This article contains mild spoilers for South Park: The Stick of Truth.
You don’t see Canada much in videogames. Even though many of the industry’s most prominent developers are based in our nation, their work is rarely set in Canada itself. Major studios like Ubisoft Montreal, BioWare, Rockstar Toronto, Eidos Montreal, and Relic Entertainment have created some of the biggest games to date, but only very, very rarely embrace their Canadian identity. For the most part, games like Mass Effect, Tomb Raider, and Assassin’s Creed take place outside of our country, aside from a few location cameos and dialogue options. The reason for this is pretty obvious: big-budget videogames need to target the widest possible audience in order to recoup on publisher investments. Canada—as much as those of us who live here like to imagine otherwise—just isn’t all that interesting of a setting to international game players.
Canadians are used to this. Films from our nation’s writers, directors, and actors are routinely set in the United States. This has gone on for long enough that it’s become self perpetuating. A “legitimate” TV show shot in Toronto, starring Canadian actors, has a better shot at breaking into international markets if it either pretends to be set in a different city or obscures its place of origin. (Look no further than popular sci-fi series Orphan Black for a recent example of this). It isn’t that we, as a nation, are ashamed of our home, just that we seem to be afraid to explore Canada as a setting when mainstream success is at stake. Sure, Canadian developers may put a little Montreal level into something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or place Mass Effect 3‘s introduction in a futuristic Vancouver, but putting too much emphasis on these locations isn’t common.
It’s surprising, then, that one of the most prominent uses of Canada as a setting in recent mainstream videogames comes from the American-developed South Park: The Stick of Truth. That the writers and programmers behind it are associated with South Park—a TV show noted for its skewering of United States popular culture and politics—makes it even less expected. Regular South Park watchers will know that Canada has been lampooned by the program before. It features characters like Ike, Kyle’s adopted baby brother, who is secretly Canadian and has the same football-shaped head as the boy’s favourite comedy actors, Canada’s fart-obsessed Terrance and Phillip. Episodes of the show have also satirized how our nation continues to maintain “old-fashioned” British traditions, depicting our “Prince and Princess of Canada.” The Stick of Truth continues with this joke by making South Park‘s version of Canada a remote series of kingdoms and drawbridges. Presented in a retro, 8-bit visual style, the characters travel to “villages” like Ottawa and Vancouver, interacting with fictitious heads of state such as the Bishop of Banff and the Earl of Winnipeg. They delve into the Caverns of Quebec, fighting giant bears, and rescue the Minister of Montreal while a chiptune rendition of “O, Canada” plays in the background.
Far from being offensive, the Canada section of The Stick of Truth is actually really funny for the simple reason than that it provides us with a videogame representation of our country, even if it is an intentionally misguided one. South Park writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone are often offensive, but they’re definitely not stupid. The references they make to Canadian stereotypes are meant to make fun of the ideas that the most uninformed American could hold. They exaggerate the cultural differences between our nations to create a joke from how minor these distinctions actually are. The Stick of Truth turns our governmental ties to the United Kingdom into feudal titles, our universal health care system into clinics with free cures for AIDS—it’s good-natured comedy that shows an understanding of our country while also making Canadian players feel included. And, for many of us, just being acknowledged in mainstream entertainment provides a great sense of validation. It would be great to see more Canadian developed videogames taking a look at our national identity from an insider’s perspective, but, while we wait for that to happen, South Park‘s take on Canada is better than nothing.