Tuesday 11 March 2014

South Park: the end of an era

Stick of Truth: Flogging a dead horse

Something new for this blog, and something which I shall do very rarely.  A game review!  It probably comes as little surprise to you that I am a massive South Park fan.  It was a revolutionary series that was unashamedly conservative in a massively politically correct era.  As usual I was a latecomer to the party.  I think the show had peaked by the time I had taken an interest in it.  As a general rule of thumb, the fad is over if I take an interest.  The Wire had been over for years before I saw a single episode, and I think I was the last person in the world to join the smart-phone revolution.

At the height of South Park, I was living in extreme, self-inflicted poverty as a techno DJ, in a scene which is broadly left-wing, and about as hippy as hippy gets.  Therefore, when it came to politics, I often kept my mouth shut so as not to make myself a social pariah.  When I finally did get off the fence by making a strident defence of the BNP's right to free speech, I very soon found the gigs dried up and my name was mud.  For the record, I have never voted for the BNP, nor have I expressed any sympathy for their worldview, but freedom of speech and association have always been rights I have strongly defended.

When a friend gave me a pirate DVD of a few South Park episodes I couldn't peel myself off the floor.  Here was a mainstream TV show lampooning everything from hate crime laws to global warming and environmentalism.  At the time it could not have been more anti-establishment and Stone and Parker's reluctance to court the darlings of Hollywood made them heroes in my book.  All of a sudden, cool people were saying what I had been thinking all those years - and it was seemingly very popular.  What I couldn't say on an internet forum without being blocked and banned could be said by an anti-semitic, foul-mouthed eight year old psychopath - and be loved for it.

I believe South Park marked the beginning of the unravelling of political correctness in television.  There was a time when British comedy lead the field but as left-wing comedic dissent of the 80's gradually became the establishment narrative of the BBC, it lost its edge and it has never really recovered. Because South Park has now made conservatism the anti-establishment voice, the BBC looks wildly out of touch and its comedy output seems timid and conformist.  And it is now so insecure it cannot possibly allow even licensed dissent in the form of a token conservative comedian.

South Park was fearless and irrepressible, and it was an inspiration to me to be bolder with my thoughts and words.  But to all things there is a time.  As the writers aged, the vitality of the show waned and they had covered pretty much all the political bases.  It has not been outrageously funny for a long time.  At best it has been mildly amusing, and only worth paying attention to because the evolution of the technology, which the writers themselves have been driving, is fascinating to those with an interest in digital arts.  Even recently, while the show lacks consistency, every season still has the odd masterpiece. 

It is quite obvious by now that they have toned down the show for broader appeal in order to cash in.  And why shouldn't they?  They have said all they needed to say, shaped the debate, changed minds, and now, they're making a fat pile of cash out of it.  I would too.  That said, I have never been one for spin-off merchandise.  I find it perfectly possible to like a film or TV show without having to buy the accompanying mug and baseball cap.  Spin-off computer games have always been especially lacklustre.  But in this instance I was prepared to make an exception.  South Park Studios have just released South Park: Stick of Truth for X-Box 360.

I never in a million years expected to own a games console as an adult, but I bought one for the express purpose of Grand Theft Auto 5.  It is a masterpiece of a game with astonishing attention to detail, a fantastic plot, hilarious and likeable characters and unparalleled game-play.  It is the ultimate game for non-gamers.  It re-writes the book on computer games.

This presented something of a problem for me, since I was determined to get my moneys worth out of the X-Box once I completed GTA5 by buying other games.  Believe it or not, slaughtering policemen by the dozen gets old after three months or so.  But no game was ever going to impress me after that experience.  I dislike the whole concept of gaming and have never really felt an affinity for the medium, but without hesitation, I would call GTA5 the media experience of the decade.  Worth taking a week off work for. 

South Park: Stick of Truth didn't have a hope in hell of impressing me after that.  All it could do was to try and live up to the South Park legacy of cutting humour and immense silliness.  I could not be more disappointed.

The reason I made the exception to buy a spin-off product was because I came upon a Youtube interview with Parker and Stone describing their previous game releases created on licence by other software houses.  They described a deep disappointment with the end product - and felt a little ashamed to put their name to it. In the wake of those artistic failures they developed this game in-house, using their own software in the actual South Park production environment. On that basis I was prepared to give it a shot.

As much as the joke of South Park is in the crappy animation, it is the timing of the jokes and the dialogue that give it the unique appeal it has.  Even with the best intentions I don't think that translates well to the gaming environment.  This is especially evident in Stick of Truth.  It's just not funny.  That would be forgiveable to an extent were the game-play engaging and the dialogue at least marginally entertaining.  But it isn't.

The game-play itself is tedious.  I do not like games that make me wait.  The menus are incomprehensible, the controls are puzzling to say the least, and the dialogue is flat.  The main charachter appears not to say anything at all.  I didn't get far with this game because very early on, you get trapped on a street with no clues as to where to go next, and the entertainment value is insufficient to spend half an hour trying to solve the puzzle of how to progress.  The scenery is full of clichés and hat-tips to past glories, and nothing about the game even elicits a wry smile.  Even Cartman in his role as in-game master of ceremonies is hackeyed and bland.

In short, if you are a South Park fan, do not buy this game.  If you are a gaming fan, do not buy this game.  This is an absolute stinker, I am sad to say.  The only solace I take from this is that, of the £35 I spent on it, at least some of my money will finally end up with Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  I'm fine with that since I only ever downloaded South Park episodes off Pirate Bay.  It is right that they should have some of my money in thanks for all the belly laughs.  But I think it is time to stop beating this particular dead horse.  Enough is enough.

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