South Park: The Fractured But Whole is out, and whether you're a fan of the type of humor it has to offer or not, you have to admit it's unique. Too often the RPG genre has us saving the world against the same generic big bad. Some brooding, overpowered individual has a bone to pick (against humanity/the universe/you in particular), and you (the chosen one/amnesiac royalty/former member of the bad guy's army) are the only one that can defeat them.
There's a lot of great RPGs out there that follow this formula, and I'm just as guilty as the next gamer of falling in love with games that rehash essentially the same plot that's been powering the genre for decades. However, after playing The Fractured But Whole, I've realized that for the most part role-playing games — and gaming in general — is missing an important component: humor.
Why Humor is Harder Than Drama
In the Classical system of Tragedy vs. Comedy, Comedy tends to be the more flexible in its aspects, while Tragedy is much easier to understand. The reason we love games like Final Fantasy VII and Mass Effect is because it puts us in a role that we naturally want to be in. These games make you the hero, typically with a very clean cut "good vs. evil" concept, and there's usually not a lot of ethical quandaries to deal with when it comes to your actions. There's an appeal to this because it's not like what we have to deal with in our daily lives. There are not the constant decisions based on our vague and ever-changing internal morality. These games choose who is right and who is wrong for you and send you on your way. They're ethical escapism at its finest.
Comedy, on the other hand, lends itself to unpredictability. Your character is more morally ambiguous, and often is a creep or a loser, and is typically acted upon instead of acting on others. South Park has a ton of jokes and scenes that just don't make any sense, and wouldn't fit in the narrative of the typical RPG. This is what makes it so special. The gameplay is good, but not innovative, but it doesn't have to be because it can stand on plot alone. Gameplay is an excuse for a humorous story in The Fractured But Whole, as opposed to many games these days that make a thin plot as an excuse to throw a hodgepodge of gameplay out into the ether.
Funny and Quirky Games Are Enduring
Earthbound, the cult classic of humorous games is a lot more subdued than South Park: The Fractured But Whole, but you can see the similarities at first glance. The weird and wacky story of Ness and friends' mission to defeat Giygas has outlasted the majority of its contemporaries in the eyes of video game culture. How often do you hear praise for Lufia or Secret of Evermore? Meanwhile, fans still cry out for an official translation of the successor to Earthbound. Mother 3, an 11-year-old game that came out on the Game Boy Advance in Japan-only, has a more substantial following than a lot of "big name" games that are coming out right now.
Developers don't need to be afraid to rock the boat and go for a narrative structure that doesn't match the overwhelming majority of video games. I mean, it's hard to even think of a list of games that use the comedic narrative structure. In a world where gloom and doom is the order of the day, I'm tired of playing in grim, dark, worlds that are so devoid of humor. South Park: The Fractured But Whole shows that funny games can be received with open arms, and I hope that other major developers take a note from Ubisoft's page and put their stake in something new.