South Park: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) Review – Smart, Smutty, Silly, and Sublime

South Park: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) Review - Smart, Smutty, Silly, and Sublime

You’ve got to hand it to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It seems like everything they touch turns to gold. Granted it’s generally fart joke based gold, but still! Every time the duo decides to take their distinctively filthy and deceptively intelligent humour to a different medium, it just works. A few years back, the team decided to make a South Park game that they could script and design themselves at South Park Studios to ensure that we’d get a disc genuinely worth giggling over. That they made an RPG actually worth playing beyond all of the gut-clenching hilarity was a pleasant surprise. The Stick of Truth was a brilliant game and now they’ve gone and done it again. South Park: The Fractured but Whole is one of the best games of the year and it’s sure to be the funniest damn game on the market until these guys decide to do it again.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

The plot, structure, and even map of South Park: The Fractured but Whole are pretty much the same as last time and thankfully that’s a good thing. For this round, the South Park gang have stopped playing wizards and fantasy to try on their superhero personas. Cartman’s goal is to make a lucrative film franchise with Netflix offshoots, others want to merely do some good in their community. That causes a rift amongst all the costumed kiddies—because why wouldn’t it? So it’s a Marvel Civil War type tale. Once again you’re a new kid with a surprisingly graphic troubled home life (seriously, it would be a downer were it not for South Park’s “get out of jail free card” cutesy cut out aesthetic and even then there are times when things feel a little overbearing) who eventually rallies together both sides of the divide. Along the way you also do everything from sneak into a strip club to make a semen soiled drink to doing battle with a certain former Subway pitchman in ways that leave deep mayonnaise stains and mental scars. South Park: The Fractured But Whole is out there, if just slightly toned down from the last one to avoid another round of international censorship.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

Gameplay in The Fractured But Whole is essentially a gently streamlined RPG with all the trimmings. Combat has been updated to a grid system with character movement and obstacles. It takes a little getting used to but ultimately allows for greater variance and challenge within the endless stream of turn-based combat. It’s still not as painfully difficult as most pure RPGs, even on the highest difficulty, but that’s for the best. There’s also more customization options this time, allowing you to combine a variety of fighting classes and styles to your character as well as the ability to build items. Toss in dozens of hilarious costumes and other customization options (you’d best believe those ball chins are back) as well as a variety of hidden items and side quests (get ready to help Cartman’s mom start a questionable business) and you have a fairly robust and deep game, especially for a licenced property. All of it in some way mocks gaming conventions or delivers some sort of South Park deep cut joke. The attention to detail is remarkable. Even the loading screens boast funnier jokes than any video game deserves.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

Of course, South Park: The Fractured but Whole is also a rare game where mechanics and design are almost secondary concerns. Sure the game plays great, but the reason folks will be lining up to grab insomnia-causing copies is the South Park style and humour. Good news. Trey and Matt didn’t disappoint here either. Once again, there isn’t a second of gameplay that doesn’t feel like you’re controlling a South Park episode. All the characters appear, this time updated to include new favourites like PC Principal (who teaches you how to score extra attacks for microaggressions) and the Member Berries (scattered throughout the game as collectables, often mocking the nostalgia inherent in sequels). Jokes are layered into the fabric of every aspect of gameplay, from the disgusting throwaway items you find along the way (go sifting through an abortion clinic dumpster and that’s going to happen) to gameplay tips provided by an increasingly high and distracted Towlie ranting about the government between hints. It’s a parade of giggles and guffaws for South Park fans. Too many even.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

The story is as episodic and stretched as any videogame. The plot can’t be expected to live up to the tightly scripted show even if the game very much feels like a 20-hour episode. Oddly, much of the “new kid” character arc comes wholesale from The Stick of Truth including the big twist. It’s a bit of a bummer, but the execution of your troubled home life is so much darker that it’s worth the repletion. The superhero narrative becomes as deliberately convoluted and confused as the blockbuster source material, eventually stumbling into a bizarre time travel finale that easily tops the climax of Stick of Truth that underwhelmed at the finish line. There’s also some genuinely strong satire slipping in The Fractured But Whole, in particular a Lovecraft-inspired subplot about police brutality that is so good and painfully cutting it easily could have been an episode. Also, Parker and Stone have fun with allowing players to choose their own racial, sexual, and spiritual identity in ways that inevitably lead to being beaten by a gang of local racists. The way the writers use gaming identity to tease identity politics purists is very clever and ultimately inclusive in ways that might surprise those who balked at the “skin colour difficulty” controversy that hit the game a few weeks back.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

Simply put, The Fractured but Hole is a joyous, even orgasmic gaming experience for any South Park fan. It’s filled with beautiful designs, engaging gameplay, and endless comedy with the brainy highs and poopy lows that made the show legend. The game is every bit an equal to its predecessor and in some ways, even an improvement. Some might consider it a mild step back given that the novelty value of a sincere and satirical South Park RPG isn’t quite as high the second time and that the team missed an opportunity to shift gaming genres once they shifted from fantasy to superheroes. That’s really the worst thing you can say about this game though. Sure, it doesn’t top Stick of Truth, but it does provide a sequel worthy enough to stand as an equal. Hopefully Trey and Matt expand this into a trilogy, because they’ve found a pitch perfect formula to expand their iconic series into videogames without diluting the medium or the franchise (last week’s episode did directly lead into the game and both are so simpatico that it didn’t feel like gross crossover marketing, more like ambitious gross out humour crossover storytelling). In a perfect world, all tie-in games would be this good. Unfortunately, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the only content creators dedicated and passionate enough to make spin off games this strong. No one is better at making the world laugh at our absurdities through childish animation and the crudest of all humour. May these masters of fart joke satire never stop.

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South Par: The Fractured But Whole (PS4) – gameplay image via Ubisoft

South Park: The Fractured But Whole was reviewed using “retail” PlayStation 4 download codes provided by the publisher. You can find additional information about CGMagazine’s ethics and review policies and procedures here.


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Pill’s take on Blade Runner 2049American Made, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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The Top Ten Halloween TV Specials

The Top Ten Halloween TV Specials

Halloween is here again, which is great news for anyone who likes ghosts and goblins and horror movies and novelty candy. It’s the one season when everyone gets to pretend they love such things, at least for a few weeks. That includes TV broadcasters and creators, who tend embrace a little spookiness in October out of desperation to fill a timeslot. That’s led to a grand tradition of Halloween TV specials, weird one-offs, and special episodes that bring horror to the small screen in small ways for a few days.

There have of course been many brilliant bits of Halloweenery broadcast to your talking picture box over the decades. That goes without saying. We are going to limit this celebration of Halloween specials to just a top ten list though. Now, that’s not necessarily individual episodes (otherwise this may as well just be a Top Ten list of the best Simpsons’ Halloween specials). No, no, we want to spread it around. These are ten delightful bits of classic TV Halloween boofoonary that will help get you in the holiday spirit out of sheer nostalgia (you’ll practically be able to taste the candy corn that was stuck in your teeth while watching these old oddities).

Note: This list won’t include It’s A Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown because as everyone knows, Peanuts went out of style decades ago and there’s no need to pretend otherwise!

Be sure to check out our other spooky lists to get you in the Halloween spirit.

10) Mad Monster Party

Here’s a little something that is too often forgotten. Rankin/Bass, those imaginative stop motion pioneers who were responsible for all of those creepy Christmas specials of your childhood actually made a Halloween special. All of the classic Universal monsters appear along with the voice of Boris Karloff and for some reason Phyllis Diller. Now, it should be noted that the folks behind the special went out of their way not to be too frightening for kiddies and followed some of the most irritating trends of old timey variety shows for some inexplicable reason. It’s not Rankin/Bass classic like Rudolph, but Mad Monster Party is such a deeply strange relic from a lost era dripping with cutie variations on old fashioned horror staples that you can’t help but be charmed by this strange experience. Plus there’s no way that Tim Burton and the good folks at Laika weren’t highly influenced by this thing.

9) Roseanne (8 Halloween episodes)

It’s hard to remember just how groundbreaking Roseanne was back in the day. Sure, it feels like a sitcom relic with it’s laugh tracks and morality plays now, but in the 90s simply seeing a family that didn’t feel curated for mass appeal was a shock. Every Halloween the Roseanne gang loved getting into the holiday spirit with increasingly elaborate haunted houses and costumes for the fam that never ceased to be friggin’ hilarious and imaginative. There were the occasional fake scares and pranks as well. More than anything else, it was a reflection of how dysfunctional families love to get dark n’ crazy on Halloween and just another time that Roseanne offered more of a reflection of its viewers rather than a window into an impossible suburban fantasy.

8) Garfield’s Halloween Adventure

There is an entire generation of children out there who don’t want to admit that they were once scared silly by a Garfield episode as children. It happened though. That lasagne-loving feline took a brief break from his usual jokes about naps and downer Mondays for a tale of trick r’ treating and a haunted pirate ship. Now, the show is certainly dated and is only scary in the way that Scooby Doo is scary (i.e. only if you’re a tiny child, overly impressionable, or intoxicated). But for those who were the right age when they caught Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, it’s definitely the most embarrassing TV special to ever give them nightmares. Not me though obviously. This is all theoretical, you see.

7) Gary Larson’s Tales From The Far Side

For those who can actually recall a time that they read newspaper comic strips, Gary Larson’s The Far Side was a special introduction to surrealism, irony, sarcasm, and all other forms of deeply bizarre humour. The guy was allowed to bring his strange vision into animation only once for a Halloween special, and once seen the results are never forgotten. Entirely dialogue-free and filled with one deeply twisted image after another, Gary Larson’s Tales From The Far Side is one of the strangest damn animated shorts that you’ll ever see. The fact that it ended up on television at all is kind of amazing. Thankfully, networks considered Halloween a rare opportunity for morbid entertainment for the masses. So this bizarre cartoon nightmare exists and if you’ve yet to sample its uniquely twisted comedic charms, then buckle up. You’ll never forget whatever the hell this thing is.

6) South Park (5 Halloween Episodes)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone may not have stuck with their annual Halloween specials, but dammit they got some good ones in over the years. Cartman dressed as Hitler, evil twins, Chef leading dancing zombies, a costume party in hell, a haunted Blockbuster Video, the horrifying face of Barbara Streisand – South Park delivered plenty of absurd Halloween shenanigans over the years. Sure, the episodes are never exactly scary, but Trey and Matt certainly made sure they were extra tasteless for the most morbid of holidays. After all, the duo did turn the genuinely horrifying trio of serial killers Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy into a Three Stooges for the 21st Century with additional gory murders and necrophilia. God bless Trey and Matt for that special holiday treat.

5) Psychoville Halloween Special

The British comedy troupe The League Of Gentlemen have never quite caught on in North America like they have in the UK, but for the best possible reason: the writer/performers mix comedy and horror until they become indistinguishable and that’s a tough sell for most folks. Pretty well any episode of The League Of Gentlemen or the follow up series Psychoville would make for fine Halloween watching, but Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton were kind enough to make a specific Halloween special for the holidays filled with even more murders and scares than the average episode. A filthy clown, a mother/son murder team, a psychotic housewife: these are just the heroes of the stories. They get even darker (and funnier) from there. The show was designed to stand alone, so if you’ve never heard of Psychoville or The League Of Gentlemen, this is a perfect place to start. There’s nothing quite like these bizarre British chaps’ mix of laughs and scares.

4) Buffy The Vampire Slayer (4 Halloween Episodes)

Joss Whedon made a number of Halloween specials during his time on Buffy. That just made sense in a horror/action/comedy designed for teens. All of them were fun, and some were downright hilarious (like the episode where the whole gang were transformed into their Halloween costumes for the night). However, the best one wasn’t even specifically set on Halloween. It’s “Hush”, a tale of deeply creepy floating demons who robbed the town of their voices and ate their victims’ hearts in the silence. It’s genuinely one of the most frightening episodes of any TV series and a great way to scare your pants off with a little 90s nostalgia during the creepiest of holidays.

3) Are You Afraid Of The Dark

Ok, so yes, there are a few specific Halloween themed episodes of the YTV horror classic and they are good ones too. However, this show gets high ranking because it technically started with a Halloween special. The pilot premiered on Halloween weekend with low expectations, but was such an instant hit with critics and terrified children of all ages that it went on to play for 10 years and 91 episodes. So technically, Are You Afraid Of The Dark is the most successful Halloween special of all time that actually spun off into a series, rather than the other way round. Not bad for a ragtag Canadian production that haunted the minds of impressionable 90s kids with lots of free nights to spend by the warm glow of their television.

2) The Simpsons (27 Halloween Episodes And Counting)

Yeah…well…obviously. No one does Halloween like The Simpsons. They’ve parodied pretty much every classic horror film and Twilight Zone episode at this point and are so desperate for new Halloween content every year that they even do stuff like Avatar parodies for reasons best known to themselves. Still, while it’s easy to mock The Simpsons for being a shadow of its former self, there’s no denying that the annual Treehouse Of Horror episodes delivered some of the best moments in the history of the series and introduced countless kids to horror movie conceits, concepts, and images long before they were ready to experience the real thing. What a wonderful bad influence this show was…they should still cancel it at this point…but still, what a run!

1) Ghostwatch

Yes, that’s right. There’s a Halloween TV special that ranks above The Simpsons. An absolute masterpiece that you likely haven’t seen. In the early 90s, the BBC decided to pull a big ol’ Halloween prank on the public. They aired a TV special that claimed to be about a TV crew investigating a haunted house and even hired popular TV personalities to play themselves to add to the illusion. This was long before Blair Witch and all the found footage horrors of recent years as well. So the public went nuts. People fell for the trick, countless complained, and legend has it that someone even committed suicide, convinced that the ghost would enter their home. Obviously Ghostwatch won’t have the same impact on viewers today and it gets a bit silly in the finale. However, there’s no denying that the show has aged remarkably well with nearly subliminal appearances of the ghost that still hit hard. Paranormal Activity stole quite a bit from Ghostwatch and quite frankly never topped it. Track this thing down this Halloween and see for yourself. It’s a sadly unheralded Halloween horror classic that deserves a fanbase outside of the UK.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole Preview: Uncivil War

South Park: The Fractured But Whole Preview: Uncivil War

South Park: The Stick of Truth, was my favorite game of 2014. At that point, I was a lapsed South Park TV show fan: for my tastes, the show had gone too far into the gutter, become too bloated with excessive pop culture references, and grown too invested in just offending everyone instead of providing solid parody.

Stick of Truth seemed to help the South Park brand find its satirical feet again. It also came at a time when videogames benefited from the injections of self-referential farce that South Park provides. That element hasn’t changed: videogames are still taking themselves far too seriously. In fact, most geeky properties in TV and film are also overdoing the grimdark. Superheroes have mutated from avatars of middle class hope to muscle-bound strongmen  who destroy entire cities and don’t even like each other. Help us, Eric Cartman!  You’re our only hope!
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Only South Park can have an obese white kid dressed as a character called The Coon and make it palatable. This is Eric Cartman’s superhero alter ego in the follow up, the pointedly named South Park: The Fractured But Whole.  I swear that the woman on the intercom at the Ubisoft party at E3 deliberately pronounced the title “The Fractured Butthole” to make sure everyone got the double entendre. The Fractured But Whole seems to be continuing the narrative device that worked so well in Stick of Truth: it’s a videogame adventure created by the biggest loser in the school.

This time , South Park is riffing on Civil War, Batman vs Superman, and all the other stupid pretenses out there for having good guys fight good guys – that’s why it’s fractured, but whole. It’s also skewering the multiphase superhero film universes that DC and Marvel are rolling out, and there’s a revolt in Cartman’s superhero ranks when the less marquee kid superheroes get tired of waiting for wave three of Cartman’s master franchise plan. They form their own opposing superhero team, and fights break out in the streets of South Park. In the middle of all this is the playable character, the New Kid, aka “King of the Douchebags”, from the first game. For those who didn’t play Stick of Truth, the douchebag thing was a riff on the workarounds fully-voiced RPGs use to refer to the main character by a title instead of the name the player chooses. Instead of “Grey Warden”, “Inquisitor”, or “Dragonborn”, South Park used “douchebag” as a title.

Of course, New Kid still has their preternatural fart powers. According to the internet, you can play as a female New Kid this time, and I can only imagine what Cartman will do with that. I will be choosing that option as gleefully as I selected the “Jew” playable class in Stick of Truth, because Cartman’s ignorance is something I find funny. Getting back to the fart powers, they can now be combined with the superpowers of other kids in both the exploration and combat elements of the game.

There were, of course, some jokes in the demo that will offend more than a few people. It’s South Park:that comes with the territory. The thing that makes the whole formula feel fun instead of stupid is how cleverly pre-existing characters are used in new ways. The behind-closed-doors preview showed certain characters, like Timmy and Craig, with more to do than they did in the first game, and this isn’t just change for the sake of change: their roles are played for big laughs. PC Principal even makes a brief appearance in the trailer.
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Ubisoft San Francisco is replacing Obsidian as the developer, and with that change comes a game that strives to have more thoughtfully designed gameplay. Though the combat of The Stick of Truth was humorous, it got repetitive in places, and Ubisoft has beefed up this gameplay mode by introducing a small grid to the battles that allows for strategic positioning and tactical combos. Fire Emblem Fates it ain’t, but there’s hope that there’s enough here this time around to keep the battles interesting once the novelty of the sight gags wear off.

Another improvement to the game is an increase in interactive humour. The concept itself made me laugh, because I never thought I’d see Ubisoft’s “gameplay first” philosophy applied to finding sex toys in Cartman’s Mom’s room and a crafting system involving poo. This element might be too much for more “cultured” gamers, but it’s South Park. In South Park you embrace the poo, the foul language, and the shock jokes as part of the landscape. South Park manages,  sometimes just barely, to rise above being offensive for the sake of offending by picking timely, relevant targets for mockery: in Stick of Truth, they were possibly the first people who didn’t get destroyed for suggesting that elements of Skyrim were incredibly stupid . Before that, suggesting that the game was anything less than perfect would get your face ripped off by angry nerds .

Beyond catharsis, the South Park games serve to remind game companies that humour sells. In a time when games seem to be racing to see who can be the most bleak, depressing, and fatalistic, South Park uses the exact same concepts – zombies, aliens, end-of-the-world scenarios, and prophesied heroes – in ways that pop the bubble of seriousness threatening to surround gaming. Not every game has to say something about the human condition to be worthwhile, and yet South Park manages its own sort of profound message by being very serious about taking absolutely nothing seriously. I have faith that Ubisoft will keep Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s comedy instincts on the right side of the line, and there were obvious signs in the theater preview that they certainly haven’t neutered their dialogue in the process.

What I’m looking for from the complete game is precisely that sense of balance. I want moments where I’m legitimately shocked, but for some sort of purpose. I also hope that it’s another experience that ties seemingly random components together at the end. Finally, I hope that this franchise hasn’t allowed being ludicrously censored in various parts of the world to define its identity. That is, I hope that it doesn’t try to get censored again by being deliberately offensive, but I don’t want to see it cowed into trying to actively avoid censorship either. Sometimes a little offense is healthy. It makes us question our assumptions and verify our beliefs.  Ubisoft and South Park seem like the oddest couple in gaming, but it seems to still be working.

New Information Revealed About South Park: The Fractured but Whole

New Information Revealed About South Park: The Fractured but Whole

Popping up at this year’s Ubisoft panel was South Park: The Fractured but Whole, the sequel to the widely successful The Stick of Truth.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park creators, took the stage to tell us what we can expect. In this iteration, the gang is back to together to roleplay as superheroes. Cartman leads the ragtag group as his alter ego The Coon.

The combat system has been improved since the first game, which featured a turn-based style. This time around, a tactical positioning system and environmental factors will play a role.

Anyone who pre-purchases The Fractured but Whole starting today will receive The Stick of Truth for free.

It will be released on December 6, 2016.

Pixels & Ink #137 – GOTY

Pixels & Ink #137 - GOTY

On this week’s Pixels & Ink podcast, it’s the look back at 2014 to see which game ends up being the CGM game of the year. We shake things up a bit with some new categories, a new face, and a round table discussion of which games were the ones that stuck with us. You might be surprised to hear about which game emerges as our winner.

Top Five Videogame Related South Park Episodes

Top Five Videogame Related South Park Episodes

South Park has always been on point when it comes to satirizing, or directly confronting, social, cultural and political issues the creators have beef with. From Kanye West being an egotistical jerk to the infamous depiction (or lack thereof) of the prophet Muhammad, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are not afraid to blast a topic they find appealing. When it comes to videogames and gaming culture, it’s clear that if not fans of the culture or gamers themselves, they’re intimately familiar with what makes gamers angry or excited. In this article CGM takes a look at some of South Park’s finest episodes lambasting the gaming industry, and gamers themselves.

Chinpokomon

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Back in the mid-90s, when South Park was fresh on the scene, a little known Japanese company called Nintendo unleashed the cultural monster known as Pokemon on the public. Up until this point, South Park hadn’t yet settled into the role of being the critical satirizer of current events we know it as now. The show was still about 3

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graders and their misadventures, and when Pokemon grabbed hold of the world’s youth, it made perfect sense to assume that in the world of South Park, a similar phenomenon would likely happen as well. The writers use the cartoonishly evil and sagacious Japanese to underline the inherent scum and greediness of companies that market directly to children.

Make Love, Not Warcraft

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Arguably the most famous of South Park’s videogame parodies, this episode finds the boys addicted to Blizzard’s crazy popular MMO World of Warcraft. In order to combat a super powerful and high level character that’s running around killing everyone, the boys decide to hide out for a few weeks and farm nonstop until they’re strong enough to fight him. This episode really solidified the stereotype of the “neckbearded basement-dweller”, and the scene where Cartman’s mother… assists him with bathroom duties will make the strongest stomach gag. What’s awesome about this episode is the titular item, the Sword of a Thousand Truths, eventually inspired the title of the very real South Park RPG, the Stick of Truth.

Go God Go

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While videogames aren’t necessarily the central theme of this two-parter, they feature as a prominent plot device. Like many children (and let’s face it, adults) the agonizing wait for a new console launch becomes so difficult for Cartman that he decides it would be preferable to just freeze himself until the Nintendo Wii becomes available. Unfortunately for him, he ends remaining frozen for quite some time. He awakens in the future in the midst of a war between rival atheistic factions, yet his resolve to get his hands on a Wii remains firm. That is until he discovers nobody in the future actually cares about videogames and his best hope is to find an ancient Wii in a museum. We’ve all been in his position before, and given the option I’m sure many of us would choose to enter suspended animation rather than suffer through weeks or months of hype and anticipation waiting for a new console or game.

Guitar Queer-O

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Ahh, Guitar Hero. If ever you wanted to hear a musician speak about something in the most condescending manner, ask them how they feel about this game. Trey and Matt latched onto this vibe as well, and this episode shows how they and other artists really felt about the super popular (at the time) rhythm game and the music industry. Record deals, addiction, band break ups, fame, this episode covers it all; especially so when Stan finally discovers what happens when you “beat” the game, and realizes the entire journey has been a waste of time. Not as relevant to younger gamers who don’t remember the massive trend Guitar Hero started several years ago, but anybody who ever went to a bar that featured a faded and ripped projection screen with a PlayStation 2 hooked up to it will understand and flex an appropriate cringe.

Freemium isn’t Free

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This episode spoke to me. I HATE mobile gaming and the entire idea of F2P games. It’s insidious, sleazy, and totally makes sense from a business perspective. Hook people with a simple, yet addictive base game, then charge them tiny fees to continue playing, get more in game currency or some kind of stupid hat (looking at you Team Fortress) This disgusting practice works especially well with children and older people, and that makes it even more awful. Stan becomes addicted to a mobile game that revolves around Terrence and Philip, the vulgar Canadian celebrities the children in South Park love so much. At the end of the episode we find out that the Canadian Devil Beelzeboot was behind the whole thing, and the real Satan even sits down with Stan to explain the science and chemistry behind addiction. Another feather in the cap for the writers of the show, and even more proof to add to the gigantic pile that shows just how tuned in Trey Parker and Matt Stone are to the ills of modern society.

Playing a Joke: A Look at the Difficulties of Creating Interactive Comedy

Playing a Joke: A Look at the Difficulties of Creating Interactive Comedy

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of CGM.  A copy of the full issue can be purchased via our webstore or a digital copy through Pocket Mags or the Apple App Store.

 

Being funny isn’t easy. For every comic genius who succeeds in the worlds of film, television, or stand-up, there are countless others who try, and fail, to make audiences laugh. Comedy is a multi-faceted art and, even though someone may be absolutely hilarious in casual conversation, there’s no guarantee that they possess all the other traits necessary to entertain a crowded club or cinema audience. It’s not enough just to have a few good jokes. A master comic is someone who is capable of controlling their environment, whether this means commanding a room or being able to react quickly to unexpected changes to a conversation or situation. The best comedies are also created with complete authorial intent at their foundation. Scripts are penned with cues as to how and when the actors should move or deliver lines; cinematography is used to frame each moment the right way; directors and editors exercise control over how and when the jokes are presented to the audience in order to maximize their effect. These factors make all the difference between a good and bad comedy—basically, something that does or does not make people laugh.  

Considering all of this, it isn’t too surprising that there are so few truly funny videogames. Successful humour hangs so much on the elements of timing and authorial control that making a comedy interactive is extremely difficult by its very nature. Just the same, game development is constantly evolving and there is no lack of talented artists experimenting with genre and style. Some—not many, but some—videogames have been funny before, after all. By taking notice of what has and hasn’t worked in the past it’s possible to imagine a future where the genre multiplies and comedy finds a comfortable place as an important part of the medium.

Day of the Tentacle

It’s impossible to talk about humour in videogames without mentioning the work of Tim Schafer, first as a writer/designer at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts and later with Double Fine Productions. Schafer, in a medium almost completely devoid of outstanding comedy titles, looms large. The influence of the “point and click” adventure games he was instrumental in creating—The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango—are cornerstones of videogame humour. This is because Schafer, with his immense talent for characterization and witty dialogue, has shown that videogames are capable of being just as funny as any other medium. The creativity and intelligence in Schafer’s early work has made the LucasArts games he wrote and designed (often in collaboration with Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman) modern classics—they firmly established comedy as a viable genre for the medium to explore.

Part of Schafer and LucasArts’ success is due to the fact that the adventure game is well suited for comedy. Puzzles and conversation paths are metered, progress through them gated by logistical processes that give the player little room for true mechanical freedom (and all of the potentially joke-ruining messiness that too much freedom entails). The adventure writer can construct “living” jokes that, though interactive, are tightly controlled. The founding of Double Fine Productions—and the subsequent release of games like the wonderfully surreal Psychonauts and fantastical metal send-up Brütal Legend—showed that Schafer was capable of transitioning to other game genres without losing his ability to write hilarious titles. The adventure genre has seen many of the most successful comedies to date, but the cornerstones of Schafer’s humour writing—slapstick, quick visual gags, and sharp dialogue—work well in other game types. Despite this, from the early 2000s onward, comedy games began taking a backseat to more serious fare. Notable exceptions like  Valve’s Portal games and Volition’s Saints Row series stand out among a flood of releases concerned more with providing audiences with blood-soaked action than belly laughs. Even the light-hearted tone typically found in all-ages action games like Sucker Punch Productions’ Sly Cooper and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot has found itself relegated to a niche.

Why is this?

Videogames’ ongoing acceptance into the pop culture mainstream may be responsible for the enormous growth in self-serious narratives and the dearth of light-hearted ones. This is, in a lot of senses, only natural. Games have long been derided as a pastime for either children or emotionally stunted adults. Developers wishing to advance games as a more nuanced form of expression have therefore had to show that it is possible for interactive entertainment to have real artistic merit. As a by-product of these advancements, though, a “serious” studio is more likely to attempt a tone of dramatic gravitas than humour with their games. And as if this wasn’t enough of a problem, there’s also the fact that audiences will be far quicker to bag on lousy humour, with its tendency toward either being pretty annoying or downright offensive, than they will to enthusiastically grouse at the details of a badly told drama. It is, after all, a lot less complicated to write the easy beats of a doomed squad of Spartan heroes than it is to craft the off-hand quips of Nathan Drake. Combine the difficulty of humour writing with the desire for videogames to achieve their artistic potential, and the result is clear. The race to legitimacy has had a remarkably positive impact on games, showing that they can be just as socially and emotionally important as any other form of media. It may also be responsible for a lull in comedic titles, too.

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Alpha Protocol

For the last several years it seemed like anyone looking for funny games would have to be satisfied with offbeat indies or the occasional mainstream title. Then, Obsidian Entertainment—a team best known for the narrative driven Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas, and (as Black Isle Studios) Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2— released South Park: The Stick of Truth. In a partnership with South Park Digital Studios, Obsidian, a developer with a proven track record of creating quirkily written role-playing games, has continued its company tradition in collaboration with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The resulting game captures, for better or worse, the spirit of the long-running animated TV show. The same (mostly high) calibre of joke writing is in place; the same iconic voice acting is present; the same audiences who like South Park‘s style of humour now have a videogame that distils it through an interactive medium. The Stick of Truth, when looked at in this way, is a pretty big accomplishment. South Park is a cultural institution in North America because it is a series that has managed to make people laugh for nearly 20 years of shows, without any really sustained dip in quality during its run. In the past, videogame adaptations of successful TV shows have led to either flat-out bad games or fun experiences that failed to offer the same kind of laughs as the material they were based on. The Stick of Truth is different, though. Not only does it feature all the aesthetic trappings of the show (the recreation of South Park‘s lo-fi construction paper animation is, I think, a key part of what makes the humour work), but the decision to develop the game as a fairly traditional RPG enhances its tone. Parker and Stone’s love of absurdity and gross-out jokes (which, admittedly, cross the line into socially irresponsible territory a few times throughout the game) are accentuated through the genre’s reliance on turn-based battle commands and an item inventory packed with text descriptions. Giving Butters, the tormented sweetheart of the group, a healing move where he rubs the player character’s back is a funny spin on familiar RPG tropes. Making the junk picked up from defeated enemies objects that reference the show’s extensive fiction makes buying and selling equipment an opportunity for a throwaway gag. This kind of design just goes to show that RPGs are a lot like adventure games in that they offer a lot of chances to craft funny dialogue and control the timing of jokes with mechanical restrictions. The Stick of Truth makes excellent use of these stylistic conventions to metre out the jokes and direct the pacing of its humour, even in an interactive medium. The game’s success may be partially attributed to the financial resources made available to the creators of a popular TV show, but Obsidian and the South Park team’s smart design choices can’t be discounted either.

South Park: The Stick of Truth

It’s this same type of understanding of how comedy and interactivity best intersect that has led to another of 2014’s funniest titles, Necrophone Games’ surrealist Jazzpunk. As if in response to the legacy of Tim Schafer’s classic work, Jazzpunk uses the adventure game genre as a template for what amounts to two hours of rapid-fire gags. The player explores a series of open environments, full of bizarre characters who each act as a treasure chest of flippant one-liners. The game works because its jokes are quick and, for the most part, self-contained. Instead of presenting material that could easily be tampered with via poor timing on the player’s part, Jazzpunk takes a Rodney Dangerfield approach to comedy. Every joke explains itself. From the hilarious non-sequiturs spoken by each level’s non-playable characters to the slapstick exaggeration of enemy agents barrelling down a hill after being whacked with a fly swatter, the pace is tightly controlled in a way that seems to solve the problem of bringing interactive comedy to the more open environments prevalent in modern games. Considering just how hilarious the experience is, it seems quite likely that this approach to humour represents the future of interactive comedy. Without the benefit of a recognizable cast of characters, pre-existing fan base, or the deep pockets of a major publisher, Jazzpunk manages to provide just as many laughs as The Stick of Truth. That it does this with an entirely original premise demonstrates that there is more potential to be mined from the genre by savvy developers with a knack for humour and the ability to explore how it can best be employed in an interactive context.

The basic problem remains, however, that the kind of comedy that works well in videogames isn’t easy to market. Even as the medium and its audience continues to evolve at a rapid pace, many developers will continue pursuing the dramatic potential of games while publishers fund action-centric “summer blockbuster” titles that appeal to the most buyers possible. Trailers showing thrilling chases, gunplay, and explosions will still be easier to show off at press conferences than ones that make us laugh. Like most topics and genres currently underserved in videogames, comedy is likely to gain a greater foothold in the years to come due to the efforts of independent developers. Those with the liberty to create outside of the pressures that come from the traditional publishing model and its stifling market demands will always seek out areas of the medium that haven’t been fully explored. Comedy, with its history of underrepresentation, is definitely one of them. Barring the occasional mainstream success like South Park: The Stick of Truth, the best humour games are likely to be found outside of the bigger development studio’s catalogues. Whatever the result, the rise of comedy games is inevitable. Everyone loves to laugh and there are always talented comics who understand how best to make that happen. As more of them find a voice in videogames, the genre has a shot at achieving just as much prominence as any other.
                                                                                                                            

  Get the full April 2014 issue of CGM:

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South Park & Batman Are Doing It Right

South Park & Batman Are Doing It Right

This week, we got hit with two very pleasant surprises. The new South Park game doesn’t suck, and the new Batman game—which is being done by Rocksteady, so odds are good it also won’t suck—has been formally announced for the PS4 and Xbox One. The thing that these two games have in common is that they belong to that most rare of clubs, the “We are a licensed property converted into a game that doesn’t suck” club. There are only a few other members, notably some Telltale adventures like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and, from Europe, The Witcher series, which some may not realize is actually based on a fantasy novel franchise from Poland.

The crazy thing is even though both Batman and the kids of the South Park are a hit now, they also have skeletons in their closet. There’s a pile of bad games that goes back over the decades from both intellectual properties. It’s only in recent years that IPs have been successfully turned into good games, and even then, that’s still the exception, not the rule. It seems like there’s some magic ingredient or secret martial arts technique required that only Dojo Masters Of Gaming are privy to, but in actuality, the reason some licensed games now succeed is very simple. In one way or another, the most successful licensed games all have decision makers that care a great deal about the property.

South Park: Stick of Truth
South Park: Stick of Truth

In the case of South Park: The Stick Of Truth, this was taken to an extreme as the creators of the show, Trey Stone and Matt Parker, not only lent their voices to the development of the game, they had a hand in just about every aspect, from writing to design. The reason the game feels so much like being in the town of South Park was because the creators relentlessly participated in the creative process. With the newest Batman games, the team at Rocksteady—while not having Bob Kane on board to advise in all Bat-Things—were committed fans of Batman that weren’t content to make a brawler about a guy dressed up like a bat. They took the time to study the legacy of Batman, understand what it was that was so compelling about the character from an action point of view—like his strategic reliance of fear and gadgets—and turned that into gameplay. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Batman, on a street, punching waves of bad guys, it was Batman in the rafters dragging people kicking and screaming into the air, then leaving their unconscious bodies dangling for other henchman to see.

The other critical element is time. The very best games are given the time they need to experiment, evolve and polish themselves up to be finished products. The average movie-based game has a far shorter development time than a high profile, AAA title, and that short sightedness hurts the game’s overall quality. Look no further than the tedious Iron Man and Superman Returns games to see what happens when publishers force a studio to crank out a game with an ironclad deadline of “Must coincide with the release of the movie.”

Iron Man
Iron Man

It’s a tricky path to walk for licensed games because often the games themselves are an afterthought. That’s a natural stance to take since the core property is the most important thing. After all, would people care so much about the Game of Thrones series if it weren’t so good? The creators of the show (and novel) need to worry about those things FIRST, not the subsequent games that might arise. James Cameron is too busy making an Avatar sequel to get in the trenches with the Ubisoft developers to make the game. And yet at the same time, as Star Wars proved, good merchandise can take on a life of its own. Back in the 70s, there were a lot of kids that went into the theaters to watch Star Wars for the first time BECAUSE they got the action figures, not the other way around. In the same way, Telltale’s The Walking Dead game is bringing new fans to the comic book, and even The Wolf Among Us is introducing a whole new audience to distinct charms of Bill Willingham’s Fables series.

If there’s anything we can learn from the success of games like The Stick of Truth and the upcoming Arkham Knight it’s that good licensed games are hard to make. But when they succeed, they don’t just engage gamers, they often encourage those gamers—if they haven’t already—to explore the franchise or property they were based on.

South Park: The Stick Of Truth (Xbox 360) Review

South Park: The Stick Of Truth (Xbox 360) Review

Many people (myself included) tend to be hard on licensed games. There’s good reason: most are garbage thanks to rushed production deadlines and indifferent developers whose interest in the licensed franchise doesn’t extend beyond the number of zeroes in the cheque they cashed. However, during last gaming generation the tide turned slightly. While most licensed games remain useless, a few genuinely great ones popped up like Ghostbusters and Arkham Asylum/City. The reason? Developers taking their time and hiring creators of the source material to help write and supervise the adaptation.

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All of which brings us to South Park: The Stick Of Truth, a game that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have worked on for four years in an attempt to extend their satire/fart joke driven multimedia empire and also make up for all the horrible South Park games their fans have endured since the N64. This sucker was delayed endlessly so that the duo could retain artistic control while also cranking out seasons of South Park and a ridiculously successful stage musical simultaneously. The game has been a long time coming and the hype machine has been on overdrive. Well, it’s finally here and the result? Easily the funniest video game ever made. You might not agree with the genre Trey and Matt chose to slap South Park onto, but you’ll probably be laughing too hard to care.

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Now, it is of course also a game. So gameplay matters as much as laughs and accurate animation. Weirdly, Parker and Stone opted to create a turn-based RPG, and this certainly is one with all the leveling up and strategy that implies. Some casual gamers interested only in the South Park-ness of it all will inevitably be disappointed by this choice and to them I extend a second “good day.” Yes, the patient gaming skills of the RPG genre and the ADD immature humor of South Park might seem like an awkward mix on paper, but in practice, it’s kind of ingenious. There are a couple of reasons why. For one, the low-fi animation style of South Park isn’t really suited to action games, shooters, or anything with three dimensions. So that limits things. More importantly, RPGs are naturally story-driven and filled with cut scenes, allowing the South Park guys to play to their strengths.

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* * *

South Park: The Stick Of Truth isn’t a title that reinvents the possibilities of the RPG genre by any stretch of the imagination. Broken down to gaming formula, it’s conventional. However, as a bit of licensed gaming, it feels downright groundbreaking. This is a full on South Park experience that wraps everything that’s fun about the show into a single game and actually plays perfectly well. This is what every 90s kid dreamed they would get when they bought Chef’s Luv Shack. Never before has a game based on a comedy franchise actually been as hilarious as the source material and we can thank Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s years of dedication to the project for that. More than that, never before has a game designed to be funny not only packed this many laughs, but also broken so many taboos in the process (no, Leisure Suit Larry never went this far). It’s a ballsy game (at times, all too literally) and one that had me desperately playing to the next mission just to see what new hilarity was on the way. It’s unlikely that any other comedians or show runners will ever dedicate this much time to getting a game this right in the future, but it’s wonderful to know that it’s possible. Trey and Matt managed to conquer yet another medium, you guys. Let’s hope they’re not done with gaming. It would be nice to have to put down my controller to clutch my gut from laughing too hard again someday.

For Phil’s full review of South Park: The Stick of Truth, check out the March/April issue of CGMagazine.