[I originally reviewed this game for the XYZZY Awards, as part of a project to review all the 2012 nominees for Best Writing.]
IFDB page: Dinner Bell
Well, I can see why this one was nominated. It’s hilarious! Now, there’s always a danger to analyzing humor, as frog-lover E.B. White once remarked. But presumably everybody reading this has already gotten to enjoy the game’s jokes, so let the batrachian carnage begin!
One technique that Dinner Bell uses to great effect is piling on the wacky, with jokes, funny concepts, and surprises sometimes stacked up several layers deep in a given turn. For instance, along with the player’s score increasing, the game goes out of its way to congratulate the player every time a food gets bagged. That’s kinda funny. The congratulation repeats exactly each time. That wouldn’t necessarily be funny, unless the method of congratulation is something ridiculous, that would seem increasingly ridiculous the more it was repeated. And, in fact, the method of congratulation is a pat on the head, which fits the bill perfectly. The pat is delivered by a head-patting robot. That’s really funny. The head-patting robot is named Pat. That’s not only funny, it actually sets the player up to type something funny, which of course gets a funny response:
You pat the head-patting robot on his little robot head. He seems confused by this bizarre shift in circumstances.
A closely related move is to make a joke, feint away from it, and then return to it with a slightly different riff, like so:
This beer is big, and brown, and furry, with claws on the ends of its powerful arms and legs. Wait, I'm thinking of a bear. This beer is a bit on the hoppy side, with woodsy undertones. Like a bunny.
It’s funny enough for the narrator to start describing a bear rather than a bear, then to catch itself, especially since “big” and “brown” could reasonably describe a beer, but “furry” throws us right off the map. Lots of writers would stop after “Wait, I’m thinking of a bear,” or would perhaps give a perfunctory description afterwards, which would amount to more or less “You see nothing special about the beer.” Polodna makes us think she’s doing that, though with a funnier version that slightly skewers beer connoisseurs. Then, the knockout punch: “Like a bunny” not only returns us to the kooky hilarity of mistaking beer for a woodland animal, but it recontextualizes “hoppy” (hoppy! how perfect is that?) and “woodsy” from the straight-seeming description that precedes it. That panache makes a good joke into a great joke.
However, amidst the jokes, there’s a thin layer of creepy, which puts the horror in “Horror/Comedy.” The game is still about 95% comedy and 5% horror, but that’s enough to keep us off balance. The eerie bits provide a background for the jokes, so that the sheen of desperation adds to their humor, and their humor illuminates the desperate moments, allowing them to take us by surprise:
When the bell goes ding, it is time to eat. It is time to eat when the bell goes ding. You cannot eat until the bell goes ding. Bell : ding :: time : eat. You understand this with every fibre of your being. Sometimes (actually, most of the time) it's all you understand anymore.
The repetition is funny, as is the inappropriate use of analogy notation. However, “it’s all you understand anymore” is an unexpected shot of pathos, playing the PC’s dilemma straight. The picture of a prisoner, starved and experimented upon, gives an uncomfortable edge to our laughter at the jokes preceding and following it.
So Dinner Bell often serves us multiple layers at once, a few of which may be a little unsettling. However, the layering also happens across the playthrough, getting good mileage out of the comedy callback. For instance, when we first examine the oven:
This oven's designer got tired of trying to remember if they'd left the oven on, so they invented an oven you can't turn off. Its internal temperature is a constant 400 degrees Fahrenheit. You know this because you are omniscient all of a sudden, but only as regards this oven and the names of everyone in New Jersey.
The oven is closed. This fact is clearly visible to everyone, but you used your omniscience to discern it anyway, because why not.
The oven you can’t turn off gets a rueful grin from IF designers who know how nice it is to be able to take shortcuts around the fiddlier parts of world modeling, but it’s “you are omniscient all of a sudden” that gets the biggest laugh. We’ve all seen descriptions that introduce or draw upon knowledge that the PC couldn’t reasonably have, and lampshading it here is a great gag. As is typical for this game, that gag is topped by a couple more, building on the omniscience concept first by applying it to an unexpected context, and then by incongruously using a superpower to do something very ordinary.
That’s all terrific, but it gets even better late in the game:
Cakebot is the most sophisticated AI in, not just the building, but the tri-state area containing the building, and all people ever do is put cakes on his head. You know this because he complains to the oven sometimes, so it falls within the limits of your omniscience.
(You also know that the oven feels no sympathy whatsoever. The oven wishes people would put cakes on its head. The oven would consider that a lovely break from the daily indignities it suffers.)
This callback to the omniscience joke does the work that a callback should, playing on our familiarity with the concept to give us the feeling that the game is making a private joke with us, leveraging the relationship it’s built to intensify the comedy. On top of that, it re-lampshades the omniscience concept, and suddenly imparts comically doleful personalities to the both the Cakebot and the oven, a la Marvin the Paranoid Android. So of course, the whole thing gets paid off here:
>PUT CAKE ON OVEN
You put the cake on the oven, and the oven sighs contentedly. This is the happiest day of its life.
That’s a beautifully constructed joke, and it’s not the only one. I particularly enjoyed the gag can of snakes that turned out to have peanut brittle inside. That’s a very clever reversal. (Not to mention that it prompted me to revisit Paul F. Tompkins’ Peanut Brittle bit, the definitive comedy statement on gag peanut brittle cans.)
One more favorite: the Shiptogar easter egg. So the Shiptogar itself is awesomely absurd, and its presence reaffirms that this game is about the jokes, not the puzzles. It’s perfectly fun turning the ship in a bottle into a bottle of vinegar. However, the Shiptogar really comes into its own elsewhere:
Closer examination reveals this to be merely a child's drawing of a sink. The drain has been hastily rendered in blue crayon, and near it a posse of scrubbing bubbles is fighting a dinosaur.
You're not sure who you'd put money on in this battle. The dinosaur can breathe fire, but the scrubbing bubbles have the power of friendship.
You spray the sink liberally with Shiptogar, and get the weird sense that something almost imperceptible and incredibly unimportant has changed.
You're not sure who you'd put money on in this battle. The dinosaur can breathe fire, but the scrubbing bubbles have the power of friendvinegar. Wait, friendvinegar? Never mind, you're putting fifty bucks on that dinosaur, then.
Like every bit of prose in Dinner Bell, these responses are funny and silly, but the situation itself is 100% prime IF humor, similar to the linguistic deformations of Nord And Bert, Ad Verbum, and the Leather Goddesses Of Phobos T-Remover. It’s the kind of joke that plays to IF’s strengths pulling off deftly what would be impossible in film and rather more tedious in straight prose.
Dinner Bell‘s help text says, “most of this game’s entertainment dollar value lies in examining things and reading the dumb jokes.” That sells it a bit short — there’s lots of humor to be found beyond object descriptions, and the jokes are pretty smart. What’s true, though, is that this game is not about plot, setting, character, or puzzles. It’s about the jokes, and lucky for us, they’re excellent. This riotous game deserves every writing accolade it gets.