“South Park: The Stick of Truth” blurs line between video games and television

In the 17 years since “South Park” changed how America thought about animation on television, several video games based on the property have tried to ride on its coattails. The result has been largely fruitless. This is not surprising considering that “South Park,” a raunchy comedy centered around the tomfooleries of adolescents in a rural Colorado town, does not possess any elements that seem to be immediately translatable to an interactive medium.

However, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (“The Book of Mormon”) have built their careers on subverting expectations. Unlike any other “South Park” game, which bore little resemblance to the show, Parker and Stone conceived the idea for “South Park: The Stick of Truth,” the first physically released game based on the property since 2000.

They sought out developer Obsidian Entertainment directly, which had previously worked as the developer of “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II” and “Fallout: New Vegas.” The concept is unprecedented: to seamlessly translate the narrative and visual style of an iconic cartoon into a turn-based RPG that implicates players in the experience. “The Stick of Truth” is undeniably bold, but does it work? Sort of.

 

 

When “The Stick of Truth” is at its best, a casual observer in the room could easily be fooled into thinking it is an incredibly long, uninterrupted episode of the series. The visual translation into an interactive medium is mostly seamless and almost impossible to imagine until one sees it for themselves. Blended with the game’s writing, both in narrative structure and in the zip of the gloriously profane dialogue, there are often moments that inspire gleeful disbelief that something like this could even exist.

However, these moments are fleeting. While Parker and Stone’s seemingly endless wit in addition to Obsidian’s artists knock “The Stick of Truth” out of the park, the core gameplay is rather disappointing. As far as turn-based role-playing games go, “The Stick of Truth” is about as simple as they come. One can only assume this is to prevent the game’s mechanics from interfering with the player experience, which makes it all the more frustrating. Clunky controls, unwieldy level design and grating dialogue loops are just a few simple things that plague most segments of the game.

It is important to reiterate just how uproariously funny the game is. Even when the physical act of playing it becomes aggressively tedious, the overriding desire to get to the next memorable and shocking string of comedic moments keeps the game going. It would be futile to describe the more incendiary comedic set pieces of “The Stick of Truth,” as it would be unfit to print. It speaks volumes to say that this game gets away with content that could never air on Comedy Central, and there isn’t much “South Park” has not already done.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the “South Park” universe owes it to themselves to become a resident of its quiet, little mountain town. Otherwise, “South Park: The Stick of Truth” is not the transcendent video game that will win the cultural touchstone series any more converts, though it certainly could have been.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel