'South Park: The Stick of Truth' and a Television Show Worth the Threat of a Bomb
There are four little boys in Colorado that mean the world to me. Over the last (oh dear god) 17 years, these characters have defined me.
At first, they were a concept beyond interaction. I had a father who campaigned against my classmates seeing Beavis & Butthead on the grounds that re-enactment had hurt dozens of idiots, but mostly from a perspective that simply saw the idiots and not the satire. Then I had that defining seventh grade sleepover on the weekend Goldeneye was released for the 64, and once we hit the point of bleeding fingers, we popped over to Comedy Central. That was the night I watched Kenny slide ear-first down a flag pole, sacrificing himself for Kathie Lee Gifford.
I didn’t have a chance to see South Park again until I left for college. Miraculously, that aligned with me taking on a film program (and more importantly a brilliant professor) who offered up a Day One interaction with Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Wonder Showzen, and excerpts from Chuck Klosterman’s book. That night, the “You Got F’d In The A” episode aired, and for the first time I understood the purpose of South Park. Not only was this the clearest example of modern satire, but enough powerful people ignored the influence of a cardboard cut-out fat kid that they did not understand the box office effect two acid flame-out musical theater nuts could have. Shortly after, “The Passion of the Jew” (a response to “The Passion of the Christ”) would be the first TV episode I’d watch live whose importance/timeliness would lead to it being released on DVD later that month, not because it had a market, but because it bred a reaction that dictated a public reaction to a cultural ebb. Said release would actually lead to an outsider reaction, in which the public would begin to recognize the value of South Park’s production timeline, and what their instant pontificating could offer.
This was the Sword & The Stone realization that what South Park believed had a reach far greater than what any could assume from a hastily produced animation for late night. Whenever Matt & Trey wanted to shine a light on was a philosophy they could push, if not control. It was around this time I became enamored with South Park Republicans, a campus group that believed they’d found an obvious philosophy in said episodes, whereas a far more liberal friend produced an essay on how this conservative view was never reflected in the show. Their back-and-forth introduced me to Libertarianism. It marked the first political squabble for control of my generation’s sense of humor, one that would later extend beyond this show and beyond Comedy Central programming.
Later, I would wind up working in an LA production complex that shared a wall with South Park Studios. I would watch the goddamned world changing double episode wherein the animators threaten to take on an image of Mohammed, if only to fuck with Family Guy. This would lead to a singular fandom moment, in which my philosophy demanded that the show animate Mohammed despite terrorist threats, but if I wanted to watch my favorite animated nonsense show to do so, I’d personally need to accept the threat of dying via mail bomb. Had I still lived in Chicago at the time, I would have shouted from the rooftops about First Amendment rights. When you’re placed in the line-of-fire for a show you don’t technically work for, it’s a completely different level of dedication.
I stayed at this job, despite a company-wide optional dismissal for the week, because I believed in what the four foul-mouth fourth-graders had to say. It’s a dedication unto a television show that few people will ever have the opportunity to give, yet it also defines why a show like this is so important.
Which brings us to South Park: The Stick of Truth. This video game inclusion to the franchise assumes a new kid with a mysterious past has moved to town, and he unites the divided factions of the grade school towards survival. A RPG produced by well respected Obsidian Entertainment, the game offers something we’ve never seen before: a perfect bridge between forms.
The history of bridge moments between video games and TV, like the ever-tremulous dark-lands between video games and film, yields mostly bastard monstrosities and cash-in nightmares. Even the mega-licenses have had a real goddamned nightmare finding their footing. A couple years back, there was a collective gasp when Arkham Asylum presumed to take Batman, “The World’s Greatest Detective,” and offer up an experience that demanded he solve some mysteries. The result was widely regarded as the best licensed adaptation to enter the interactive medium of joysticks and voice commands. While I adore that approach, I feel like we have to talk about how the game has changed in light of Stick of Truth.
SP:TSOT exists within the world of the show, not only in that it was written by the creators, but also that it is visually rendered by the same team. But we don’t just look the part, we exist as any character might amidst this two dimensional Colorado town. What this creates is a solitary pop-culture moment in which our input is indistinguishable from, not only a thriving world that many of us have accepted as our own, but also an extension of two semi-philosophers whose belief system we now must define for ourselves. Is this the same as being as smart as Matt & Trey? No, but it’s sure a lot of fun.
For fans of the series, the experience of working through Stick of Truth is akin to the three episode extended arcs that each of the later seasons contains, albeit extended to around ten hours. Those who’ve abandoned the series will find quick footing but those who’ve remained dedicated will find an impossible extension of in-jokes that have led me into three replays of surprising satisfaction.
Again, what shocks me about the entire experience is that I have endured five other South Park games over the years, ranging from trivia to weird kart racing and even tower defense. But what’s happened here is a convergence that proudly wears a dedication from every creative level. Honestly, the dedication to SoT recalls how Simpsons fans ignore a number of seasons due to a collective dedication to creating the feature film, but Matt and Trey didn’t sag in the years leading up to this.
What happens within Stick of Truth is a total emergence within the art, the world, the perspective and belief of Matt and Trey’s idea. It’s an immersion that lacks a modern comparison. Other animated productions (Simpsons, Family Guy) have truly embarrassing digital extensions, and live action shows cannot be recreated in a manner which replicates an honest reflection without dumbing down the graphics to action-adventure quality. Hence the beautiful opportunity offered here.
The Stick of Truth is an interactive version of a television season, controlled by the player but reflective of every opportunity represented, manipulating the exact same assets that would lead to a season’s creation. The moments within the story which you steer allow you to define not only a personal narrative but how you would want modern storytelling to interact with you.
While you have the option to play as a Paladin or a Jew, to betray Cartman or Kyle, to invite Zombie Nazi Abortions or Monstrosities from The Beyond, what is open to you is a continuity of choice that popular cultural has laughably extended to comedic narrative before, but will never be extended in the same manner again, at least never within the same perfect convergence of media and message. And that’s why this is so important. What happened here was the moment where the limited media required to make an actual television show met the extended requirements of an interactive medium, and everything involved was limited enough to not only be plausable, but the best best version of what we represent after nearly two decades of dedication to an ideology.
We exist in a world of Tap-Out level social media cash-ins, where a network show can’t help but print its own money on a meaningless mobile platform shitshow. So what happens here, in South Park: The Stick of Truth, is something that not only shows what a brilliant bit of extended marketing can be, but truly what an honest extension of interactive television can be going forward. With the launch of Family Guy’s mobile game “The Quest For Stuff” today, it falls on fans of very similar shows to decide what matters more; there’s a button clicker timer option that might ask you to pay for what excites you, versus a more expensive yet involved dedication to a surprisingly rewarding narrative arc. What we are encountering, far before its time, is not a debate of TV vs. game but rather a deep exploration of what we want to spend the next ten years sinking our money into. Mobile games offer possibilities, but if you haven’t screamed the victory shout of SP:TSOT you don’t understand what the depth of an interactive season can offer.