South Park: The Fractured But Whole should have hit it out of the park. The Stick of Truth was a hilarious game, which paired a ton of fan service with sharp dialogue and a dollop of the animated series’ trademark toilet humor. Much like the show’s best episodes it expertly blended dumb jokes with topical wit, and its loving parodying of RPG tropes made it a treat for both fans of the genre and of South Park. On the other hand, The Fractured But Whole has twenty hours of farts and a questionable approach to jokes about race.
I’ve been watching the show long before I should have been allowed to, so I am fully aware of its shtick. I get that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone adopt an even-handed approach to offense, with their roving satirical eye being indiscriminate when it comes to selecting its targets. But The Fractured But Whole is misguided in so many areas that it’s often difficult to know exactly what Parker and Stone are trying to say, if they’re even trying to say anything at all.
A good example of this is in your dealings with South Park’s local police force. During the game the South Park police will ask you to apprehend two “crime lords,” who just so happen to be innocent black men. Later on in the game you discover the extent of the force’s racism, with them each a part of a secret cult that worships a monster from the H.P. Lovecraft mythos that solely feeds on “dark meat.” As a result, the police officers apprehend black men from the town, then shove them into a pit containing the creature. The creature’s name is Shub-Niggurath.
The local law enforcement’s institutional racism is one of the major story threads throughout the first half of the game, and as I journeyed deeper into the station and slowly uncovered its darker secrets, I naturally expected the pay-off to be some biting commentary from Parker and Stone, or at the very least funny. In the end, this quest was simply a set-up for a joke revolving around a name that sounds like a racial slur. South Park‘s ardent fan base will argue that comedians should be allowed to joke about anything, and I vehemently agree. However, if you’re dealing with sensitive issues such as systemic racism and your punchline is the n-word, with it bearing no discernible intent other than to shock, then that’s the kind of low-brow, “2edgy4me” humor you’d expect from a /pol/ user and not two Emmy award winning comedy writers.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been accused of fence-sitting many times in recent seasons of the show. While the series has always dipped to the center-right (leading to the coining of the term “South Park Republican“), they have routinely found targets of their ire on both sides of the political spectrum. Many of the older episodes would still adopt a centrist approach, but at least when they tackled topical issues, it felt like both Parker and Stone ultimately had something to say even if you disagreed with them. The Fractured But Whole is emblematic of the show’s more directionless and inconsistent recent episodes, which has seen its creators become so aggressive with their even-handedness that, in some respects, it almost feels like cowardice. The pay-off to the above joke seems to be “hey, racism’s bad but saying racist words is also pretty funny, huh?” You spend an hour or so dealing with Parker and Stone’s look at institutional racism, only for the end result to be a monster with the n-word in its name.
There are other examples of this peppered throughout the game. There’s an encounter with a ninja who attempts to assert the authenticity of his nationality by pointing out that he has “squinty eyes,” while a funny and surprisingly thoughtful scene with Mr. Mackey regarding the gender of your character is contradicted by a joke regarding transgender restrooms, in which the public toilet for trans people is labelled “cissy.” It’s anarchic but not in a good way, switching between attempts at a more intelligent take on a topic to then taking an easy cheap shot at it, to the point where its stance on mostly every topic it confronts in indiscernible.
But The Fractured But Whole doesn’t just miss the mark when it comes to more divisive topics; much of the game’s humor is also predicated upon farts remaining funny over a sustained period of time, in this case over twenty hours. Now, you can’t trust anyone who doesn’t appreciate laughing at a good fart every now and again, but Parker and Stone are so wrapped up in the notion that farts should be the driving force of The Fractured But Whole that it becomes tired within the first couple of hours. Each of your character’s time-warping abilities is fart-based. Certain side-quests revolve around farting. Your buddy powers all require you to fart. It’s endless, and coupled with a recurring mini-game in which you must shit into each of the town’s toilets for XP, it’s juvenile to the point of becoming awkward. Who are these people who are still finding these fart jokes funny into the game’s tenth hour, and how can we ensure that they never integrate into our society?
South Park is too old and too predictably controversial to be considered offensive. We know by now that Parker and Stone have a penchant for missing the mark, and that their specific brand of humor sometimes sees them fence-sitting to the point where you can see the posts emerging from out of their mouths. As noted in my review, I also remained relatively entertained by the game (largely as a result of its excellent combat), even though many of its jokes failed to hit the mark. However, it’s disappointing to see the quality of of its humor decline so heavily in the time since The Stick of Truth, and its failings are representative of a wider problem with South Park in general: it’s a show that shouts loudly, but it routinely doesn’t have much to say.