01.30.13

South Park has conquered stage, TV and film. Will it work for games?

THQ's auctioning off of its many properties was a bittersweet moment. With renewed energy and a fresh outlook, the hope is that Company of Heroes can thrive under the SEGA company banner, while franchises like Homefront will continue to evolve under the creative direction of Crytek. Then Ubisoft swept in and bought the South Park brand, saving from ruin a highly-touted game and giving Trey Parker and Matt Stone's baby a stable environment in which to grow.

Will it work?

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As Obsidian puts the finishing touches on their next role-playing game, South Park: The Stick of Truth, the creative force behind the long-lasting satire is riding high. David Carr profiled the pair recently for the New York Times, listing the enduring success of South Park and their Tony Award-winning play "Book of Mormon" among their many accomplishments. Carr writes,

The success of “South Park” is a stark lesson in the fundamentals of entertainment: if you tell stories that people want to hear, the audience will find you. This is true no matter how fundamentally the paradigms shift, or how many platforms evolve.

Games are now just one more arena in which to tell stories, alongside television, film, and theatre.

But The Stick of Truth has a mountain of expectations to climb. The property is an odd choice for Obsidian, a developer noted for sprawling, gritty takes on franchises such as Neverwinter Nights and Fallout. Early looks have been positive, with Parker and Stone actively involved in making sure the experience matches the show's tone and feel. But can their distinctive flavor of cultural satire take root in a game, where control is wrested out of the creators' hands and placed into ours?

Games are now just one more arena in which to tell stories, alongside television, film, and theatre.

If The Stick of Truth matchs up to its potential, it could go a long way in dispelling the myth of the licensed game as low-quality cash-in.

Doug Herzog, president of Viacom Entertainment Group, which owns Comedy Central, has high hopes for the property's appeal beyond the confines of a television set. "‘South Park’ has yet to meet a platform it hasn’t been able to conquer,” Mr. Herzog said.

That's debatable. South Park hasn't quite inspired the videogame world to bend to its paper-flat, poorly-animated will. Chef's Luv Shack for Nintendo 64 was a shallow trivia / party game with a few good jokes and too many repeated audio clips of Isaac Hayes. A parody first-person shooter from 1998 didn't fare much better; the GameSpot review called it "one of those games that is bound to come up when you start thinking about the worst game you've ever played." Which is a sort of conquering, but not the kind Herzog likely had in mind.

If The Stick of Truth matchs up to its potential, it could go a long way in dispelling the myth of the licensed game as low-quality cash-in. Videogames have always been one segment of any robust property: Star Wars games have come out alongside the various films, comics and novellas since 1983. Most action or children's films have a videogame. Some were bad. Some were inexplicably more interesting than they needed to be. The Stick of Truth could raise the bar, or break it in half.

Either way, games are finding themselves in an increased position of visibilty, such that their success or failure has an impact on the property itself. No longer are they dragged behind the wake of a pre-existing property; a new show on SciFi, Defiance, will launch this April, its videogame counterpart launching the same month. Or should I say: Defiance, a new videogame by Trion Worlds, will launch this April, with an off-shoot series on Sci Fi Network. Licensed games can no longer can afford to be a pile of code in a recognizable box. They must bring something unique and lasting to the brand itself. Or risk bringing it down altogether.