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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
The Stick of Truth represents the best of what South Park offers: satire with sincerity.

When I’m looking to encapsulate a game’s tone and its own treatment of its subject matter, I listen to its music.  For example, Skyrim takes its high fantasy very seriously.  Forged iron, arcane magic, and fearsome dragons rule the land and are treated with respect.  It is an earnest world of sword and sorcery that treats all our D&D fantasies with the reverence that we secretly harbor.  Just listen to its theme:

It has the bombastic arrangement of something that has completely bought into its genre.

I see Lord of the Rings as its film equivalent.  The trilogy was of course based on the book series that continues to define the fantasy genre, but the movie treatments feel devoted to Tolkien’s sprawling world.  The most ridiculously deep lore is expounded upon without so much as a sideways glance at the audience.  To use a tired term, everything is unapologetically “epic,” and the music conveys this:


I mention all of this because I’ve been playing South Park: The Stick of Truth.  Bear with me for a moment and have a listen to the overworld theme:


Cartman’s faux-epic, vaguely Latin chanting quickly gives way to something that sounds just as enthusiastic as Skyrim or Lord of the Rings.  The soundtrack’s majestic strings and idyllic woodwinds bring forth images of clashing warriors and magnificent vistas, even though it’s a game about a bunch of foul-mouthed kids who get really into LARPing.  It’s funny but at the same time indicative of how The Stick of Truth fully embraces its fantasy themes and goes beyond surface-level gags.

It’s hard not to make this sound like a backhanded compliment, but even without its South Park skin, The Stick of Truth is a fundamentally strong game.  A role-playing game at heart, it makes good use of turn based strategic combat mixed with specific dexterity challenges that let you score critical hits and bonus effects.  Characters have different roles and equipment can be modified to add particular attributes that effect some enemies more than others.  Whether it is optimizing your gear or planning out battle tactics, The Stick of Truth presents a series of interesting decisions and challenges that force you to use the breadth of your characters’ abilities.

People familiar with Obsidian Entertainment’s previous work (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, and Fallout: New Vegas) might not be surprised by this, but South Park fans have endured a long string of games that leaned on the characters to carry otherwise generic game experiences.  The Stick of Truth has a strong core and is then bolstered by a fictional world that has had over 15 years to develop.  Just as happens in the show, the South Park kids go on various quests that skirt the line between childish pranks and trying to mitigate the idiocy of the town’s citizens, those who maintain order more through seniority and dumb luck than by any supposed wisdom that comes from age.

With a solid game at its center, the rest of The Stick of Truth‘s sense of confident authenticity stems from its portrayal of the kids.  You play a part in a great backyard war between elves and humans fighting on playgrounds that have been deemed imaginary battlefields.  All the costumes are homemade and the rules tacitly agreed upon under the auspices of some imaginary pact (everyone knows that when you’re “dead” you have to lay on the ground… unless your mom calls you in for dinner).  You might be using a using a normal hammer as a weapon, but it is declared a paladin’s war mace, and its lethality is expressed in the battles.  The Stick of Truth is one of the few games that captures the simultaneous splendor and crappiness of an imaginary hero’s journey. 

The Stick of Truth remains fully committed to these dual themes.  A new sword is made of a few flimsy pieces of cardboard while also being the difference between victory and defeat.  I deposited $20 with a bank that promptly lost it by investing in a sub-prime loan package.  It was hilarious on one hand but devastating on the other. $20 was a small fortune for a kid who just spent $5 on the best staff that money could buy.  It is humor with sincerity. The reality of the kids’ day to day experiences and the adherence to their fantasy game persists throughout the setting, the dialogue, and the game’s rules.

The Stick of Truth represents the best of what South Park offers: satire with sincerity.  No one is safe from ridicule, but enormous effort is put into every bit.  The sweeping orchestral score is representative of the care taken to manifest the fantasy images the kids have in their heads, and the game’s rules make it feel real to the player.  The game certainly pokes fun at fantasy tropes, RPGs, video games, and the silliness of childhood games, but the craft put into portraying all of these things is deeper than a quick ironic reference.  The Stick of Truth is one of the goofiest games I’ve played in a long time, but as its soundtrack shows, it takes its comedy seriously.

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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014
The Blind Swordsman at first might seem like madness, a video game without an essential component of the video game, the video part.

When I was 10-years-old, I fell in love with an issue of G.I. Joe called “Silent Interlude.”

It wasn’t love at first sight.

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Tuesday, Apr 15, 2014
It is valuable sometimes to look at something broken to see how well it could work.

The more that I approach games critically, the less interested that I am in distinguishing good games from bad ones. A major complaint of the last console generation is that games cost too much to develop and that they cost too much to play (Chris Kohler, “Videogames Can’t Afford to Cost This Much”, Wired, 13 April 2012), and there’s no reason to believe that that trend will slow down. Under such circumstances, making a bad game is an unacceptable risk. But with the last console generation winding down and the next one’s library not yet fleshed out, audiences seem somewhat more receptive to what “bad” games can teach. Speaking as somebody who’ is always at least a year behind, it’s refreshing that the previous console generation has wound down and the new one has yet to pick up momentum. It has become a time to explore failures.

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Monday, Apr 14, 2014
This week we play a few hands of Blizzard's collectible card game, Hearthstone, while considering its place in the free-to-play gaming landscape.

Another day, another free-to-play release, but this one has been launched by a developer with a long history of bringing virtual addiction to the masses.

This week we play a few hands of Blizzard’s collectible card game, Hearthstone, while considering its place in the free-to-play gaming landscape.

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Friday, Apr 11, 2014
The template of Dark Souls is more sustainable in the long run as an action/horror franchise.

Years ago I wrote about how Demon’s Souls represented the future of survival horror because of how it evoked the same sense of helplessness as that common video game subgenre, but in the context of an action game. I wrote that after playing the game for several hours, but not getting very far into it that I still hadn’t gotten comfortable with the world. Now, after having put days into both Dark Souls games, I realize that I was ignoring how empowering the action can be and how it is that empowerment that drives you to confront the horrors of the game. Dark Souls (and by extension Demon’s Souls) is still a great survival horror game, but it’s also a great action game. It succeeds at both genres because it doesn’t try to mix the two. Instead, Dark Souls uses a much maligned trick of level design to give each genre its time to shine.

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