The lights are on
When South Park: The Stick of Truth was delayed from December 2013 until last week, Ubisoft made it clear that the game didn’t meet quality standards. That red flag led me to skepticism that Obsidian would deliver the kind of experience fans of the show have been waiting years for. I have rarely been so excited to be wrong.
This weekend, I played through the entire 12-hour game, completing every side quest and finding almost every collectible. During that time, I laughed, I grimaced at the more overtly disgusting imagery, and recalled some of the episodes I haven’t seen in many years. It was exactly the experience I had envisioned from the start.
Beyond simply existing as fan service, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a title that offers important lessons about narrative and design. It isn’t a perfect game, but it achieves in such a way that others should take notice.
Warning: Light spoilers ahead.
An RPG that doesn’t overstay its welcomeOne of the challenging parts of the RPG genre is the length of most entries. When sitting down for most roleplaying titles, you can expect to spend 40 hours or more (sometimes hundreds) before reaching the end.
South Park: The Stick of Truth took me 12 hours on the game clock (probably a little longer thanks to multiple attempts at the Al Gore boss fight). By the time it was over, I had just reached the point of being ready to put it down.
I imagine that with more time, additional material could have been coaxed out of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and there were certainly some references that didn’t make the cut), but at a dozen hours, it’s a game I can come back to for a weekend some time in the future. I’ve watched most South Park episodes multiple times, and I’ll definitely want to replay The Stick of Truth.
Self-referential humor done rightSouth Park lampoons everything. Nothing is sacred, and everything is fair game. This includes the video game industry (and not just with regard to censorship).
Self-referential humor in video games is often hard to execute, because the writers are too close to the source. South Park: The Stick of Truth exists as a direct follow up to the Black Friday/Console War episodes that aired in late 2013. This setup creates a context and credibility for blending the cartoon with the gaming world.
South Park’s jabs at the medium (the humorous status effects like “Grossed Out” instead of poisoning, a sequence of events that requires players to get three different keys in order, and an entire segment of the game that is a throwback to Dragon Warrior and its ilk) are well timed and insidious.
It’s easy to forget that magic in The Stick of Truth is powered by flatulence until the writing shines a light on the absurdity. The children are fighting an epic war against one another until curfew puts an end to the fun and reminds us that the characters are just children. The writing and mechanics are cleverly layered such that there are degrees of belief suspension used as a narrative device.
AuthenticityAs a culture, we’ve been subjected to brand overload. Simple games like Angry Birds have been turned into merchandise that litters store shelves. Popular cartoons get cheap plastic Happy Meal toys.
And the video game industry has been flooded with bad licensed titles since the beginning. Games based on other media are starting to recover their reputation, though. Rocksteady’s Batman games, High Moon’s Transformers titles, and most of the Lego series are great examples of smart licensing.
South Park: The Stick of Truth outdoes them all. It doesn’t emulate the style of the source material. It quite literally is the source material. Parker and Stone left their fingerprints on every piece of dialog, every collectible item, and every offhand reference designed to thrill diehard fans.
Just moments before the penultimate boss fight, I knew who it was going to be, because it could only be that character. It wasn’t forced or artificial. It was simply South Park.
I don’t know if we’ll ever see a South Park collaboration like this again, but The Stick of Truth’s lessons are worth heeding long after the game's shine has faded. Gamers are willing to melt into your world. If you’re true to the source material and treat them with respect, they’ll laugh with you and follow you wherever you take them, no matter how absurd.