Over the past two decades, South Park has made a mockery of more or less everything. The show's bread and butter is caricature, exaggerating complex social topics and creating ludicrous characters from the extremes to act as mouthpieces for the various distorted sides of any given argument. Mixed in with the world's cartoon denizens are representations of real people. A prized target is anyone who feels too sincerely about something, be that their interests, their political beliefs, or their personal identity: for an example, look no further than the almost obsessive years-long campaign it has waged against Al Gore. South Park is definitely social commentary, but whether it's a show of nuance is quite another matter.
South Park and its fans have a ready-made defence for any criticism: the show is, to use a rather icky phrase, an equal-opportunities offender. Or so goes the theory. Yesterday Eurogamer broke the news that the upcoming South Park: The Fractured But Whole features, in the opening hours, two social topics that few games dare approach. It links the game difficulty to your avatar's race, and allows your character to be canonically trans.
Here's how it's implemented. When creating your character in TFBH there's initially no skin tone slider, and your character's 'default' is white. Once you've locked in the rest of your appearance, you're presented with a difficulty slider which is also a bar of skin tones that get progressively darker from left to right. Combat difficulty is not altered by this choice, but money received is reduced and conversations become harsher the darker your skin tone. The game is easier if you're playing as a white character, and harder if you're playing as a person of colour.
Firstly, it's worth saying that on the surface this seems like a good joke. The idea is that white dudebros who love South Park and love games will, of course, also want the credibility of playing on hard mode and will have to choose to play as a person of colour. The nastiness the game throws their way as a result may, who knows, inspire some to think about real world stuff like the wage gap or the justice system and how they relate to race. Maybe just the basic idea that dark skin can make life much harder might stick.
So goes one theory. But here's the thing, it's a white theory. Explicitly tying race to difficulty also means that any players of colour face a lousy choice. People tend towards choosing avatars that vaguely represent them. If you're a person of colour playing South Park: TFBH, and you want to play as a character with your own skin tone, the game's going to use that as an excuse to rag on you. I'm not saying that this is the case, because I don't know. But doesn't that make this joke seem like something white developers would do to try and amuse white players?
I asked streamer Tanya DePass, herself a woman of colour, for her thoughts on the issue.
Having left South Park ages ago because of their racism, homophobia, transphobia and other failures at being good comedy, I have little hope that this gesture will do anything but create fodder for those who already hate equality to condemn those who they previously considered heroes. This move is far too little and way too late.If there were any POC involved in this decision, I'd love to hear from them, otherwise this comes off as an empty gesture in the disguise of 'fairness" and making a statement on current affairs.
The 'skin tone slider' aside, TFBH also allows you to play as a canonically trans character. In the first game, The Stick of Truth, players only had the option of playing as a male character. The sequel is meant to feature the same child, but the character creator now features both male and female character options. To explain in-game why your character is now female, there's a phone call with your teacher and your parents in which you can select whether you wish to identify as a cis woman or a trans woman.
It's currently unclear if this choice will have any impact on the game. Is trans status also some kind of difficulty toggle in game? Or does it just make NPCs say 'hilarious' shitty things to you? The worrying context is that South Park is a show that has spent numerous episodes saying trans people change gender easily and on a whim, that transition is done for societal gain (now that is funny!), that has had a character in recent seasons dedicated to mocking those pushing for social change and reform. It's not a show I trust to treat minority rights with the nuance it needs.
I don't want to say any more without playing the final product (I have previously played TFBH at a preview event). With any other game I would be cautiously optimistic, even just about the basic fact of tackling social issues, and looking forward to seeing if the execution panned out. But with South Park, I'm bracing myself for the worst. If TFBH proves me wrong I'll sing it from the rooftops — but don't hold your breath. I sure won't.