A balance must be struck. Video games, despite being an industry of (almost) wholly fabricated concepts and stories, have a tendency of both being and striving to be realistic. It’s strange considering that one of the great advantages of not being based in reality is the freedom to be anything you want, but we still aim for photorealism and relatable characters and grounded tales amidst aliens and ogres.
The balance, however, is in what that realism means. There’s a difference, I believe, between being accurate and faithful in this regard. The former means being exactly whatever its analogue is in real life. The latter is being what we’d like to think it to be. A shotgun, for example, can actually be quite effective at moderate distances, but our belief is that they exist solely as short range weapons.
Video game designers put that into effect when planning out their game. It’s a nice treat when something surpasses our expectations but it’s a terrible tragedy when it goes against our known desires, and both can switch camps very easily. Having no jump button in something like Dear Esther has meaning in the game, for instance.
The stories contained within must be more carefully hewn, though. And by stories, I do mean everything that encompasses the plot, such as physical and temporal setting, themes, and the like. Sometimes this thoughtful facet is all it takes to elevate a game from something decent to something memorable.
What set me down this ruminative path, oddly enough, was a game that kind of nailed it. South Park: The Stick of Truth as a whole is a fantastic game that services both RPG and South Park fans alike—something no one probably ever thought would happen, but I guess the same could be said about chocolate and peanut butter—but its greatest accomplishment is its core conceit: childhood fantasy.
And what a terribly hard thing to balance between accuracy and faithfulness. Our formative years of running through the woods, swinging sticks as swords and throwing leaves into the air as makeshift pyrotechnics, were delectable in our nostalgic filter. Carefree, wild, young, and, most of all, impetuous. Oh to only be that age again and romp once more through a world of make believe.
Or so we think. In reality, it was a lot of scrapes, cuts, bruises, and moms yelling at you about how irresponsible—and nigh impossible—it is of you to get your new clothes so dirty (though they were really hand-me-downs). Crying over cheaters and being scared at the thought being grounded for being an accomplice to a broken arm.
We don’t like to think about that, though. That rosy, rutilant tint keeps us from defacing the foundation we build our future on. That’s where the faithfulness comes in. We like to only remember how amazing it was that our imaginations could conjure up such rapid and expansive realms of dragons and Power Rangers and gangsters.
South Park: The Stick of Truth, if you didn’t know, is based in the world of South Park and follows once more the trials and tribulations of knowing Cartman. In this case, he’s become the Grand Wizard in an incredibly comprehensive transformation of the small, perpetually wintry city into an old school fantasy world of magic, warriors, and monsters of folkloric legend.
The realism is there, just as it is with the television-based progenitor. These are just kids with more time on their hands than they know what to do with, and at some point, someone suggested they play in some fantasy world. Their weapons are brooms and bar darts and hammers you would buy at Home Depot. Their shields are traffic signs and trash can lids.
Some kids are into it, whining about wanting to go home and watch TV. Others are too into it, generating a caste system to simulate the normal social hierarchy as well. It’s reality, but exaggerated. Never in our right minds would we allow kids to hit each other with darts or hammers, but the sentiment is there: they’re scrappy and, more importantly, using their imaginations.
That’s the faithfulness of the situation. We remember relying on our minds, turning our outstretched arms into wings and bullies into foes that must be conquered. And that is represented in the game. Magic has taken to be farts (the South Park skew is clearly in effect, too), Cartman’s sister is a boss she-ogre, and some nonsensical MacGuffin has rallied the players around a fixed point.
We remember that, even if it didn’t happen that way. We remember something close enough to the truth to push the vital lesson of it all into a part of our brain, some place we won’t lose it. And South Park: The Stick of Truth has found that nugget and splashed on just enough of that squashed verity to prevent it from being saccharine. It just goes to show how important that balance is. In reality, anyways.