In 1997, I was 12 years old. That same year, South Park debuted on Comedy Central. Almost immediately, it became a collective obsession among me and my friends. A 12-year-old is always looking for something parents wouldn't approve of, and South Park was perfect; it was loud, crude, and the characters were kids. South Park had quickly filled the immature void left behind by Beavis & Butthead: "Huh huh huh" and "shut up, Beavis" were swapped for "I'm not fat, I'm big-boned" and "oh, my god, they killed Kenny." The authority figures in my life hated South Park, and so, I loved South Park. (In fairness, my parents were remarkably lax about what I watched, but everyone had a friend whose parent loathed South Park, so it remained a rebellious act.)
And so, a confession: In 2014, I laughed at South Park: The Stick of Truth way more than I expected. Functioning both as a greatest hits tour of South Park's most popular and enduring bits, and a remarkably on-point sendup of video game tropes, it felt remarkably… earnest? There was a profound novelty in controlling the characters of South Park, turning the game into an unaired, interactive episode. And yet, it was also a sobering trip down memory lane, a reminder of how much we change over the years, including our sense of humor and what (and who) we find ourselves chuckling at.
Nostalgia and references were enough to propel me through The Stick of Truth, but while playing the sequel, The Fractured But Whole, rose-tinted glasses haven't been enough, my nervous chuckles replaced with sighs.
This is a game where one of the main characters, Cartman, dresses up as a Racoon-themed superhero and calls himself The Coon. The joke, of course, is "coon" is also a racial slur for black people. Pretty funny stuff. It gets even better when one of the main missions has players invading the homes of innocent black people and helping the police arrest them. The punchline is that the police are racist! The Fractured But Whole, much like modern South Park, often feels like "well-meaning" people desperately holding onto an ability to laugh at shitty jokes made at the expense of people who don't deserve it, even though they know better.
The Fractured But Whole's politics are a larger identity crisis for modern South Park, where the show's no longer a unruly fuck you to a stubborn status quo; it is the status quo. It's the establishment. Some of the show's choice of targets puts itself in a position of punching down, using society's marginalized—sex workers, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, etc.—for a joke's payoff because it's easier. It's not as though trendy progressivism, ignoring the consequences of gentrification, and empathy-when-it-suits-you—all questions explored in recent seasons—aren't worthy of scathing criticism. But in the journey to land a hit, who's knocked over along the way?
I've only watched a handful of episodes of South Park since college, but have kept up with the conversation around the show. It's why I still read interviews with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, or watch the occasional episode. (I was last drawn in during the introduction of P.C. Principal, which prompted a huge firestorm.) When I stopped watching, it wasn't a statement, it just… happened. But as evidenced by my enjoyment of The Stick of Truth, I've continued to light a nostalgic candle for the series, and the way its humor has (and hasn't) changed has proved an interesting way to interrogate myself and my relationship to the objects South Park chooses to tee up for a joke.
In this game, the kids have swapped fantasy for comics, with each taking on a superhero persona. That's why Stan is Toolshed, Kyle is Human Kite, etc. You, New Kid, are once again a blank slate, with players picking their own powers. There's plenty of humor to be mined from society's decade-long obsession with increasingly convoluted and interconnected superhero movies (has it really been almost 10 years since Iron Man?), but The Fractured But Whole does precious little with it. Generally, the hits don't land because there's not much weight behind them.
The Stick of Truth was basic, with combat rolling over halfway through. By then, the game was skating by on novelty, absurdity, and how much South Park references made you laugh. The Fractured But Whole has a lot more of the complexity we've come to expect from RPGs. Combat is still turn-based, but on a grid. Status effects are a huge part of the strategy, with characters being slowed, set on fire, or barfing through rounds. You certainly have more options, especially when you get access to some of the characters with weirder and more satisfying abilities, but the combat is no contest to anyone who's played an RPG before.
The rest of the game-y aspects don't function as more than filler, either. One of the most common mini-games involves sitting on a toilet and shitting by rotating analog sticks over and over again. The puzzles are simple, and largely rely on you acquiring the right friend to perform a unique action. A crafting system requires you to trash the city in search of objects to mash together, but generally, you'll find random items as good as anything crafted.
This means The Fractured But Whole finds itself in a similar situation as The Stick of Truth: The plot, and the humor derived from it, suddenly become the whole appeal. This is especially true for The Fractured But Whole because you're exploring many of the same areas as you did last time. It feels small, and it's not as entertaining to run around virtual South Park for the second time.
South Park made 12-year-old Patrick laugh, but it also spoke to me. It was an act of defiance, even if a white kid growing up in a stereotypical, middle class neighborhood didn't have much to defy. I started growing up alongside South Park. The fart jokes never got old, it was always funny when Cartman was anally probed, and I could recite every lyric from Chef's hit, "Chocolate Salty Balls." ("Stick 'em in your mouth and suck 'em!") I was there for the movie on day one. I downloaded the original cartoon on Napster. I played the crappy Acclaim games because it was an excuse to indulge in South Park.
Part of South Park's appeal for me was a willingness to cross arbitrary and often hypocritical cultural lines, flipping a middle finger the whole way. Everyone was, as it turns out, a dishonest asshole, but people were too polite to point it out. South Park's willingness to highlight and tear down the most influential politicians and celebrities was a form of speaking truth to power. That truth might have been coming from the mouths of vulgar 10-year-olds, but it mattered—to me, anyway. As someone who, as a teenager, felt as though they didn't have power, watching society's most important get ridiculed felt like South Park voicing what I already knew: they all sucked.
In South Park's eyes, though, everyone sucks and nobody is right. It wants to draw from politics and culture without "taking a side," as if that position wasn't itself a side. Too young to know better, it felt right. When you're ignorant to the world's nuances, it's easier to interpret everything through occam's "they all suck" razor.
But the world South Park debuted in different from the one that exists now, and the person watching it—me—has grown and changed and tried to view through more empathetic eyes. Unlike the show, I have picked sides and feel good about it, making the show's apolitical stance ring empty and toothless. Once upon a time, "toothless" is not a word I'd have used to describe South Park.
Ahead of The Fractured But Whole's release, the game received attention after Ubisoft disclosed how the game's difficulty slider worked. Choosing "easy" meant your character was white, while "very difficult" meant your character was black. Get it? Because black people's lives are harder because of systemic racism that's been ingrained into society for hundreds of years! Ha ha!
South Park is not a show that's reliably used race, sex, gender and other impassioned topics as a basis for persuasive commentary or inspired joke telling. Even if that's what's on the minds of the show's creators, South Park might not be not the platform to express it. South Park has enormous baggage when it comes to every single one of those topics, and you can't handwave that away because it's a new season. South Park has to live with the history of South Park, just as we have to live with the history of our own actions and reactions to, say, jokes.
I've listened, watched, and read countless interviews with Matt Stone and Trey Parker over the years. Whatever you think of their work, they're not throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. They're engaged with the world and what's changing. Every episode of the show, including these two games, reflects where their heads are at. (I'd recommend listening to this interview with Bill Simmons from earlier this year, where they talk about politics and the influence Trump had on writing the show last season.) What the old South Park fan in me wants to believe is that the two of them are capable of better than this.
You can actually see this internal conflict playing out in the game's writing.
One of the combat mechanics revolves around microaggressions. If someone dishes an insult with racial, gendered, or sexual overtones, it's a free hit. Capitalizing on a series of microaggressions fills a meter that nets bonus experience points. Whenever you encounter a microaggression, you're contacted by P.C. Principal with an explanation about how one of the words or phrases they used was hurtful to another human being. The joke being that empathy for people's reactions to our words and their unintended consequences is somehow a bad thing.
Here's the problem: you can't recognize the rights for marginalized people to publicly identify themselves in a way that feels true and mock those very same people for asking others to self-examine the language they've been using because it undercuts that very identity.
During a series of meetings with school counselor Mr. Mackey, the game allows you to define (and redefine) your gender and sexuality across a broad and surprisingly inclusive spectrum. On one hand, it proves an astute explanation of complicated gender and sex-related terms that can even trip up people who consider themselves knowledgeable. On the other, the goofy music that plays over your selections, the way Mackey bumbles through the conversation for laughs, the way your in-game parents talk about "hiding" your true self, sets a strange tone at odds with the very real foundation the moment is based upon. Is it a problem that we're talking about sex and gender with kids at a young age, allowing kids to think of themselves in less binary terms?
It's impossible to tell what the game is actually trying to say, and after watching a series of Let's Play videos where the streamers were cracking up over the option to identify as "other," it seemed clear I was not the only person who didn't understand how the joke was supposed to land. A lot of South Park's jokes operate on multiple levels, but those levels can operate in contradiction, confusing their meaning.
Here's the scene in question, if you want to watch it play out:
You get the sense South Park wants to be more progressive than the show's structure allows, which again calls into question why South Park is being used as the vehicle for these jokes at all.
I get why people still watch the show, and by extension, want to play this game. It's goofy and ridiculous and quite often, there are really funny jokes that don't come at the expense of anyone. The world's in a bad spot, and justifiably in many cases, everyone does suck. Despite being on the air for 21 seasons, South Park feels like the kind of show that could punch back in a satisfying way. But every time I revisit the show, whether it's on TV or through a video game, the ratio is off. For every joke that lands, another one makes me feel uncomfortable, even if I end up chuckling along the way.
I'm not asking for people to stop watching South Park, or even to pass on playing The Fractured But Whole. Part of the reason I'm continuing to play it, and the reason I'll finish it, is because I'm interested in my reaction to it. All I'm asking is that if you, like me, have enjoyed South Park for a long time, it's worth examining why you're laughing at certain jokes—and whether you would be if you were the butt of them.
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