The Stick of Truth lets you know the story is pretend, and that makes everything feel real

Opinion

There is a moment in the Academy Award-winning film Gravity where a character sprays a fire extinguisher towards the viewer. Our view of the action is temporarily impaired due to the frost on the camera lens.

It's the sort of "mistake" that adds character to a film, the unplanned touches like the blood on the camera during a climactic shootout in Children of Men. That movie was also, not coincidentally, directed by Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón.

The decision to make the camera feel like a physical part of the scene is effective. Suddenly you feel as if you're watching something shot on location, and seeing objects with physical reality.

Much of Gravity was created inside a computer. The special effects team, likely under orders from the director himself, decided to "fake" the idea of a camera to give you a sense of watching something that was filmed by humans in space. During one scene you even see the film crew in the visor of an astronaut, complete with their own space suits and camera equipment.

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This "mistake" was added deliberately to give the viewer the illusion that real people went to space to film a movie. They increased the reality of the special effects by bringing your attention to the fact that the situation is contrived. The visuals feel more real because we're told that the action itself is fake.

Having your cake while enjoying that sweet, sweet flavor

It's a fascinating trick, especially when you consider how difficult each shot in the movie was to achieve. Nothing was put into that film unless it belonged there. The South Park RPG, The Stick of Truth, goes in the opposite direction. Very few of the events in the game are "real," in the sense that you're often reminded that these are children playing at heroics, not heroes themselves.

There are no epic battles here, just kids swinging plastic or wooden weapons at each other. A tavern is made up of cardboard signs inside someone's house. A daring raid to rescue a teammate takes place inside a school during detention. A sexual assault is described verbally, but the "action" is a child jumping up and down on a bed to simulate the sound of creaking bed springs. The game is broken into chapters by using bedtime as an excuse for everyone to go home.

The dead lie on the battlefield, but they're of course just fulfilling their role as fodder. "You can't loot me yet; I'm not dead," someone tells you during the course of the game. The fact that you're playing the part of someone playing the part of a human or elf in the struggle for control of, well, a stick that controls everything allows the game's writers to ceaselessly comment on how strange the tropes of epic films and video games can be to those who didn't grow up around them.

South Park has always pressed the advantage of a show that sees the world through the eyes of profane children

The game makes sure you understand what's real and what's imaginary, and then that knowledge is used against you. Fighting elves may seem strange, but then again, you meet characters who seem to think nightly anal probes are just the price you pay for living in a quiet town.

Your character itself is silent, and reacts to pretend wars with the same gravity and zen acceptance as underpants gnomes. These are all just things to happen, and it's no use making a big deal out of them.

This ability to see absurd fantasy and science fiction clichés through the eyes of children acting out their own versions of these stories is what makes the game so delightful and often uncomfortable. Children say and do things without understanding the weight of these words or fantasies, and this leads to several squirm-inducing moments in the game.

South Park has always pressed the advantage of a show that sees the world through the eyes of profane children, but that's part of the fun. They don't take the world of video games for granted, and are often making it up as they go along. Everything makes sense when games are seen as abiding by the arbitrary rules of children's playtime, and the fact that kids are in charge is a way to retcon wide swaths of RPG history.

Gravity pretended to be a live-action film, and South Park presents us with children pretending to be in a video game. We're so used to the idea that images and stories are manipulated that showing us the strings has become shorthand for authenticity. The fibs shall set you free.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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