The Gamescom 2022 showing for High On Life, the new Xbox-exclusive shooter from Squanch Games, has received a pretty mixed response online. Some people have found what’s been publicly showcased to be funny, but to others it’s a real nails-on-chalkboard situation. Having played the game at the show I can say one key thing, however: its humor lands a hell of a lot better in-context and in-game.
To some extent, the humor is the whole point of this game. Squanch Games is a games studio founded by Justin Roiland, the co-creator of Rick and Morty and the voice behind the show’s titular characters. Roiland is trying to do what he does best, but in games – in-your-face adult humor, but delivered by colorful characters that, at first blush, might seem kid-friendly. They’re not.
The response to High on Life over the last week or so is intrinsically linked to these elements of the game. In fact, I’ve seen next to nobody talking about how it appears to play, or its colorful visuals, or the interesting suite of weapon types and abilities. People are more interested in the fact that the weapons talk, and most interested of all in what they’re saying.
And, honestly, even having played the game for a longer period of time, I can see where the complaints come from. It’s brash, it’s loud, and it’s sweary. It’s easy to view footage of High on Life, such as the boss fight shown off during Gamescom Opening Night Live, as reductive and silly. Like, “hur hur, game has cursing. Funny!” I’m not here to dispute that judgment in general – but I am here to say that this stuff is less dominating when you’re in the flow of the game. And, also, that there’s lots of humor here that isn’t like that.
At its best, in fact, I think High on Life does something unique to the medium: it lampoons the conventions and traditions of video game design and the wider gaming community. Comedy isn’t done all that often in games, and it’s especially not very common outside of narrative-driven titles like adventure games; so to have a shooter that is sometimes funny is a welcome thing. For a while, this was Borderlands – but I have to be honest and say that I began to fall out of love with that series and its brash, meme-y humor over time.
The cursing in High on Life never quite drew a laugh from me, but some of the situations and individual lines did. There’s an NPC out on a jetty fishing, for instance, and you need to have a chat with him to progress. This guy has idle dialogue that he cycles through before you actually talk to him, and if you stop and listen, you hear him musing on his life as a video game NPC, destined to wait and hang out, performing a mundane task until finally the player comes to speak to him. Some enemies are the same, boasting when you first engage them that they’re “the hardest enemies in the game” – only to realize in panic, as you blow them away, that they’ve been sold a lie. They’re actually squishy tutorial baddies, spawned only to die.
My absolute favorite line in the 30-minute demo came after first picking up the knife, another sentient weapon that was shown off in part of the Opening Night Live footage. Every weapon has its own personality, you see, and the knife is characterized as a psycho that just loves stabbing and killing. This cues a bunch of cries of ecstasy and gratitude as you plunge the knife into enemies as your melee attack. A lot of this is just sort of frenzied glee and pleading you to kill more – but the knife also knows its video games, and at one point suggested I undertake an “any% knife-only run”, a clear reference to the video game speed-running community and the highly specific record categories many players run.
This joke did something I can’t recall any video game joke doing in the thick of an event – it made me laugh out loud. You’re tired at these events, your feet hurt, you’re probably a little bit hungover, and though you’re enjoying seeing games and meeting developers, part of you is constantly low-key stressed. But the joke completely caught me off guard, was pitched and delivered perfectly, and I sputtered out a laugh. Across the build, several other gags had me chuckling away, and I honestly think that’s quite an achievement.
The constant cursing and the more crass elements largely passed me by. I think I’m over that stuff being funny – though I did laugh when the game built up to a bit of (alien) child murder and then acknowledged it directly. “Normally killing children in games isn’t allowed, but he’s dead, we killed this kid,” sputters your nervous sidearm. “Are you happy now? There goes our E for Everybody rating!”
So, it’s weird. Half of High on Life’s humor I’m sort of over. It’s not funny to me any more that a cutesy-looking game has swearing. I’m not 12. However, as somebody who will go to bat for Conker’s Bad Fur Day as one of the greatest games of its generation, and as someone who had South Park: The Stick of Truth as one of his favorite games of 2014, I also understand the power in being crass, and loud, and in parodying the best of games. High on Life feels like a game that’s going to slot into a similar category as those titles – for better and worse.
And as far as the video game bit goes? It’s fine! It’s a nice little shooter with characterful weapons (and I’m not talking about their nattering there, either), interesting alt-fire modes, and (in this demo) a challenging phase-based arena boss fight that requires a careful understanding of a range of skills at your disposal.
In truth this doesn’t matter, though. The game part doesn’t need to be transcendental – it just needs to be quality, fun, and satisfying. It is those things, which is more than good enough.
The thing that will draw people to High on Life is its colorful, whacky nature – and yes, that humor. But just know that if you’ve been turned off by the constant F-bombs in trailers, know there’s more to it than that. There’s fun gaming gags, a surprisingly rich atmosphere, and frankly it’s also something different in the shooter landscape. I’m here for it – even if it is a bit relentless sometimes.
High On Life is coming to PC via the Epic Games Store and Steam, and Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S on December 13.