By Seth Abramson | Press Play March 14, 2014 at 2:07PM
I haven’t been an avid videogamer since my mid-twenties, and I’ve never been more than a casual observer of the South Park television and film franchise, so I was an unlikely pick to be the guy driving from Madison, Wisconsin to the Illinois border at 2AM to purchase the new South Park role-playing videogame, South Park: The Stick of Truth. The reason I made the nearly hour-long drive from the Wisconsin capital down to Beloit was partly because I couldn’t sleep, and partly because I’d heard two things about the new South Park game that piqued my interest. First, it’s one of the only RPG videogames licensed from a television or film franchise ever to receive near-universal critical acclaim in the console era. Second, it is, for all intents and purposes, a “meta-RPG,” that is, a role-playing game about role-playing games. Given my recent insomnia and the stated theme of this column (“art about art”) I just couldn’t resist checking it out. What I found was a gaming experience equal parts poignant and hilarious, familiar and unpredictable, self-referential and transgressive—exactly the sort of art we look for, demand, and deserve in the age of metamodernism.
I’ve watched maybe thirty South Park episodes start-to-finish during the seventeen-year run of the television show, a number which, I’ll concede to the legions of fanatical South Park devotees, is embarrassingly low. But it’s a show I’ve always admired from afar, and not merely because I know that, despite being one of the most gleefully offensive franchises in television and (with the 1999 feature-length film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut) film history, it’s also one of the most decorated artifacts of the Age of Television. Time Magazine deemed it one of the 100 best TV shows of all-time; Rolling Stone called it the funniest show of this century’s first decade; Entertainment Weekly rates it a Top 25 television program over the last quarter-century; it received a Peabody Award in 2006; and it’s been nominated for ten Emmy Awards (winning four times). For all the protests and boycotts it’s provoked, it somehow manages to win over, in time, even its fiercest critics—or most of them. It does this by revealing its long game to be an astutely political rather than merely asinine one. I admire South Park not only for its persistent intelligence, but also its dogged cultural relevance. Both Gen X and Gen Y Americans—and soon enough, the elementary school kids of Gen Z—understand what it’s like to be simultaneously mystified and victimized by the adults of the generation preceding; the corrosiveness of our intergenerational inheritance is a timeless theme that South Park addresses fearlessly and, beneath a veneer of flippancy, with surprising subtlety.
South Park has gotten the videogame treatment five times in the past, and in all cases (to hear professional videogame critics tell it) forgettably: South Park (1998) was said to be “one of those games that is bound to come up when you start thinking about the worst game you’ve ever played” by industry leader GameSpot; South Park: Chef’s Luv Shack (1999) received an aggregate score of 50% (out of 100%) from ratings tallier GameRankings; South Park Rally (2000) fared even poorer than its predecessor, at 47%; after nine years spent regrouping, the franchise returned to consoles in 2009 for South Park: Let’s Go Tower Defense Play, which failed to achieve critical acclaim but nevertheless boasted the series’ best showing to date (7.5 out of 10 from GameSpot, which noted, with only muted sarcasm, that it was at that point “easily the best South Park game”); and then 2012 saw a relapse for series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as South Park: Tenorman’s Revenge again reached only about the halfway point (52 out of 100) on ratings aggregator Metacritic.
So why does a television program with so much critical acclaim have such difficulty succeeding when translated from its native medium to another? Besides the obvious answer—that licensed videogames are almost always hastily-arranged cash-grabs that pay zero attention to plot or gameplay—one possibility is that the allure of South Park is altogether more complicated than videogame designers have ever considered.
South Park, which takes place largely in the titular (fictional) town in Colorado, is first and foremost an epic about how American children are forced to inhabit social, cultural, and political spheres governed by adults who are idiots at best and cretins at worst. The franchise traces the ways different children respond to this passive, systemic, large-scale form of child abuse. Some kids, such as series star Cartman, adopt the worst behaviors of their elders, and do so effectively enough that many of those they’re emulating give them carte blanche for their bad behavior; others, like Stan and Kyle, are savvy enough to realize the impossibility of finding role models, but also pragmatic enough to realize that navigating the madness of the adult world means from time to time indulging madness oneself; and still others, like mute latchkey-kid Kenny, become a sad amalgamation of the two preceding types—suffused with the callousness of their culture but unable to accede to it entirely because they are, after all, benignly naive and instinctively optimistic children. To watch these kids weather the storm of American culture and its many subcultures—now indulging racist biases because they’ve seen them performed so often and so energetically; now getting in trouble because the depth of local adults’ depravity is beyond their understanding—is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. If I don’t watch the show more often, it’s because I find the world it depicts a depressing one. And, unfortunately, one I all too often recognize as my own.
Living in rural Massachusetts in the 1980s, I had the same sort of middle-class upbringing I suspect Parker and Stone did: one in which a kid has a lot of leisure time, enjoys a Gen X sort of relationship with his parents (one marked by distance rather than, as with Gen Y, an eerie sort of friendship), and is therefore mostly left to fend for himself in understanding how the world works and why. Like many kids who grew up in the mid-1980s, I was calling classmates “faggots” for many years before I had any idea what the word meant; was a little shy (which is not to say hostile) around any child who seemed different, whether that child was handicapped or black or a girl or somehow physically notable (due to height, weight, facial features, or otherwise); and, generally speaking, learned the conventional biases of my culture via the osmosis of television and film. It’s remarkable how odiously bias-entrenching much eighties television and film seems in retrospect, and unfortunately eighties children bore the brunt of it with only minimal guidance from their elders.
When I see the basically good-hearted kids of South Park, Colorado—Eric Cartman, the nominal villain, excepted—struggling to understand the cultural mores and presuppositions they’re exposed to daily, it makes me uncomfortable because I know that the humor of the kids in South Park is really just that: the humor of eighties-style elementary school children who don’t know any better than to reflexively mimic how speech-impaired children speak, or to exoticize Asian-Americans, or to discount by 50% or more the masculinity of anyone they identify as gay. I don’t at all mean to excuse these kids (or my child self) any past misconduct; I merely know what it’s like to be a thirty-something progressive looking back at his life as a South Park-age kid in the 1980s and feeling ashamed for how natural such misconduct felt at the time. South Park is not, to me, a comedy program that fetishizes the most radical brand of adult humor, it’s a program that dramatizes—sometimes realistically, sometimes via absurdist metaphor—a very banal and common juvenile experience.
In South Park: The Stick of Truth, the children revolt, which is probably why I like it so much. The game’s frenetic plot follows the children of South Park as they turn their occasional LARPing (“Live-Action Role Playing”) into a perpetual form of escapism, with a gang of “Humans” led by Cartman vying with a tribe of “Elves” led by Kyle to gain possession of the vaunted “Stick of Truth” (just a stick, really). The game successfully turns an entire universe of confusing mundanity into rosters of weapons (e.g., a basketball, a Super Ball, a broken bottle, a hammer), equipment (e.g., medical scrubs, a marching band uniform, SWAT gear), and various costumes (e.g., hundreds of makeup kits, eyewear, wigs, and gloves), all ordered by their supposed effectiveness as offensive or defensive military equipment. The designations are entirely imaginary, of course. For instance, the South Parkers refer to Twitter as “a carrier raven,” their backyards as castles and keeps, and their styles of dress, personal ethics, and self-mythologies as “classes” consistent with those found in the Dungeons & Dragons universe (e.g., Mage, Thief, Paladin, Ranger, and Bard; the game’s one addition is the “Jew” class, inspired by Kyle’s religion and Cartman’s unsettlingly entrenched anti-Semitism). Because the whole affair is ripped straight from J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Gary Gygax (creator of Dungeons & Dragons), playing South Park: The Stick of Truth is the equivalent of being a role-playing kid who’s role-playing a role-playing game. But as with so much meta-art, these several levels of remove from the “real” thing feel as or more real than the “originals,” in part because being several times removed from anything “real” is more or less the human condition in 2014.
But South Park: The Stick of Truth removes its player still further from its source material, because the game is as much an homage to—and a satire of—the entire “role-playing” enterprise as it is a gamer’s translation of the endeavor. Certain set pieces of 1990s video-gaming (particularly RPG gaming) are here put under the microscope for criticism or admiration: for instance, the hero of the game (a newcomer to South Park variously called “The New Kid,” “Douchebag,” “Sir Douchebag,” or “Commander Douchebag”) is one of RPG gaming’s much-maligned “silent protagonists,” a fact repeatedly remarked upon and derided during the seventeen-hour run-time of The Stick of Truth. The game’s battle sequences are turn-based, a style of play so long ago abandoned by top videogame developers that it becomes a running in-game joke here, as your fighting partners will sarcastically remark upon your slowness if you take any time whatsoever planning your next move in battle. Even Jamie Dunlap’s score—which is actually very, very good—is merely a tongue-in-cheek medley of vaguely Tolkienesque sonic doodles.
Certain moments in the game are so pricelessly “meta” that I’d be hard-pressed to think of any game this side of Final Fantasy VII so willing to acknowledge its own artifice; and in terms of explicit rather than implicit acknowledgment of artifice, I’m not sure we’ve even seen anything on this scale. At one point Cartman tells the game’s hero not to speak to Mrs. Cartman (his mother) because “she’s not part of the game”—leaving unsaid whether the “game” he’s speaking of is the South Parkers’ LARPing or South Park: The Stick of Truth. In the same way, a group of toughs at one point informs both The New Kid and the videogamer playing him that fighting them “at this point in the game is really just a waste of time.” Who are they speaking to, really, and does it matter? One of the beautiful ironies of this type of art is that each layer of reality shares sufficient commonalities with the others that what applies conspicuously to one level usually applies as much or more to all the others. The more furious the layering of realities, the more bewildering and also hilarious the gameplay of The Stick of Truth. At one point, Mr. Mackey, South Park Elementary’s guidance counselor and detention overseer, warns the South Parkers against breaking one of their number out of detention by referencing every layer of reality in the game: the source material for the kids’ LARPing; the “game” they’ve created to LARP in; and the videogame in which real-world humans role-play the LARPers. From one sentence to the next you have no idea which layer of reality Mr. Mackey is inhabiting, and that sort of sublime ambiguity is, at times, spectacular.
Of course, South Park wouldn’t be the cultural phenomenon it is if it merely satirized fringe practices like LARPing and tabletop role-playing games, or even if it merely commented implicitly on the ignorance and fecklessness of American adults. The show—and this most recent videogame based on the franchise—is much more pointedly political than this, and much more maniacally traumatizing psychologically. Recurring sociopolitical themes in The Stick of Truth include mistrust of centralized government, derision for political rhetoric, antagonism toward overdetermined sociocultural discourses, and a frank appraisal of the way individual citizens shirk their responsibilities to one another and (even more poignantly) themselves. Of course, all of these commentaries are packaged in the most visually and aurally noxious plot-points and cut-scenes imaginable—for instance, a “boss battle” in which the recently miniaturized hero fights on the very bed his parents are having wild sex upon. Not only are the hero’s mother’s breasts visible throughout the fight, but dodging the hero’s father’s testicles is actually part of the in-game challenge. Failure to do so leads to instant death.
Parker and Stone likely became such infamous provocateurs because they know that in a culture incapable of genuine shock, the only way to grab and hold anyone’s attention is to cross what few boundaries of taste remain. South Park: The Stick of Truth certainly does that, offering players everything from a sodomy minigame aboard an alien spaceship to an abortion minigame in which you’re asked to perform an “abortion” on a man in drag; from the playing of Nazi propaganda sound-clips over many routine battles (owing to a “Nazi zombie” plotline) to a quest in which you beat up homeless people at the request of South Park’s Mayor (her reasoning: only by violently driving the homeless from South Park can the town’s callous indifference to their existence be obscured). Throughout, one finds religious, national, and ethnic stereotypes so outrageous they can only credibly be received as satire; one also encounters characters so unthinkably grotesque they can only serve as Parker and Stone’s own winking self-satire (for instance, talking feces, giant aborted fetuses wearing Nazi armbands, and gay leather fetishists who aid the hero by anally consuming minor enemies). There are also dozens of lesser sight-gags, for instance one involving the television industry: in the sewers of South Park, regular “finds” include both feces nuggets and Emmy Awards. There’s also an easily missed but clearly derisive reference to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, an entity that understandably issued its sternest parental warning (“M for Mature”) for The Stick of Truth. All of the above suggests that the game is fully aware of exactly what it’s doing and why. Much of it is horrifying—I cringed as frequently as I laughed—but I’d be hard-pressed to call any of it unintelligent or undirected.
For me, the most moving moment in The Stick of Truth came in the sewers below the city, as the New Kid moved from caches filled with human feces, used syringes, dirty bindles, tufts of pubic hair, and Emmy Awards to protracted battles with drug-addled homeless men. As disgusting as the visuals of this “level” of the game are, the music being played throughout it is—oddly—deeply enchanting. Dunlap’s score is gentle, soothing, and vaguely mysterious. The point here, and one I might not have gotten until I was twelve hours into the game, is that the music of South Park: The Stick of Truth isn’t “for” the gamer, or “for” the world of South Park adults whose reaction to their kids’ LARPing is rarely less than hostile. The music reflects, instead, the layer of reality Parker and Stone are most invested in as kids who grew up largely in the eighties (Parker was born in 1969, Stone in 1971) and wished to imagine their world as something rather more beautiful than the one they saw in school and on the news. In other words, however disgusting the sewers beneath South Park may be, they’re still a place of some wonder for the pint-size Rangers, Bards, and Paladins who traipse through them pretending to be questing nobly. The game doesn’t talk down to these kids—however coarse they themselves may sometimes be—but rather ennobles their fantasies by treating them as not just reasonable but superlative. It was a pleasure to inhabit these kids’ fantasies for seventeen hours, even if they reminded me not just of how beautiful childhood can be if we let it, but also of how cruel and uncompromising it can be when we adults do our damnedest, as we usually do, to make it that way.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.