The flat humanity of Jazzpunk

There’s a social aspect to laughter. We laugh at different things when we’re in a group, and we even laugh differently when we’re in different groups. There’s a reason why we watch funny movies with our friends, and why sitcoms use laugh tracks. Laughter engenders laughter, and can be, at its root, a way to communicate togetherness, to acknowledge our common humanity. Even when laughter is used to hurt, there is almost always an identity being communicated, an “us” from which the thing being laughed at is excluded.

Which is all perhaps to say that if I’m not sure whether I ever laughed out loud while playing Jazzpunk, it’s not necessarily a criticism of the game. A single-player comedy is by necessity something of an oddity, an inhuman thing that can work to make you laugh but never really laugh with you.

The best part of Jazzpunk might in fact be the way that the game seems to recognize this and sets itself up as being against the possibility of humanity. The people you meet are drawn as cardboard cutouts, which sometimes collapse upon inspection, and sometimes are actually flies. When the player character, a secret agent named Polyblank, first arrives on the scene, he has been delivered in a person-shaped musical instrument case, possibly after being rejected on a manufacturing inspection line for having organs instead of circuits.

While Polyblank is giving a number of missions to accomplish, the only true task is for the player to find as many gags as possible. Instructions are delivered without subtlety (much like Bond, Polyblank is a secret agent in a world in which there aren’t really any secrets at all), and should be, at least initially, entirely ignored. Polyblank can run, jump, and carry things, but the real mechanic at play is exploratory poking. Everything does something, even if it what it does doesn’t make any sense. Sitting down is sometimes the most important thing Polyblank can do to move the action along.

Jazzpunk is a game about the player’s continued willingness to be subject to the game. That isn’t to say that the game is necessarily unpleasant. Some players will find it hilarious. Some will find it impenetrable.

Because there is nothing underneath Jazzpunk. That’s not the kind of game this is. A cross between The Stanley Parable and a Chuck Jones cartoon, indebted to Ian Fleming, Hunter S. Thompson, The Matrix, Cold War paranoia, and Garbage Pail Kids (which, let’s not forget, were created by Art Spiegelman, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus), Jazzpunk is a mad implosion of genre and pixelated color. Agent Polyblank cuts away surfaces only to find more surfaces, digital skins beneath digital skins, the world a two-dimensional onion.

Which is in itself a pretty big statement to make about existence, and one with a long and rich comedic pedigree. We are frequently not as deep as we’d like to imagine. Are laugh tracks annoying? Yes, but cognitive studies have shown that they work—even when we know that the laughter is fake, we’re more likely to laugh along. Are achievements and trophies artificial and arbitrary? Sure, but look at how important it is to many of us to be able to carry them over to our next-generation consoles. (More important, apparently, than even being able to continue to play the last-generation games in which we earned them.) Using surfaces to create, display, and impute identity is a deeply human tendency.

And it’s one worth poking at every once in a while, as long as we remember that, like Polyblank, we’re poking with cardboard fingers.

It’s a ridiculous world, and we run ridiculously through it. 

This might be the central recognition that tips Jazzpunk toward working as a comedy. It’s a ridiculous world, and we run ridiculously through it. We wear ridiculous clothes, say ridiculous things, and try to manage our ridiculous bodies. (Which often don’t seem like they’re entirely ours.) We make references to old friends, old movies, and old jokes. We play ridiculous games, sometimes by ourselves.

And all of this is wonderful, and can be a source of joy. Running is fun. Putting on a new surface can be exciting, hilarious, humbling, liberating. More of us should do it more often.

Being human is often not as lofty a thing as we like to think. The things we have in common are sometimes the things we don’t like to talk about. Manners can, indeed, be defined as making impolite things polite by covering them with frequently elaborate surfaces.

But whether we use our hands or expensive silver, we all eat, and we all, in the end, are eaten. Comedy points out that this isn’t really the end. There’s always something after, even if it’s just a trip through somebody’s bowels.