Games

Serious Comedy in 'South Park: The Stick of Truth'

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.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.