Do you remember waking up early on Saturday morning, rub your eyes to rid the sleepiness, eager to flip to the cartoon channel, in my day it would have been WB, FOX-box, Cartoon-Network or Nickelodeon, so you could indulge in a slew of cartoons about heroism, vengeance, comedic imaginariums or mysteries? Following you favorite characters every week, discovering their histories, watching how they get out of or into trouble on a weekly basis and building on the history through familiarity of the world created in front of us became such an integral part of how kids from my generation related to one another and how we developed our imaginative building blocks in further creating expansions on our imagination. But what’s important is that the adventures of our heroes didn’t feel repetitive and stale. Each week needed to bring something new into it, to add something to the world around it and to create a dilemma that is wholly unique that challenges the characters’ skills in new and interesting ways. This way there is a reason to keep coming back to watching the show, instead of missing a week and missing out on nothing substantial to the development of the characters that we know.
I bring this up because game franchises tend to realize this in some form or another, especially if they look to have success in longevity. Nintendo, for example, understands this because of necessity. A Mario game comes out every year on at least one console and in order for it to not feel stale, the game has to offer the player something new to the experience to warrant the 6-8 hour commitment without riding on the coattails of its predecessors. To the degree that it does this, as well as its success, is up for debate, but the franchise does try to give the player “something” to make the game feel fresh. New Mario Bros for the DS brought the 2D charm of classic Mario with the 3D level-design expertise and much less restrictions in creating those levels to the game blending the whole old-new together. Super Mario Galaxy gave us Mario-Sunshine-esque levels and a new Physics playground to explore how intricate level-design can feel natural when those physics are basic in nature and easy to teach. New Super Mario Bros Wii took the New Mario Bros for the DS and made it a party game; hectic and scream-filled like a Mario Party game, but with cooperative moments that can fill the room with tension and cheers when the group realizes that good can be done through teamwork before realizing the guy to your right threw you off of the stage and the scream-filled f-bombs starts flying across the couch once more. Mario Galaxy 2 gave us a disjoint level-set from Mario Galaxy, but gained the benefit of creating whatever theming that the developers had in mind since it didn’t need to follow a thematic flow, just a gameplay flow. I think you get the point which is: these games bring something to get the players interested in playing aside from “just being another Mario game.”
What actually got me thinking about this was my playthrough of South Park: Stick of Truth (SPST). The game is exceptionally written, carrying the same tone and light-heartedness that the show has with all of the imagination that can only be portrayed in a long-form format like gaming or the various multi-episode arcs that the show has brought to us, e.g. Imagination Land, The Coon arc, and Cartoon Wars. But playing through the game, it’s hard to avoid the literally hundreds of references to the show littering the scenes of the game from costumes, props, photos, and dialogue referencing any one of the 200+ episodes of the show. Playing through the game, part of me understands why they did this. They want the game to feel like it’s a part of the show and not its own thing. The game has a clear point in the timeline of South Park’s history, with an understanding of what should have happened in the characters’ pasts and can start making references accordingly. And to the new-comer of this quiet mountain town, they don’t just leave you in the dark, because much of the dialogue is very aware of itself, making the player not only feel like your character is new to the city, but understands that there is no “assumed knowledge” beforehand. The characters don’t just release the valve and spray the player with all of the information at once, thankfully.
They talk like most people would, giving you only what’s necessary to the task at hand without monologue-ing the entire history of their character and expecting the player to sift through that information to find that nuggets of useful information. Their dialogue is written as if you showed up to a friend’s party, but all you knew was the friend and no one else. So you hang around your friend as he talks to everyone, and when something sounds weird because you don’t know the context, then they begin to elaborate just enough to fill in the context of the situation. “Did you ever figure out that noise was outside” “Oh ya, it turned out to be a mountain lion. Sorry, let’s bring the new guy up to speed. I’ve been waking up to my bushes rustling at night for a while…” Without giving away too much you can understand the situation easily.
What keeps SPST feeling fresh is that it does bring something new for the player to experience. Even though the game has a history prior to the game and letting the player experience a South Park quality story for 10 hours, it lets the player explore its world to an obsessive degree. Parts of the game are very game-like, go to point X, collect Y, give item to Z; parts of the game are also simulation-like. The game is an RPG by nature with Non-playable characters (NPCs) scattered throughout the gamespace, but each of the dozens of NPCs have personalities and dialogue reflecting the characters in the show. Because of this, the game lets us experience the reactions of each of these characters as events unfold in the game, either giving us a better understanding of these characters based on their reactions or developing their characters out in a new direction if the writers wanted a different medium to test this out.
Giving us a new space to experience the personalities of the dozens of characters from the show isn’t the big selling point of the game, its writing should be. But, the game expands and explores the character’s ideas enough to make the game worth playing through, much like the cartoons that we went back to, anticipating what our favorite characters would have to overcome next.