I was genuinely bummed when I discovered I couldn't play as a little girl in South Park: The Stick of Truth.
I grew up on South Park. I was 9 when the first episode debuted in 1997, and I'd snuggle into our family room couch to watch it with my father. I know what South Park is about. I ripped the packaging off The Stick of Truth hoping the game kept the tone and spirit of the show. (Note: This piece will contain a few spoilers for the game.)
Within minutes of booting up the game I tweeted a picture of my in-game character. "New kid" Alexa even had some seriously shitty bags under her eyes, which isn't far off from how I look on particularly trying days. Pink hoodie, bangs in her eyes, my "new kid" was me, and through her I would befriend the kids of South Park and defend the Stick of Truth.
About half of that was right. After the opening character creation menu I met my in-game family, who immediately began referring to me as their son. My character looked like me, but the game doesn't allow you to make a female character.
Wait, why can't I play as a girl in Stick of Truth? It is because girls don't fart?— Alexa Ray Corriea (@AlexaRayC) March 7, 2014
My knee-jerk reaction was to joke about it. Can I not play as a girl in South Park because people think girls don't fart? But the more I played, the more I didn't feel quite so happy about who I was in South Park. Douchebag, whose class is "Jew," was putting up a great fight in the game, but he wasn't me. I couldn't be me in South Park.
This isn't easy to fix
South Park's little boys and girls have their own cliques and almost never hang out with each other. The little girls of this sleepy town also don't get much time to shine. The little girls of South Park exist in Stan, Cartman, Kyle and Kenny's world as foils, obstacles and sometimes elementary school window dressing. But that's how South Park is — it's not the little girls' show. It's a story about little boys growing up in a town filled with larger-than-life, absolutely bonkers characters. That's what makes the show so great.
This same treatment of the girls as support characters is used in The Stick of Truth. A few hours into the game, players have to coerce the girls to join their cause. This gaggle of girls isn't playable, but you do spend some time recruiting them. This setup plays into the familiar South Park dynamic of girls versus boys, two different worlds separated by a sea of cooties. This fits in with the world created by this fiction, and especially with adolescence as seen through the eyes of little boys.
When making in-game avatars, I — like many others — prefer to have a say in my gender. I identify with being a woman and I like to play as one. I'm kind of a scrappy girl myself, so the thought of being a gal among the rough-and-tumble kids of South Park was an intriguing concept. It's not like the town's female population has been exempt from uncomfortable treatment on the show.
The women of South Park are just as screwed up and can be just as disgusting as their male cohorts. Episodes have explored Mrs. Marsh's extramarital affair with a Shake Weight and called out Mrs. Cartman's devious sexual behavior. There's even a whole episode dedicated to the men of South Park trying to outlaw queefing. There's no sense that this world is precious about women's anatomy or their ability to be just as off-putting as their male counterparts.
The game is filled with extensive choices for character creation, and those are expanded as you collect objects in the game. The lack of a gender switch is hard to understand. We're meant to believe that Cartman was fine playing with a new kid who was Jewish, but not a little girl?
There's no easy solution to making scenes like the abortion clinic, where you "pretend" to be a girl, friendly for a female avatar. The switch would require new audio to be recorded that replaces all instances of the male pronoun "he," and that's neither quick nor inexpensive. On the other hand, including the other half of the human population in character creation has to count for something.
Being disappointed doesn't mean you're angry
I contacted Stick of Truth developer Obsidian Entertainment, and the studio directed me to publisher Ubisoft for my answer. I asked: Why is there no option to play as a female character?
A representative from Ubisoft told me that I should finish the game, and they "imagine [I] will answer all [my] own questions."
Including the other half of the human population in character creation has to count for something
"Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker, creators of South Park] wrote and voiced the game and made story [decisions] to focus on the new kid on town, eventually befriending the four boys and becoming the fifth kid, so to speak," read the response from an Ubisoft rep. "As for audience, this game was made for all South Park fans!"
The Stick of Truth is no Mass Effect, but the absence of a female character option is not only alienating to those who prefer not to play as boys, but an unexplored narrative choice. The discomfort the boys would likely feel at having a new female "best friend" opens all sorts of doors for humor, and that seems more interesting to me than banning female avatars in the service of a joke about abortion.
My fan-fiction-esque daydreams of being the little female ragamuffin that fits in with the South Park bros and confounds the hive-mind mentality of its femininity-committed little girls was not to be. I was bummed out by this choice. I can't image how frustrating it will be for others.
This isn't about punishing the writers and developers of the game for not scrapping certain narratives, and for all we know that abortion joke was something they spent a lot of time on and felt really passionate about. If their narrative precluded female avatars, they certainly have the right to go after that narrative. No one wants to wrest control of games from their creators in order to force this sort of decision upon them.
In the real world, girls fart. I fart. I wanted to fart in South Park. The game, as it exists today, would be changed in many ways by the inclusion of female avatars, and it's OK to be a little bit disappointed in that fact. I wanted to bring myself into a world I loved, and the game said no.