'Rat Race' Funnyman Hopes PlayStation 3's First Sitcom Video Game Fills Comedy Void

When 'graphics got better, games got less funny,' says stand-up comic Victor Varnado, who wrote and did voices for the game.

There are no jokes about black albino people in the upcoming PlayStation 3 sitcom video game "Rat Race."

This fact was confirmed by MTV News yesterday during an interview with comedian Victor Varnado, head writer of "Rat Race" and veteran stand-up comic, who has kicked off some of his televised routines making jokes about the fact that he is a black albino.

"We don't have any black albino characters in the game, so they would seem like a--holes if they made jokes about it," he said during an interview to promote his involvement in the bold new game.

Varnado is doing voice work for three characters — and screeching the role of a monkey — as well as serving as head writer and voice-acting director for Super-Ego Games' "Rat Race," a workplace video game comedy in the vein of "The Office," which will be rolled out as a series of downloadable, playable episodes on the PS3 this winter.

A press release touting Varnado's involvement mentions his connection to TV shows such as "Saturday Night Live," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "Flight of the Conchords" and "My Name Is Earl." (Watch one of his routines on his MySpace page.)

But in his interview with MTV News, Varnado flashed some other credentials that suit him well for his jobs on the upcoming game. "I've had a lot of experience with games that were meant to be funny," he said. "Anytime I can find a game that has a particularly unusual sense of humor, I play it." He said the text adventure "Loom" was an early comedy-game favorite. Other old adventure games stood out. More recently, he found the cutesy PSP game "Loco Roco." Also handy: "When I was in high school, I used to make video games — mostly stupid. I made a maze game where a blob would chase you down a maze. I tried to make a 3-D game; I could never get it to work."

So if he knows games as a player and an amateur programmer, surely he must know the problem: There aren't many comedy games these days. There used to be more, a slew of joke-filled adventures such as "The Secret of Monkey Island" and "Grim Fandango." In Varnado's view, some of the very things that games have gotten better at — visuals and interactivity — have lessened the need for developers to keep players engaged with humor. Those adventure games were popular in their day, but technology improved. "As soon as they got to the point where graphics got better, games got less funny," he said. Better gameplay also removed any outright need for a game to be funny. "If you looked at early games, they had very few game mechanics. Look at [1983's interactive cartoon/game] 'Dragon's Lair.' Not many gameplay mechanics, but it's great to look at and the comedy is funny."

"Rat Race" is an attempt to solve all this, taking a somewhat different path from the last significant game comedy attempt, the revived "Sam & Max" series, which just started a second season of downloadable PC point-and-click adventures. Super-Ego Games President Greg Easley recently told the Web site PS3Fanboy.com that his company's game will incorporate some traditional game mechanics, including stealth and shooting sequences.

"I can tell you that the jokes that work best in the gameplay are usually the more cerebral stuff," he said, referring to puns and wordplay and stuff that feels clever. By cerebral, he doesn't mean dry. Offering an example of his own style of cerebral comedy, he recounts the following gag from his stand-up: "I say, 'I'm a black albino, ladies. You know what I'm talking about: all the benefits of being black without the disappointed looks from your parents.' See, that joke, in order to make it funny, you have to put the last piece in it yourself." In "Rat Race" gameplay, some of this kind of thing will be appearing in dialogue-driven mini-games that include hundreds of possible lines that may be heard depending on how the player performs a gameplay task.

In the games non-interactive cut-scenes, however, he promises "wilder and zanier stuff." Some of that material seemed to have been released to the Web in October when four apparent trailers for the game, featuring zany non-interactive workplace scenes and ending in title cards promoting the game, appeared on GameTrailers.com. And for the most part, those "Rat Race" clips were ... trashed. "It's a game where you tell bad jokes?" one commenter wrote.

"Here's what really happened," said Varnado, who followed the reaction. "Some of the stuff that was leaked onto GameTrailers was some of the stuff meant for internal use, not something that was a finished product that would go out." He said some of the material was created to test the game's technology and didn't represent the finished product. "That isn't our best foot forward," he said. Only the video about the roach-bait commercial had gone through the proper approval process. And that one, he said, got the most positive response. "We'll make sure that what we put out next is something we've gone over and that we're proud of."

Varnado is confident that bad jokes will be weeded out well before gamers experience them. "Rule number one: It has to serve the game. Rule two: It has to be funny. Rule three: It has to be in character." And any joke that only gets laughed at by the person who wrote it won't be making the cut.

The first episode of "Rat Race," which will be "based around a Japanese toy that has to be redone for an American market because the toy is a little over-the-top violent," is set for release this winter via the PS3's PlayStation Network download service.

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