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Critique, Review

South Park the Stick of Truth & Coping Mechanisms

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***Mild Spoilers Ahead***

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Let me start out by saying, I don’t hate South Park. I actually quite enjoy it in all it’s satirical, ridiculous, toilet humour shenanigans. I’m aware of its many, many missteps over the years in how they choose to approach socio-political issues but as a whole I have enjoyed the series since I was a teenager. Now remember, part of being able to enjoy any media is being able to critically engage with it. If you want to passively enjoy something without thinking of any deeper meaning as a result of it, that’s totally cool. You do you. I, however, am all about dissecting the things I love. This is where South Park the Stick of Truth comes in.

I do mean literal toilet humour

The game is phenomenal. If you like South Park I don’t know why you haven’t played it yet. It plays out like an especially long episode put together by Parker-Stone Studios. Which it kind of is, given that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had a lot of say in the games development by Obsidian Entertainment. Combat is fun, the story is pretty engaging and there’s a ton of extra content for people interested in exploring the small little hamlet town of South Park, Colorado. But I have one caveat. Just one. One itsy bitsy tiny little immersion breaking thing. You know just the fact that you play as a boy.

And I don’t mean that you play as some extreme representation of hypermasculinity that is so prevalent in gaming. You play as a South Park kid. Which I don’t know how much South Park you’ve seen but here’s the sexual dimorphism between a boy and a girl in South Park:

Gendering of colour aside, look at how similar this couple is

Like basically the hair is different. Little else. So when I get into character generation and see that there is no room for gender selection, I begrudgingly insert my own head cannon that as  a silent protagonist I am definitely a little girl whose LARP-ing with the boys. I design my character to have a little ponytail, pink shoes and a comfy hoodies. I’m all raring to go and get on playing when the opening cinematic starts and my parents pointedly refer to me as son, boy, young man etc.

The writing in the game makes it clear that you are playing as a boy. Definitely a boy. Like a boy. Boyboyboyboy. Okay I get it, fine. I give the game some extra slack and decide that I am a transgender youth transitioning to male and that obviously the people around me are decent enough humans to use my proper pronouns. Great. You know, until the transphobic slurs start flying in game and I have to stop. I have never in my experience felt like a game was trying to so clearly ostracize and other my gender until now. And I think this stems primarily from the fact that I was willing to give this game so much slack to be as offensive as it wants, just let me have this small gendered thing. BUT NoooOOooo.

Offender #1 in all things morally reprehensible

Playing as a girl is so unfathomable that instead of normalizing the fact that the character could be a girl and having the writing reflect greater gender neutrality, they made it clear that you are a boy. Remember in this game you play as a silent protagonist throughout, the other characters are the ones interpreting your voice and offering expository dialogue to keep the plot flowing. It would have been an extremely, and I mean EXTREMELY easy task to swap out some of the dialogue to change “Son” “He” “Boy” with “You” “Kid” “*insert ungendered insult here*”. Instead we are left with the distinct impression that being a girl in an action RPG was so unfathomable to the writers that they had to make sure to reassert the Protagonists masculinity throughout the game, despite being the butt end of insults the entire game. And I mean butt end, there are a lot a gay jokes, most of them tasteless.

Oh but, the girls aren’t playing in the LARP with all the South Park boys, they’re off doing their own thing. No. NO. First, pay attention to combat better – there were several instances throughout combat where the fodder (I’m referring to enemies) you and your companions mow down were girls. Not all girls of course, just some of them, you know the ones fighting and participating in the core mechanic of the game. 

Look, a mystical unicorn – I mean girl LARPing

They just never happened to have any lines of significance. But what about the female series regulars? Wendy and Bebe? What are they doing? Well they happen to be a recruitable faction to help your war effort. Okay good, we’re off to a better start. So what do you need to do to recruit the girls? Pose as one of their boyfriends and find out who’s been spreading gossipy rumours.

Yeah, that Heidi Turner what a typical girl, eesh.

Now I say this with the utmost sarcasm, I truly feel my gender has been adequately portrayed in this game. Nothing says internalized misogyny and flippant representation quite like reducing women to petty gossips. Now I probably would have given the game a free pass had it at least tried – TRIED – to have some girls present in the heroes camp but all we’re left with is Princess Zelda/Kenny whose reduced to a silly and ridiculous joke the entire game.

Princess Kenny who I naively had such high hopes for

South Park the Stick of Truth asserts and reinforces a gendered separation in play spaces which is so old and tired and just plain BORING. The world is not relegated to separate spaces, but this game is of the supposition that boys are one thing and girls are another most certainly another and that they most definitely like different things,  boys = hitting and maiming things, girls = pink.  But the game’s not malicious, at least not in the way you would except. I mean it’s malicious in the way that once again women are excluded or are an after thought or just a series if really terrible jokes. It just leaves me sitting here wondering why I ever bothered being interested in it the first place. Do you know how frustrating that is? The games industry has beat me down so much that in order to find enjoyment in games I now willingly create headcanons so I feel some form of inclusion. I used this coping mechanism that I have had to develop in this terribly sexist and exclusionary industry twice for South Park the Stick of Truth.

Here, have a cool lady in sensible armor on a horse. It’ll dull the pain of crummy representations for a little while.

I’m tired of doing this. And frankly I’m bored of this dominant trope of cis-male heroes in games. I want to play games that I feel in some way reflect my experiences and not of some perceived dominant group.  We’ve been over this a few times on WinGS but women make up half of the game playing audience and we now make up the largest game playing demographic. I don’t need to be catered to. If I were there would be more dragons and unicorns and princesses having lesbian love affairs with their knights and space operas used as an allegory for modern racial oppression and historically accurate video games. I don’t want to be catered to, what I want is the games industry to start reflecting and acknowledging mine and every other woman, girl, lady, fem-associated human’s existence and passion for video games. We exist. We’re not going away. Now let us buy stuff from you. It’s not a hard concept.

About the author / 

MarenWilson

Maren Wilson has a BA in History and Sociology. She is interested in game design and gender performance in games. You can usually find her staying up too late with games she’s already beaten or getting into “debates” about historical inaccuracies online.

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