Thursday, April 17, 2014

Serious Comedy in 'South Park: The Stick of Truth'

Image fro PopMatters
This week on PopMatters, I talk about one of my favorite games of the year so far: South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Full disclosure: I am a huge South Park fan.  Hanah and I can basically have whole conversations quoting it back and forth.  I was yearning for this game to be good, but I had no real expectations: the history of South Park in video games was unexceptional up to this point.

To my delight, The Stick of Truth turned out great.  All of the satire and humor is present, as is a feature-film's worth of dialog and voice work from Matt and Trey themselves.  The amount of work that went into the look and feel of this game is remarkable.  Walking around the town is almost eerie, as I'm finally able to traverse over 15 years of sets full of classic characters.

My column focuses on how unexpectedly earnest the game is.  No punches are pulled in terms of the themes, but the game itself is refreshingly deep.  People who played Costume Quest or Super Mario RPG will find a familiar mix of real time skill challenges and turn-based strategy.  The game expects you to learn these rules, as well as pay attention to status effects, weapon modifications, and enemy weaknesses, all of which stack and interact with each other.  The game isn't just a platform for the humor.

At the same time, the laughs aren't exclusively based on in-jokes or gross-out humor (although there are plenty of those).  The entire quest is built on the South Park kids' grand LARPing campaign that is simultaneously epic and ridiculous.  Like Costume Quest, The Stick of Truth contextualizes items and makes the mundane amazing.  A crappy pair of gloves transform into a pair of armored gauntlets in the kids' minds, and this imagination is reflected in the stats they give you in battle.

The game captures what I love about high fantasy RPGs, kids' stories, and South Park in general.  The kids constantly drop in and out of their pretend characters, mostly to make fun of or chide each other for not following the implicit fantasy rules.  Hilariously, is just as reverent towards these rules as the kids.  This game could have easily leaned on references or relied on half jokes about tired game tropes (while still indulging in said tropes).  Instead, The Stick of Truth takes a serious approach to both its story and its RPG elements and ends up creating an outstanding experience.

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