[17 April 2014]
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.