop. It kept making me laugh.
For the uninitiated, a quick breakdown of combat: You can see a screenshot at 34 seconds in the video above, or I included an LP of one of the boss fights below. Your party each have different abilities depending on their job. Some tasks recharge your energy balls (below health) and some cost energy balls. You can see in the menus attacks that will charge up (they have a blue up arrow) and those that will cost (red down arrow). So, for example, as the baker, you need to do an attack with the rolling pin (charge) to be able to do his Torch attack (cost). This makes the game an interesting balance of risks and reward, and thinking whole-fight in terms of how you approach a situation.
The one thing that really resonated with me about COE is the way these mechanics evolve with new characters. Your opening party, your brother and your mother, have a pretty standard RPG style set. Your brother has physical attacks that charge up to let you spend on costlier “Muscle” attacks. Your Mother is a weak healer, who can use Verbal attacks like “Scold” to build up meter for simple healing attacks like “Hug,” or the much more costly “Sacrificial Love,” which sees you expending your whole energy and health reserve to resurrect someone to full health. They work as you’d expect, but one of the main goals of Citizens of Earth is collecting the 42 characters scattered around the map. This is where things start to get funny. There’s a Barista who can recharge your energy with coffee beverages or a cop who uses a pistol, but where COE excels is how it delivers on standard comedy payoffs through its mechanics.
All good comedy follows a pretty simple rule of pacing. I’ll use a pretty cheesy example here to help you out. There’s the Premise, which sets up the scenario of a joke:
My wife and I just had a kid.
Followed by the Setup, which sets up the specific example of your joke.
We spent three days baby-proofing the house.
And then there is the Punch Line, which is the surprise, the thing that exaggerates or inverts your expectations and makes the joke something funny.
He still got back in.
Follow this logic and then you get to the Tag, something that shows, in brief, an example of what you just told, or elaborates on the surprise.
He found the dog door in the garage.
A lot of games believe it is enough in comedy to just use puns to make the player laugh. I know, I’m guilty of it in Runbow. Where COE really blows my mind is that I was genuinely laughing with how characters are treated because they are given scenarios where they are funny in this way, and funny because of the game they are in. Naturally funny, instead of funny with non-sequiturs or puns.
Premise: You play in an RPG where you are the Vice President of the World.
Setup: You’re going to get in combat like every other RPG you’ve ever played.
Punchline: When you start the fight, you notice your character is sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the Citizens to do the fighting.
Tag: When your party faints, it cuts to a scene in his bed where they are waking him up and he shouts “You’re right, the world needs me!”
This is funny because it lets my brain do the work. I get to process my own thoughts about politics and RPGs and have a good laugh that the main character, the hero, is a little too scared to do any of the fighting. That is genuinely, impressively funny. But it extends to the characters, once you accept the premise that you are in an RPG, which you have certain expectations about.
Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Bodybuilder”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will be a strength character.
Punchline: You need to do a move called “Flex” to charge energy before you can attack.
Tag: Your best moves cost two energy, so you’re immediately drained after attacking.
The Bodybuilder example sets up its joke based on how much you know about Bodybuilding and how much you know about RPG combat, and pays off in a way that is actually humourous, once you think about it. Another:
Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Homeless Guy”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will be weaker, because of his build and social standing.
Punchline: He has a move called “Hang On,” which lets him survive any attack with at least one health.
Tag: He needs to do this move to charge energy.
This one’s a little more of a risky joke, but the payoff is the same. The Homeless Guy’s other moves are called “Desperation,” “Resilience,” and a number of bio attacks based on his smell. A final.
Premise: You play in an RPG where you have a character called “Bartender”
Setup: You’re going to get into combat and you anticipate he will dispense sodas (as the game is pretty kid friendly), which you imagine will buff you because they are items in the game.
Punchline: Each of his sodas gives a buff that later crashes you, like “Gives you attack up, but attack down later.”
… you get the idea.
That’s not to say the COE isn’t without puns. Every enemy is a hybrid of two major jokes, it seems. There are some massive groaners in every fight, from the “Bubble Bee,” to the “Tele-fawn” in the forest to the absolutely dad-worthy “Card Shark”in the casino level and the “Catcus.” Which is a cat and a cactus.
But these are the enemies, and there is genuine humour found throughout the game, not just in it’s characters, but in how they approach their surroundings or react to these enemies. The clueless VP is a wonderfully dumb protagonist that keeps giving, even 30 hours in.
Characters are so charming to me in this game because the merging of the mechanics and their personalities, the merging of who they were and how they played, paid off in ways that made sense that weren’t immediately obvious. Citizens of Earth taps into your expectations and uses clever “Ah-ha” moments to keep things if not laugh-out-loud, then genuinely engaging through and through. Comedy is about conversation, between what players expect and what you show them, and there are much worse examples of how to use this thousand-year-old writing skill than this great little game.