Tag Archives: Paper Mario

Stick of Truth: Matt ‘n Trey make a Paper Mario of their very own

SouthParkTheStickOfTruthI just played and finished South Park: The Stick of Truth. Been a while; finally got around to it.

Reaction? Pleasantly surprised!

I knew the game was an RPG, and I knew that Obsidian were damned good at making RPGs. There’d been good buzz, and anybody could tell that the graphics were dead-on from videos and screenshots.What I wasn’t expecting was that Stick of Truth played like an old-school JRPG. And what I really wasn’t expecting was that it was going to be a Mario RPG!

Yep. That’s what it is: a JRPG. Stick of Truth doesn’t play like either your Skyrim or your Final Fantasy. It doesn’t have the wandering aimlessness of the former, nor the complex, baroque combat favoured by the latter. What it’s got is exactly what Nintendo’s been providing in their RPGs going all the way back to SuperStar Saga: two-person combat teams, a choice of two distinct direct attacks that use timed presses of action buttons, upgradable “magic” attacks that focus on QTE-style button prompts, and time defences that you must use if you want to survive.

Heck, it’s even got the swappable companions that you’d see in Paper Mario, and the companion abilities that you use for both out-of-combat puzzle and in-combat ass-whuppins!

See, what separates good JRPGs from bad ones, more than anything else, is that the bad ones make you slog through fights you don’t enjoy and wish you could skip in order to get dribs and drabs of storytelling, while the good ones make a point of having encounters be something you want to do and enjoy doing. There are lots of different ways to do that–Suikoden 2 and Panzer Dragoon Saga both pull it off, but in completely opposite ways–but that’s the core of it. So, yes:

Stick of Truth is a damned good JRPG.

It’s one of the rare RPGs where I actively sought out combat simply because the combat loops were intrinsically engaging, instead of extrinsically rewarding with levels and loot and such. Every attack cycle featured meaningful choices, tests of player’s system knowledge and hand-eye skill, and gave both kinaesthic and visual rewards for success. It’s a joy to play, just as Nintendo’s JRPGs have been.  It’s proof that the “JRPG” vs. “western RPG” concepts aren’t really about Japan at all.

(It’s really about the way that the game abstracts skill and handles the division between “exploration” vs. “encounter” mode of play.)

Most people probably don’t buy it because they’re JRPG fans, though. Who’d even know? Obsidian hasn’t made one before now. Obsidian’s proven that they know exactly how it works, and even provided some great nods to previous RPGs, but players won’t know that. No, they probably buy it because it’s a South Park game. How’s it stand on that? Here’s the answer:

Stick of Truth is also a damned good South Park game.

You probably already knew that the visuals are dead-on. It’s almost eerie. Excepting the camera-angle and camera-distance concessions made for ease of player movement, it could easily be an episode of the series. The voice work is just straight-up South Park, too. All the available voice actors return, and the character voices are handled with the same level of care that the series has. It’s South Park.

The plot is a continuation and resolution of the whole Game of Thrones-related plotline from a while back, so it fits into the series’ continuity, and the way that the player’s integrated into the whole thing as the “new kid” is seamless. It even has the standard South Park plot structure, where a relatively simple conflict between the kids in the first act escalates into absolute madness by the end. It doesn’t quite feature the social insight that makes the best episodes so good…but it also doesn’t have the complete lack of political insight that makes the worst episodes so painful.

Is it funny? That’s too subjective to say. laughed. Sometimes really hard. Sometimes out of shock–at times Stick of Truth was the most vulgar game I’ve ever played. If you’re easily offended, stay away. It is unapologetically offensive.  It pushed a lot of buttons, including buttons I didn’t even know I had. Be aware.

(Since I’m Canadian, but also spoiler-averse, all I’ll say is that, yes, the game’s moment of crowning glory involved the True North Strong and Free.)

I’m not sure how relevant all of that is, though. The strange thing–the funny(?) thing–is that I never really played Stick of Truth for the jokes, or the art, or the voice work, or the story, engaging as they all were. I played because I enjoyed it as a game. I enjoyed exploring and finding stuff. I enjoyed upgrading and customizing my gear. I enjoyed using my out-of-combat abilities to gain an advantage in combat, and in both taking down tough bosses and absolutely crushing the “trash mobs” in a few turns.

It also shows what was so wrong with Fez. Like Fez, it has winning, clever core interactions that are intrinsically fun to do. Unlike Polytron, though, Obsidian and South Park Studios took that core and placed it inside a framework of meaningful choice and engaging narrative-building.

I also feel that shows that the whole narrative vs. ludology thing may be a bit of a misdirect; that truly solid games do both. You can focus on one or the other, but even the most narrative-driven storyteller should maybe break out the ol’ deck of cards and test out some gameplay loops.

In the meantime, I’m going to catch up on all those old SP episodes I missed. Also going to need to start digging through Obsidian’s back catalog. I’ve been sitting on New Vegas for ages. Think it’s time to rectify that. And since Trey Parker gave EarthBound a specific shoutout as a design inspiration, it’s time to rectify that little gap in my knowledge, too. Wish me luck.

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Anita Sarkeesian’s First “Tropes v. Women” Video is Out

Yep. After all the shouting and yelling and accusations and whatnot about pretty much everything but the videos in question–largely revolving around a backlash against their funding and a counter-backlash against the ultra-horrible misogyny embedded in much of that backlash…

…we finally have our first video!

So much for the guys who thought she’d just take the money and run. Or whatever that was supposed to be.

Quick reax based on partial viewing…seems good so far, though nothing that exceeds the sort of work done by, say, Lindsay Ellis  on women in movies at Chez Apocalypse or Campster’s gaming-focused stuff at Errant Signal.   The discussion of subject v. object in games did remind me of something I read recently by Todd Alcott about superheroes, though:

(Technically, the true protagonist of The Avengers, is, of course, whoever is on the other end of the celestial jukebox that Mr. Bigrobe is talking to.  This turns out, eventually, to be a guy named Thanos, and Mr. Bigrobe turns out to be a guy named, er, “The Other.”  The “protagonist” of a story, the way the Greeks used the term anyway, was the guy who set events into motion.  Thanos wants The Tesseract, The Other sends Loki [the “ally”] and The Chitauri to get the Tesseract, and it falls to Nick Fury to stop those guys from doing that. This, technically, makes Nick Fury the antagonist of The Avengers. To make this distinction seems picayune, but, in fact, this protagonist problem is why so many superhero movies suck — it is inherent in the genre that the protagonist of the narrative is the bad guy.  The moment you have a main character whose job it is to run around stopping things from happening, you have a reactive protagonist, which means a weaker narrative.  When you have a weaker narrative, you end up throwing all kinds of nonsense at the screen, hoping that no one will notice that you have a reactive protagonist.  This is, incidentally, why Batman barely even shows up in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies — he understood that the protagonist of his Batman movies had to be Bruce Wayne, not Batman, and that, for his narratives to succeed, the bad guys had to be reacting to the actions of Bruce Wayne, not Batman reacting to the actions of the bad guys.)

The true protagonist, the true actor, in all of the Super Mario platformers is BOWSER. Mario has more agency than Peach as a player avatar, but he’s fundamentally reacting to Bowser, instead of really acting to achieve anything in his own right. He’s a superhero through-and-through, no different than Spiderman or Nick Fury.

The question may well be open as to whether or not Bowser’s more interested in Toadstool or Mario as an object, too. What if Bowser’s only kidnapping Toadstool to get Mario to go through his troops and traps to rescue her? What if he’s not actually interested in Peach as a possession (as alluded to in Sarkeesian’s “damselball” bit) but is only looking for the challenge, and knows of no other way to goad Mario into accepting it? What if Bowser doesn’t really want Peach at all?

And, weirder than that…what if Mario and Peach both know this?

More later.

Edit: Okay, it’s later.

For the most part I liked it. She did a good job bringing out issues of empowerment and objectification to a popular audience.  I saw two (surprising) issues here, though.

First, it’s barely about games per se. Sarkeesian analyzed her subject games strictly as narrative texts, without any real thought being given as to the reason or motivation for these things from a ludological perspective. Her “players” might as well be viewers, and the games might as well be television. I’m very surprised by this one; anybody who talks or thinks or writes critically about games has been absolutely buried in arguments over ludology v. narrativism, and the war over that sort of thing ended because almost everybody now realizes that you need to look at them through both lenses instead of one.

“Empowerment” in games is as much about play as it is about anything else. A playable character is always more empowered and enjoys more agency than a non-playable one from a strict gameplay perspective. She didn’t really get into that much, and it surprised me. Sure, she’s a media critic and not a gaming critic, but you really must address these things if you want to talk about games in 2013.

Second, it doesn’t have much of a temporal perspective. It treats the Zelda and Mario series (which are nearly completely the objects of analysis) as one big unit, instead of works that evolve over time with the changes in overall culture.

That’s somewhat of a problem with Mario, since Mario has evolved to become a larger franchise with players more used to the playable Peach of the modern franchise than kidnapped object Peach of the “core games”. While you can argue that Super Princess Peach for the DS isn’t a key game in the franchise, or than Peach’s surprisingly active role as an intermittently playable character that plays a key role in her own escape in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door doesn’t really count, or that Super Mario Brothers 2 was an outlier due to the whole Doki Doki Panic thing (as Sarkeesian does), it’s really hard to argue that Mario Kart doesn’t really “count”. Those games are as popular as the platformer, and an entire generation grew up on those games. They ARE Mario to a big, big audience of gamers. You can’t arbitrarily discount that.  Sarkeesian doesn’t even really address it, though; she just focuses on the “core” games and leaves the others aside.

It’s a big problem with the Zelda games, though, because that evolution over time is by far the most interesting thing about them. Yes, Zelda started off as little more than a plot device in Legend of Zelda.  Over time, though, she’s become a more and more interesting character in her own right, and has started playing more and more of a role as a sidekick instead of a mere object. Sarkeesian did bring up Zelda’s Sheik and Tetra personae as examples of welcome subversions of Zelda’s traditional role, but didn’t really mention that process of change and evolution.

The omission that REALLY surprised me, though, was Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. That’s a game where Zelda is, absolutely, positively, one hundred percent a core character from pretty much beginning to end. Her personality is refreshingly more like the feisty Tetra than the passive Peach.

She’s also extremely important from a ludological perspective.  The way in which the player controls her when she’s using her possession mechanic is the very thing the game is named after.  I wouldn’t even necessarily call her ghostly state in the game “dis-empowered”; her ability to possess Phantoms in Spirit Tracks is as vital to success as Link’s whole werewolf curse thing was in Twilight Princess.  The player is quickly taught that Link’s quest would be utterly impossible without her.

It was a grand step forward, a fun mechanic and a welcome counterexample to the standard trope. So where on earth was it? Maybe Sarkeesian is saving it for the followup where she talks about “flipping the script”. I certainly hope so; the game doesn’t get anywhere near enough recognition.

In any case, I’m looking forward to the next one. I’m especially interested in seeing how she deals with Princess Rosella in Sierra’s King’s Quest IV, since that game’s as clear a reversal of the standard trope as you can get, and by a female game-maker besides.

Another Edit: Shouldn’t give the impression that I’m entirely critical, so I’ll name two things that really worked for me too. That story at the beginning with Dinosaur Planet and Starfox Adventures? Gold. Journalism worth watching in-and-of itself even if you never watch the rest. (Which you should.)   The transformation of the main character of Dinosaur Planet to damsel-in-distress in Starfox Adventures really is sketchy as all hell.

Also gold? That sequence with all the female characters shouting “help!”. It really, really nails down just how formulaic and lazy this sort of thing is. The big takeaway of this for me is that the damsel-in-distress is used because it’s easy. It’s a trivially obvious way to motivate a presumed audience of boys and young men.

That’s why I’m so interested in how she addresses King’s Quest IV. Not only because it’s an obvious and incredibly prominent subversion of the trope in the history of electronic gaming, but because it gets into the fact that PC games had a different audience. It was still primarily male, but usually older, better off, and less interested in adolescent power fantasies. The entire adventure game genre is rife with titles that either subvert this trope or ignore it entirely, and I don’t think that’s an accident.

NEW EDIT: Okay, embed’s fixed.

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