South Park: The Stick of Truth
One of the more under discussed aspects in the perennial riddle of why licensed games are, as a rule, bad is the importance of matching genre and franchise. Earlier, poorer attempts at bringing South Park to the video game world stand as clear illustrations of this point. It’s easy enough to attribute their failure to plain bad design, but maybe the fundamental flaw lay in the initial decision to make a kart racer, a first-person shooter or a quiz game from a franchise which never suggested a tendency towards any of these genres. They were doomed from the start.
“This exploratory impulse is built into the story which… positions you as a newcomer in (new kid, to be precise) in town who is encouraged by their parents to go out and make friends” It is immediately apparent, then, that South Park: The Stick of Truth has not fallen into this trap. Licensed roleplaying games are relatively rare (perhaps the last major examples being the GBC Harry Potter games), but the aptness of the decision becomes clear when you consider that the appeal of a South Park game is surely going to be the opportunity to explore the titular location. Couple that with the realisation that few genres do more to encourage exploration and you have a perfect match.
This exploratory impulse is built into the story which, instead of dumping you in the well-worn shoes of a pre-existing character, positions you as a newcomer (new kid, to be precise) in town who is encouraged by their parents to go out and make friends. It’s a narrative which is built, like many episodes of the show itself, around the interplay between a large, potentially apocalyptic story too convoluted to spoil and a piece of childhood whimsy centred on a magic stick. It’s also rather episodic, acting largely as an excuse to send the player around town visiting characters, locations and their associated comic set-pieces.
The game comes from Obsidian, a developer whose RPGs have typically fallen firmly in the western tradition. The Stick of Truth deviates from this, drawing not just on turn-based Japanese RPGs but on a specific sub-genre of Japanese RPG, exemplified most obviously by Earthbound, but also by the Persona and Megaman: Battle Network franchises. Thematically, the connections between these games are loose, but the clear structural through-lines (child protagonists, small town settings, a deliberate contrast between the everyday and the fantastical) are all embodied here. Call it the “home town RPG”, if you like, and throw in Rockstar’s Bully if you need a western reference point.
To commit to one location is a risky proposition in a genre that typically operates on forward momentum and the promise of spectacle just up ahead. That The Stick of Truth not only gets it right but excels at it is testament, once again, to the perfect match between genre and franchise going on here. Having nearly two decades’ worth of surreal mythology to draw upon (and a willingness to add to that mythology as the game progresses) means that the game never feels restrictive, even as it makes it clear that you won’t be going far beyond the town limits. There are mountains lingering in the background, sure, but who cares about those when you can go and poke around Tom’s Rhinoplasty?
Which isn’t to say that the game is simply a series of cliquish references, there for fans to giggle at and everyone else to be baffled by. South Park as a setting is as rich as you’re likely to find in any RPG and only part of the enjoyment in exploring it comes from recognition. The rest of it comes from hitting the same beats that all good RPGs want to hit, the satisfaction of uncovering some new item or working out how to reach an area that had previously seemed inaccessible. Tellingly, most of the side-quests involve searching to some extent and its sets of collectables give the player plenty of incentive to explore all aspects of the town.
There are two main criticisms that can be levelled at The Stick of Truth: too easy and too short. The former is the more justified of the two. Even on hard mode, the game presents nothing more than a passing challenge. Over-levelling is easy, powerful attacks are many and while easiness per se isn’t a bad thing, it would be nice in a game overflowing with modifications and equipment (more collectables, in other words) to have had more of a reason to experiment with them.
The second alleged deficiency, though, is actually one of the game’s strengths. The expectation that RPGs be lengthy affairs probably comes from Final Fantasy‘s three-disc era and, in recent years, has been cemented by titles such as Skyrim. The upshot of this expectation – and the willingness of developers to cater to it – has all too often been flabby, rambling stories and, at the gameplay level, a glut of hollow, repetitive side-quests. The Stick of Truth avoids these issues for reasons that come back to the confined setting. Keeping things small-scale has allowed Obsidian to give every element of the game its necessary weight. There’s not an inch of wasted space or a second of wasted time here, and the result is a story that is tight and activities that are well-structured and fulfilling to complete. “Replay value” is one thing, but the sheer density of the ideas on offer here is worth a hundred, say, bounty hunting side quests.
“In the end, though, what really carries The Stick of Truth along is its innocence” In the end, though, what really carries The Stick of Truth along is its innocence, something that may surprise people who have read the stories about Euro censorship but is unlikely to come as a shock to fans of the show itself, which has always offset its raunchiness with an odd sweetness. This is, simply put, pleasant to play, for reasons that exceed any single element of its design. This is a world that you want to visit for the sake of visiting it, that you want to uncover not just for the satisfaction of having filled out that ‘collectables’ tab but to ensure that you haven’t missed another joke or set piece. It’s reminiscent, curiously, of Miyamoto’s description of Zelda as a “miniature garden” and while this particular garden contains grotesqueries that would shock Link (though he would no doubt empathise with its silent protagonist), it never stops being a place that you’ll want to come back to.