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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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