I fell in love with Later Alligator less than ten minutes into my first playthrough. I was playing Three Card Monte with an alligator named Slick Mickey, a character notable among the game’s cast for two reasons — neither of them are that he’s an alligator. First, he’s not actually any good at his chosen pastime (cards), and second, he’s slick to the touch on account of a skin condition. During the shuffle, he didn’t actually touch the card I was supposed to follow. When I hovered over the obviously correct choice, he flinched. When I clicked it, the card spontaneously combusted, and then Mickey ate it. He declared the match a draw.
This interaction is par for the course in Later Alligator, SmallBü Animation’s first title, produced with Pillow Fight Games. You play as a mysterious stranger in a pinstriped suit, contracted by an extremely nervous alligator named Pat to question his extended family to find out what the enigmatic “Event” they’ve invited him to is. The game is a mystery, and it has the atmosphere to match: the gray cityscapes and contemplative horns on the soundtrack put the setting firmly in noir territory. And yet, as you talk to the (several dozen) alligator characters that populate the streets of Alligator New York City, it quickly becomes apparent that none of them are criminal masterminds. In fact, every one of them is a goofus like Mickey. It’s gator goofuses all the way down.
Later Alligator isn’t a long game, but it still might wear thin if it was all gags without any kind of foundation. But by putting the gators into a noir mystery, the setting itself takes on a timbre all its own and adds to the comedy.
Genre has a way of feeling eternal and naturally forming. Even the few genres that have clearly traced historical creators sometimes feel like they’ve always existed, like they’re artistic structures that humans discovered, rather than invented. The rules of genre sometimes don’t even need to be written, because we intrinsically grasp them after one or two experiences. You don’t need someone to tell you that every character in a mystery is hiding a secret, because of course they are, it’s a mystery. Every genre of narrative comes with its own set of rules and expectations, which is why some of the most successful comedies of all time find their roots in usually non-comedic genres.
If comedy is about subverting expectations, then using the expectations of genres like sci-fi, noir, horror, and westerns allows comedies to enrich their jokes for greater payoff. They’re using the same foundations as serious works, but replacing the end states with animated alligators. And because we’ve seen so many conventional structures, we can’t help but be delighted at something new.
Later Alligator is far from the first comedy to mine a genre framework — it’s a tradition that ranges from blockbusters like Ghostbusters to modern cult classics like The World’s End. Children’s media uses this trick all the time: even the Muppets, who first found a home as a largely plotless variety show, used plots from westerns, swashbucklers, and heist movies in their feature films. These are not parodies — they’re not interested in becoming a meta-commentary on the genres themselves — they’re using the tools the genres present to enrich their stories.
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A Muppet Murder Mystery
Video games do this just like movies and television, though usually they stick to remixing video game genres, like Undertale did when it used the classic RPG structure to set up jokes about dogs. Later Alligator feels more akin to something like the Muppets, though, because the genre it uses is traditionally a cinematic one. At first glance, its characters seem to have stepped right out of a hardboiled noir detective story; a widow who absolutely poisoned her late husband to death, an eyepatch-wearing street tough in a seedy bar based on Goro Majima from the Yakuza series, a menacing suit named Bobby Blue-Eyes sitting in that same bar.
But for the most part, each of these characters gets a comic reveal where they are shown to be very different from their character archetypes. The Majima expy in the bar is only there to work on his social anxiety, and at one point you launch into a dating sim with him — complete with a different art style — to boost his confidence. The suit is not actually a tough guy, he’s just a wannabe too scared to play Five Finger Fillet with something sharper than a spoon. The widow totally did poison her husband, though.
If comedy is about setup and payoff, then setting a real atmosphere can only augment the setup and enhance the payoff. You don’t need to lovingly create an animated version of New York City to tell a joke about an alligator whose phone is haunted by a vengeful ghost, but grounding your characters in a cohesive, zany world makes us believe them just a bit more.
It’s these little touches that make us remember art, and genre films and video games are full of tools for savvy creators to use. The best children’s media has always understood this –– look at how Wallace & Gromit uses the cinematic languages of classic horror or car chases to keep its jokes exciting and funny.
In a While, Crocodile
Later Alligator is not a perfect video game — some of its mini-games are more annoying than anything else, certain characters feel like stock archetypes rather than people, and its central mystery isn’t so much a mystery as a comic series of coincidences that resolves itself by the end of the game. But I think it’s just about impossible not to be charmed by its characters and its humor, and it’s so easy to just spend time clicking through the different environments and listening to the score.
The environments of the game are black and white, but the characters are in color. Mournful, noir-inspired trumpets play as you take in the city, but the music of the characters’ mini-games is wild and wacky. The camera keeps trying to frame the characters in moody, noir-inspired angles, but Pat’s extended family won’t stay still long enough to let you feel like some sad, lonely noir detective. Later Alligator gives the impression that the alligators of Alligator New York City have replaced the denizens of a conventional noir story, that they’ve just climbed out of a sewer to play with these ostensibly immutable, time-honored structures. I’m glad they did.