South Park: The Stick of Truth was the darling on every major website/blog’s game of the year list of 2014 and deservingly so, as no other game released that year had such a turbulent road to launch and still managed to not only be good, but great. In development from 2009 to 2014, South Park: The Stick of Truth faced a series of hurdles: it was a licensed game based on an animated TV show, its release date was postponed several times, its publisher changed after the bankruptcy of THQ, the original publisher, and several members of the development team were laid off. Despite such deterrents that usually cripple a game during development, Matt Stone and Trey Parker not only delivered the best South Park game ever, they might have made the best licensed video game of all time. Here are three things that RPG developers should learn and implement in their own games.
- A multi-media license is a gift, not a curse
As long as there are videogames, there will be licensed tie-ins and they will be bad — the I can’t-believe-they-shipped-this kind of bad. This business practice has been around since the beginning of gaming, as far back as the early 70s (that’s already 44 years ago!), and will continue to thrive until it stops turning a profit. Because licensed videogames are normally seen as a low-risk investment that sell on the strength of their brand, they’re usually cobbled together by inexpensive and inexperienced developers at a breakneck pace to simultaneously ship alongside their respective intellectual property.
This doesn’t always have to be case and sometimes it’s not; in a rare occurrence when a talented group of developers are assembled by a publisher who cares about the source material, we often get a great product, as was the case with The Stick of Truth. In a perfect world, licensed videogames should always turn out well because of the obvious benefits they provide the developers. Regardless of the license, there’s a wealth of lore, storylines, and characters to work with — a glaring weaknesses that riddle most games, especially RPGs. Working in universes that have already been established and built up for years or decades even depending on the I.P, allows the developers to focus on gameplay mechanics such as battle systems and world building.
It’s worth noting that The Stick of Truth was a special case; after a handful of terribleSouth Park games released for well over a decade, Matt and Trey took the initiative to make the definitive South Park videogame. Gaming since childhood, Matt and Trey were huge fans of the RPG genre — notably, Trey,who was a fan of Fallout: New Vegas, was especially familiar with the work of Obsidian — so when the decision came to push forward with the project, Obsidian was an obvious choice. Interestingly, the pair remained heavily involved with the development of The Stick of Truth, working very closely with Obsidian up until two weeks before shipment.
Matt and Trey imposed a standard of quality that developers don’t usually have to abide when working on licensed games. After all, they were the ones spear heading this project, and the first order of business was to establish the look of the show. “It feels like you’re playing the show,” is a common compliment thrown towards The Stick of Truth and it’s not a hyperbole — it’s virtually indistinguishable from the show. The script, which was also written by Matt and Trey, touches back on a ton of classic South Park moments and references almost all the characters that appeared in the series. But more importantly, it feels like something new, and not a greatest hits episode of South Park.
As more games head toward the Elder Scrolls route by providing expansive worlds that can be tackled in a non-linear fashion, they’re also getting more bloated and less focused. Open worlds are excellent tools for providing the freedom to create your own stories, but more often than not, they’re not handled with enough care, resulting in dull quests in barren worlds populated with by a limited number of shallow NPCs. The alternative isn’t better either; sometimes open world games are so obnoxiously littered with collectibles, activities, and side quests, that just deciding on where to begin feels nauseating. Ubisoft is by far the biggest offender of this practice, entering parody territory with their newestAssassin’s Creed title— the map is covered with so many icons that it’s nearly impossible to make out anything.
South Park: The Stick of Truth avoids these pitfalls by achieving a delicate balance between both types of open worlds, achieving the perfect content-to-size ratio. At first, I was a little disappointed with how small the town of South Park actually was, but the further I ventured into the story, the more it became apparent how much care each area has been crafted with, making them all unique and full of personality. Rarely will you find a recycled NPC or enemy or an interior that you’ve seen before. What the town lacks in scale, it makes up for in the amount of extended nooks and crannies that aren’t in plain view.
While The Stick of Truth is an open-world game, it isn’t a very long one — even when taking the side-quests into consideration. But in this case, the condensed length helps the game more than hurts it, never stalling with dull moments or stretching itself out with filler quests. I can’t recall one time where I felt the story lost steam or I was doing a side quest just to pad out time. As I noted before, having a high quality license that’s rich in content can greatly benefit RPGs. Of all the games I’ve played in the last few years, none have been as memorable as The Stick of Truth.
I’ll admit, I’ve succumb to something of RPG fatigue lately and it has less to do with the games themselves and more with their settings. Medieval fantasy with minor tweaks, and I mean minor, has become synonymous with the RPG genre. Humans, orcs, and elves; swords, shields, and bows; wizards, knights, and thieves; mountain ranges, swamps, and forests; it’s unbearably redundant at this point. If a game doesn’t take place in a medieval fantasy setting, then it’s a Sci-Fi setting with the tropes and clichés specific to that setting. RPG’s origins are generally rooted in tabletop gaming, so it’s rational that they fall back on time-tested tropes and clichés, but now they’ve permeated Japanese role playing games as well, severely limiting creativity in the genre.
It’s a shame, as no other videogame genre has the capability to use setting to its advantage like an RPG. You could argue that the universe an RPG takes place in is more effective in telling a story than the actual plot and you wouldn’t be wrong; the world is a main character in itself. Games such as, Planescape: Torment, Earthbound, the Falloutseries, Skies of Arcadia, and Final Fantasy VII, are all games that have deviated from medieval fantasy, that when combined with good writing, have become some of the more memorable and critically games in the genre.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is oddly self-referential and satirical, as it enacts a medieval fantasy by characters LARPing (live action roleplaying, if you will) in a contemporary setting. It works both as a self-contained story and as commentary/satire on the RPG genre. It’s refreshing to see Matt and Trey’s — often ridiculous— take on the typical heroes, villain, NPC, and enemy archetypes; every single RPG trope is shot and killed, fed into a meat grinder, and fed to its kids. And let’s be honest, this is long overdue.
While Cartman, Stan, Kyle, and Kenny are fictitiously fighting over the fate of the world,The Stick of Truth never loses the tone it creates from the beginning. You’re always the new kid in town trying to make new friends, and every NPC interaction and situation reflects this sentiment. A lot of the charm comes from this relatable everyman point of view that’s heavily inspired by Earthbound. For once, it’s nice to not be the chosen onetasked with saving the world from the ultimate evil, and focus on more important quests like finding Jesus in a hide-n-seek game.