Developing licensed games is often a tricky affair and often it’s probably not worth doing at all. Rarely does it ever produce a game worth any mention aside from making the occasional “worst of…” list, and the very concept of it at this point is met with ridicule and scorn. The fact that a game is licensed from another property such as film typically says enough of the game’s quality, more so then actually seeing the game in action or playing it.
It’s not particularly surprising why this is or has been the case. Typically games sell based off of two general factors, the actual quality and the strength of the name. Publishers typically want both these qualities and it’s why the industry is much more ready to continue an already successful franchise then invest in a new property. This is why we get annual releases of Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Madden.
Of course this isn’t always the case especially with the advent of popular Youtube channels like Yogscast, UberHaxorNova, or TotalBiscuit able to promote and essentially advertise new and more unheard of indie properties to a larger audience; games such as Hotline Miami, Game Dev Tycoon or Rust.
Licensed games occupy the other side of this spectrum typically where volume is sold off name power rather then the quality of the actual product. The most prevalent type of licensed games are those made as tie-ins to the next big Hollywood blockbuster such as Transformers or Harry Potter. Development schedules are typically short given a desire to push out a product before or simultaneously with the film release to maximize toyetic potential. Also given the already present negative outlook on these types of games, developers that tend to work in licensed gaming have little incentive to actually make a product of quality.
I mean why would anyone want to take the risk and play the FPS based off the film Battleship, based off the board game when the market is already flooded with proven FPS properties like Call of Duty, Crysis, or Battlefield?
Battleship is an interesting example of licensed gaming particularly because the whole affair is so ludicrous. Battleship the board game was an extremely simple system of play. Players place their ships on a grid and the other player calls out coordinates until all opposing ships are sunk. There isn’t any sort of narrative or world to be extrapolated from this, nor motivations or explanations as to why players engage in this gameplay.
It’s also not a very popular game with the only mentioning of it I can think of recently is in the rather sickeningly notorious Battle Shits game Wreckless Eating has played on occasion. So it’s already strange why Hollywood felt like this was a good property to make a film out of, one that had little to do with the boardgame but more importantly, a property no one really cared about beforehand. It’s not like it was a hugely successful book series like Harry Potter ripe for cross-marketing potential.
It gets even stranger when one actually looks at the licensed video game produced off the film. One that has none of the characters from the film nor is representational of either of the prior two works in its gameplay. The natural assumption would be that Battleship the video game should center on battleships and/or naval combat, but instead it’s a first-person shooter. AngryJoe did a rather sarcastic but serious review of the game back in 2012 that highlights just how horrendous the game actually is since I imagine very few people in the world have actually played it.
It’s honestly a bit tragic since many properties would actually translate well into video games if publishers and those contracting out such projects actually cared about the video game being produced themselves, rather then merely being tie-in merchandising opportunities.
And there have been times where licensed games have been quite successful. Batman: Arkham Asylum is probably the most obvious recent example but even this was far from perfect in my mind. While spatially and mechanically the game was engaging, there was an unperceptive hurdle that the game simply wasn’t able to surpass. At no time when I played through Arkham Asylum did I get the sense I was being immersed in the Grant Morrision comic of the same name. Nor did I really feel like Batman in his many incarnations, whether that be from the hands of Frank Miller to Jeph Loeb. It ultimately still felt like an adaptation or a lesser translation.
I guess the point I am getting to is that South Park: Stick of Truth is none of these things. It’s a licensed game that sort of isn’t licensed. It isn’t a case of toyetic merchandising nor did it have a stunted development cycle. It also doesn’t reek of being lesser then its parent work. It took four years to develop and was made because those involved wanted to simply see South Park “the game”.
The key difference though is that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were directly involved and didn’t simply sell the name to be developed by someone else. Instead Parker on being impressed with games like Fallout: New Vegas as an avid gamer himself essentially handpicked Obsidian to make this a reality.
Creator control and involvement
South Park the television show is one of those things that people seem to either absolutely love or hate. But regardless of where one falls in regards to that line, South Park is an altogether unique work for being one of the very few long-running works that has been almost entirely created and run by its original creators. Parker and Stone have written and directed almost nearly every episode of their 17 season show to date as well as its film and now its game, Stick of Truth. However one looks at it, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment and one I don’t see anywhere else.
In comparison, something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Firefly isn’t similar to this despite showrunner Joss Whedon often taking much of the credit for their successes. While Joss Whedon obviously deserves a great deal of credit, these shows were as representational of him as they were of the large stable of writers that worked behind the scenes such as Jane Espenson, Marti Noxon, Tim Minear, or Drew Greenberg among many others. This is also subsequently why a show like Buffy despite being a huge fan of it myself, has been incredibly inconsistent over its lengthy run in its artistic and narrative direction.
South Park generally hasn’t suffered from these issues. Whether you watch an earlier episode, one from the last season, the film, or play Stick of Truth, the tonality and feel of it will largely be similar. And this is arguably why Stick of Truth works so well. It plays like an extended and interactive episode of the show, not merely a game based on it. The writing feels genuine because it actually is, with Stone and Parker penning it themselves and visually it pretty much looks like the TV show with its paper cutout aesthetic rather then the more modern use of 3D models and landscapes.
When the game was first announced, I remember seeing a feature for it as well as being the cover for an issue of Game Informer. I wasn’t aware at the time, but I simply thought they had pulled images from the television show since they were so early into development. It didn’t occur to me that the game actually looked like that until it got closer to release. When actually playing the game, instances of gameplay and cinematics are hard to distinguish and blend together fluidly. UI is minimal and even accessing the menu to equip gear or switch out party members, it doesn’t feel like a game menu since it has been done in a manner to resemble Facebook.
It really doesn’t feel like playing South Park the game, rather taking part in the parent work itself. I felt like I had actually been injected into the world of South Park the television show and in this manner, I never got the sense that this was merely a lesser adaptation or translation to a different medium.
Obsidian the developers behind Stick of Truth definitely had the chops to properly do this. Being the ones responsible for arguably one of the greatest RPGs of all time Fallout: New Vegas, Stick of Truth is also a great series of mechanical systems in its own right. It not only sees the involvement of its original creators with proper respect given to the original work, it also has the capacity to inject systems of play that are attractive to those not merely interested by existing fandom.
A Homage to South Park and Gaming
Spatial exploration and movement is performed on a flat plane like seen in the show. Mechanically Stick of Truth plays more like a classic platformer in this context then a modern day system that sees vast open worlds to explore in a multitude of different directions and dimensions. While this might seem like only a limitation, it actually offers a refreshing way in which to engage the world depicted. Characters generally walk left to right, and objects in the world act as if they are on layers. It’s all quite reminiscent of the infamous world warp in Super Mario Bros 3, accessed by dropping behind the background layer of the game and running behind it for a distance.
For aspects such as inventory management or keeping track of quests, the game utilizes a simple yet robust artificial Facebook that keeps track of all the expected RPG necessities as well as a continuously updating newsfeed from your Facebook friends. While at first the feed, status updates, and notifications seems arbitrary, it does provide a great degree of authenticity to the experience overall. Simple things such as Al Gore constantly spamming the player on his newsfeed results in a quest where Al Gore must be “un-friended.”
As for combat, Stick of Truth adopts a more primitive system, one that harkens back to the golden age of JRPGs with a turn-based system similar to what one would have seen in Final Fantasy VIor Breath of Fire.
All of these various systems are injected with South Park humor and much of the RPG flavorings get a new twist. For example, persistent status effects like poison or bleed are present in Stick of Truth, but there is also “grossed out” where players can literally fling a piece of poo at an enemy to cause them to continuously vomit. Instead of potions of healings, players consume bags of chips, and tacos replace phoenix downs/ revives.
What is striking about Stick of Truth ultimately though is how the presence of game tradition extends past just the systems of play, and into the actual written narrative. While South Park: Stick of Truth is foremost an homage and celebration of itself, it is also equally a respectable retrospective of this particular genre of gaming and the various things it influenced or was influenced by.
While the inclusion of turn-based combat might come off as primitive, here the various systems and balancing actually produce an engaging form of play. One that is equal nostalgic and on par with some of the genre’s greats. The allusion to this golden age of 16-bit adventures doesn’t end there. Venturing to the great land of Canada for example, shows a world made up of large pixels in a bird’s eye orthographic view much like in the tradition of older Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games. There is even an overworld between towns where combat can occur.
The nostalgia stretches past simply the confines of JRPGs though and into a more general notion of childhood play. An age and time where children actually engaged their imagination and roleplayed various scenarios. Stick of Truth runs two parallel narratives, one that sees the player and the various other kids engaging in what essentially boils down to as an elaborate LARPing session with no real world implications. Along side this, there is the very real threat of the alien green goo that turns things into zombie nazis in obvious reference to Wolfenstein but also in allusion to the general trend that sees their injection into a multitude of games for no particular good reason such as in Call of Duty or Sniper Elite V2.
The opening sequences of Stick of Truth also happen to be the only segment of the game that doesn’t look like South Park, rather presents a glorified retelling of the RP’ing session the neighborhood kids are engaged in. It’s presented in the manner of old Saturday morning cartoons down to the grainy image, color palette, and hand-drawn look.
Nostalgia doesn’t completely flood Stick of Truth however, as it has equal measures of contemporary influences and flavors. The ingame system of learning farts is in obvious allusion to shouts from Skyrim, and government cronies at the end of the game even refer to you as Dovahkiin. And although not narratively tied to the rather epic three-parter from last season that mashed Black Friday with Game of Thrones, the characters do carry over their personas from those episodes. Thus we once again see Princess Kenny and the crew split into two factions pitted against each other with a good measure of intrigue.
The humor of Stone and Parker also translates well into Stick of Truth and permeates its way into many of the game’s systems and conventions. Often times it sees them working wonderfully to both poke fun at gaming trends and paradigms to great comedic effect.
The character creation during the early moments of Stick of Truth tells much by itself. Character customization is fairly robust and players are able to make a wide range of different characters although the player is limited to being male. Possible classes include Fighter, Mage, Thief, and “Jew.” Hovering over Jew makes Cartman comment that you guys probably can’t be friends.
The game also seemingly criticizes notions of the importance of player agency and choice by offering them up but making them entirely pointless, and often insulting the player in the process. Take for example, picking your character name. While the game does allow you to type one in, the following sequence has Cartman just deciding to assume your name is Douchebag since the player character isn’t voiced, and hence forth that is how you are referred to for the remainder of the game.
A recurring joke actually in the game revolves around the fact that the player character doesn’t talk. Characters often awkwardly wait for a response or simply don’t know how to react to the player simply staring back with no reply. Traditionally, the inclusion of a silent protagonist was utilized in older RPGs to allow for better player injection and immersion. It has also been cited as a method of characterization that sees the player character cast in a mysterious or uncertain light. This is acknowledged in the game by some of the girls stating how “mysterious” Douchebag is and subsequently expressing interest.
While it is primarily used a device to often make fun of itself and create awkward situations, the use of a silent protagonist is ultimately fitting for Stick of Truth. By doing so, players are able to fully inhabit the world of South Park as an actual inhabitant. You are literally neighbors with Stan and Cartman, and it almost comes off as a self-injected fanfiction one might privately write as a form of escapism.
In general the reasons why one would possibly desire to play a licensed game over an original property are not all that dissimilar. At the end of the day, most gamers want a sense of escapism or immersion where one can insert themselves into a different world, setting, or role. Under the context of licensed properties, that world and injection is into the property itself. Thus when I load up Jedi Academy or Star Trek Online, I do so with a desire to primarily inject myself into those worlds as a participant, much in the same manner as one would do when playing pen and paper RPGs.
And often this is where licensed games fail. They come off as being disingenuous and immersive potential is minimal. Often at best they simply feel like another game but merely reskinned or converted to appear like a different property. Star Trek Online for example never felt like Star Trek at all. It didn’t have any sort of representation of the lengthy bridge interactions onboard the ship, nor the sense of exploration prevalent in much of the various series. Instead it played like a mindless shooter where players constantly grinded through uninspired quests consisting of running and gunning through hallways. Mechanically it wasn’t much different from the multitude of other rather uninspiring MMOs that Cryptic Studios has pushed out over the years.
Stick of Truth however is an absolute success in immersion. As a player I was able to revisit many of the memorable characters and moments of the show throughout the game, as well as get the sense that my character was actually a member of the South Park neighborhood.
With all that said, its probably important to mention although obvious, that if one findsSouth Park the television show juvenile and altogether insignificant, they probably won’t have a good experience with Stick of Truth. But for everyone else, especially fans of the television show, Stick of Truth is almost a must play. Its as essential to the canon of South Park as its theatrical film, and it’s an experience that shouldn’t be ignored.