It’s kind of amazing that, 21 seasons in, South Park is still worth watching. Even if it’s not brilliant every week, the storytelling capabilities of creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have gotten better with time, not worse. Much of that can be credited to the show’s immediacy, which has always been one of its key strengths. Each new episode can respond to the world around it in nearly real-time, including entire plotlines sprung from one negative article written the previous week.
New efforts at serialization helped keep the show relevant in the past few years, beginning – coincidentally or not –the season after the release of the last South Park video game. The Stick of Truth, a fantasy role-playing game (RPG) released in early 2014, is still arguably one of the best licensed games, well, ever, and many of the lessons learned in that game’s development have translated to the newest South Park release, The Fractured But Whole, which hits store shelves Tuesday. Despite initially vowing never to do a sequel, Stone and Parker announced one a year later, saying, “Right at the end of Stick of Truth, we kinda learned how to make video games, and it was kinda too late. And we were like, ‘Well fuck, now we know how to make a good video game… Fuck it, let’s do another one.’”
But video games occupy an odd space in the South Park canon, since they have production cycles akin to those of studio films and cannot respond to breaking news events. The games’ narratives need to be comparatively evergreen but with social satire that has bite. Oftentimes, the jokes will still be relevant. Other times, a character gets stuck with fidget spinners.
The Fractured But Whole is a superhero story. Since the Season 13 episode “The Coon,” named for Eric Cartman’s hero persona, the kids of South Park have adopted super-powered alter-egos. But their group has split into factions – a “Civil War,” if you will – established in a prequel TV episode aired a week before the game’s release. The characters want to establish a cinematic universe, and they have a slate of films and Netflix series already mapped out in phases on a big chalkboard. Chaos ensues, and by the end, there are two opposing groups: Coon and Friends and the Super Pals. Cue video game.
But that progression doesn’t feel inevitable the way it did for The Stick of Truth. Tied in with an epic, Game of Thrones-themed trilogy of episodes back in Season 17 (versus just the one episode this time around), The Stick of Truth went from one medium (TV) to the next (games). Fantasy games continue to be hugely popular, so it was able to skewer established genre tropes. While I greatly appreciate that the team went in a different direction for the sequel, it doesn’t feel like quite as natural a fit.
Aside from the reasonably good run of Batman’s Arkham series, video games haven’t had many superhero games worth considering. As a result, The Fractured But Whole doesn’t really parody a genre, outside of a few jokes here and there. Instead, it is a broader commentary on cinematic franchises. So... why is it a game at all?
Even the obvious answer – the kids are just playing “superheroes” as a game, and you’re playing with them – doesn’t seem quite right. At some point, this game-within-a-game stops feeling like a game at all, though the line stays blurred throughout.
As your silent protagonist take selfies with people and posts them on “Coonstagram,” you increase your follower count and influencer level. People around town start to recognize you (as that farting vigilante). They thank you (or not) for what you’re doing. You use “fartkour” to reach the tops of buildings. “Diabetes rage” allows a buddy of yours to rip heavy objects from the ground. These things are ridiculous, sure, but they’re also “real” within the game, and essential to the narrative. (You must be able to stop time with your farting power, otherwise you can’t get past the Medical Fried Chicken’s security system.)
Then there’s a point where the line blurs: There is “lava” around town, along with piles of red Legos that “burn” you and arbitrarily impede your progress. These are part of the make-believe, which is somehow separate from the “reality” of you having to fight off cishet-phobic rednecks.
Of course a South Park game would have a truck full of rednecks attack you after you admit to the school counselor that you’re a cisgender boy (a revelation he has to call your parents about). Of course it has a combat system wherein an enemy shouting micro-aggressions (e.g. “I’m gonna get you, pussy” or “run home to mommy, fool”) gives you an opportunity to hit them out-of-turn. Of course you’re put into a dark room in a Catholic church and forced to fight off two priests, one of whom pulls rosary beads from his ass before trying to whip you with them. And of course a story arc involves the police capturing the only African American men in South Park because they’re supposedly “drug dealers.”
This is the game that made headlines with a difficulty selection screen that denotes difficulties by skin tone. White, obviously, is “Easy.” Black is “Very Difficult.” As you hesitate to select, Cartman says, “Don’t worry. This doesn’t affect combat… just every other aspect of your whole life.” (It affects how much money you can make and also how people talk to you.) It’s exactly the kind of loaded commentary you expect from South Park. This is also one of the few ways in which The Fractured But Whole really leans into the fact that it’s a game.
As with The Stick of Truth, any given moment of what you’re seeing onscreen could easily be pulled straight from the TV show. In that respect, it really does feels like you’re playing through an unreleased season, particularly like the serialized ones of the past few years. This is great because it means more South Park (assuming you’re into that, and I am). The game also has some neat mechanics and one-off moments, like a mini-game where you give an older man a lap dance and fart in his face for a minute or so, that keep things from feeling stale. But while the game is fun, it’s not the reason you’ll want to keep playing. And so we return to that all-important question: “Why is this a game?”
Comedy is difficult, but it’s particularly difficult in video games. When the player controls the momentum, jokes can be diminished or missed entirely. Every time you die in a battle, respawn, and are forced to hear the same jokes over again, they lose their impact, especially since many of the one-liners are repeated throughout the game. The first time, they’re great South Park moments; by the 16th, not so much.
The Fractured But Whole is at its most enjoyable when it stops being a video game and becomes a TV show, wresting control away to play cinematics that really feel like part of the show. But these are often short, and getting from one to the other involves walking around and maybe solving a few basic puzzles or punching some ninjas. These in-between moments can so easily blunt the impact of the narrative and its comedy. If you stop to check all of the drawers in a house or take too long trying to figure out a puzzle or get killed in battle, the pacing gets thrown off and the joke’s timing lands out of whack. The game and its story are in contention rather than harmony, and the story is always more interesting. It’s sad that, by hour nine or ten, playing the game feels like a slog as you just try to get to the next cinematic.
It’s a lot more hours of South Park than you’d get in a TV season, particularly since each contains only ten episodes, but longer isn’t always better. When I look at the cinematic universe board that is up in Cartman’s basement, I can’t help but wish that The Fractured But Whole was a Netflix series instead.