METAMERICANA: SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH Is a Fantasy RPG That’s All Too Real

METAMERICANA: SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH Is a Fantasy RPG That’s All Too Real


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.

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