Like MAD Magazine, Jazzpunk Knows the Value of Gleeful, Absurdist Insolence

Nothing is sacred in Necrophone Games' surreal first-person adventure—not even Jazzpunk itself.

Critique by Bob Mackey, .

About an hour into Necrophone Games' Jazzpunk, I felt transported back to my misspent adolescence, where I would typically invest way too much time reading the latest issue of MAD Magazine: A publication so rich with jokes that every one contained a dozen-or-so mini-comics scribbled in the margins of other comics. It's a wonder that low-quality paper didn't immediately disintegrate from the ravages of ink.

Amid the gleeful jabs at class, bureaucracy, and authority, Jazzpunk contains a very brief, very MAD-like moment that grounds its flagrant disrespect for the entire world in some essential humility: sitting in a trash can on the city street, you'll find a physical copy of Jazzpunk laying on a pile of compacted refuse. With this little jab at themselves, Necrophone Games makes their mission statement clear: "Everything is stupid, and so are we—so let's have fun in this big, dumb world together."

Jazzpunk mainly acts as a joke-delivery system, taking full advantage of the power of surprise in a medium where most of us typically know what we're getting into. The premise falls back on a very familiar idea—you're a secret agent, sent on missions across the world—but this setup only serves as a thin excuse to drop the protagonist Polyblank into a handful of surreal and vaguely threatening environments that look like UPA cartoons and emit low-quality and often abrasive loops of music ripped right from some lost grindhouse movie. Even though the tiny team at Necrophone leans on limited resources, its simplistic characters—who look like the designating symbols on public bathrooms—are extremely effective as conduits for humor.

While each of your missions contains a clearly stated goal like "infiltrate the Soviet Consulate," the real meat of Jazzpunk can be found in scouring its environment for jokes. And it's not entirely surprising to see Adult Swim Games as its publisher, since Jazzpunk trades in the same sort of rapid-fire, absurdist humor that made Cartoon Network's experimental little offshoot so revolutionary. Not all of the jokes hit, of course, but Jazzpunk's focus on constant, drastic shifts in tone and content means there's always another setup just waiting to grab you around the next corner. The humor works so well thanks Polyblank's status as the platonic ideal of Gordon Freeman: He's voiceless, personality-free, and exists only to serve the players' whims. And, like any good adventure game character, Polyblank wanders through his world with a detached sociopathy—Jazzpunk excels in presenting situations where the path from Point A to Point B is strewn with lives just waiting to be ruined.

Humor can be one of the trickiest things to get right—especially when timing is out of the hands of developers—but Jazzpunk approaches this subject with a sense thoughtfulness that belies its juvenile, sneering exterior. In the tradition of great absurdist comedies like Airplane! and Police Squad!, Necrophone fills their game with absolutely surreal premises, yet its characters treat this strange world of theirs as absolutely mundane. Nothing kills jokes faster than flailing, sweaty, desperation, but Jazzpunk presents its steady march of increasingly outlandish concepts with complete confidence and absolutely no winking.

In the first area, you meet a frog trying to scam free wi-fi from Starbucks, and, in order to help him achieve this honorable goal, you enter a VR world where you're tasked with slurping data packets out of the air with an amphibious e-tongue. All of this passes as a matter of course, and when you meet your goal, the frog simply asks for some privacy as blurry .jpegs perpetually scroll past his computer monitor. In that same area, opening a pizza box reveals a pizza-like laptop that transports you to a pizza-themed Evil Dead parody, where literally everything is made of pizza—and when it's over, that's it: no explanation, no Bruce Campbell quotes to seal the deal. While extravagant productions like Grand Theft Auto bend over backwards to make sure each line of satire is thoroughly footnoted for maximum clarity, the relatively low-budget Jazzpunk has the luxury of flitting from joke to joke without talking down to its audience.

Since Jazzpunk exists as a playable collection of jokes, framed in a mission-based FPS context, I've been a little gunshy about giving the specifics away—honestly, the best way to approach the game is to walk into it with only a vague notion of its intent. Describing the game's greatest moments could act as the perfect sales pitch, but I doubt these scenes would be as effective if you saw them coming. That said, Jazzpunk is one of those rare games, like Killer 7 and Deadly Premonition, where you play only to see the next weird thing it's waiting to show you. And while I've had plenty of fun this year doing the same kind of video game things I've done most of my life, there's something to be said about finding yourself suddenly transported into a matrimony themed competitive FPS called Wedding Qake. But maybe I've said too much already.

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Comments 4

  • Avatar for metalangel #1 metalangel 3 years ago
    Part of the trick behind those Zucker/Abrahams comedies was ensuring that, from a quick glance, it was a real, serious movie of the genre. MAD too, with skilled artists like Mort Drucker producing those incredible movie and TV parodies so you could see perfect renditions of famous stars calling each other schmucks.

    Jazzpunk doesn't have the resources to pull off that trick. I suppose that's one of the reasons why Saint's Row works so well: at first glance it's yet another open world mayhem game.Edited July 2014 by metalangel
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #2 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    This sounds appealing. Its so rare to play something that's actually different.
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  • Avatar for bullet656 #3 bullet656 3 years ago
    Sounds interesting. Since you brought up a comparison to Mad, I do have a question that might help me decide if the humor is for me or not...Have you read an issue of Mad Magazine recently and, if so, did you think it was funny? When I was young my brother and I used to love the magazine. It had been a couple decades since I last read an issue, and randomly my brother gave me a subscription this past Christmas. After receiving my first issue I was initially excited because it had the look and feel of being almost exactly like I remembered it. However, after reading through it I was very disappointed and now kind of wish I never read it. Although the humor seemed very similar to what I remembered, I also found it to be quite bad, and now my nostalgia for the magazine is ruined.
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  • Avatar for vivoraju #4 vivoraju 3 months ago