It’s been 16 years since the first South Park video game arrived on the Nintendo 64, an experience South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone do not remember fondly. “We thought that’s how you do it,” recalls Parker. “A company comes to you and says, ‘We’re gonna make you a video game,’ and you say, “Great, here’s our license, go make us a sweet video game!”
Unfortunately, the result was an overpixelated calamity. “We got really mad,” says Stone, “We said, ‘We’re never going to do that again.'” But Parker and Stone changed their mind, and were much more involved in the process of creating 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, released by Ubisoft to big sales and decent reviews. This year, they’re back at E3 showing off The Fractured But Whole, which continues the quote-unquote saga from Stick of Truth by genre-phasing into a superhero story. EW caught up with Parker and Stone to talk about how their work on the video games connects to their continuing work on the TV show, and how adding a playable female lead character changes the game.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I really enjoyed the last South Park game, The Stick of Truth. But that was a game where there was a lot of public frustrations about the pushed release date, and more frustrations after the game came out about glitches. You guys have won a Peabody and a Tony, so what made you want to work on another video game?
TREY PARKER: I can tell you the best answer, and it’s 80 percent true. Matt and I talked a lot about what we were going to do next. We’ve learned: We do South Park, and we’ll do one other thing. Between having kids and all that, if we want any quality control, we can’t dabble. We know we’ve gotta be completely involved.
Ubisoft said, “Let’s make another one.” We were like, “No, no. We should make a movie.” And we started talking: “If we did a game, what would it be? We have all this superhero sh–. It could be the next day.” If we did it, what would it be? What would we call it? We came up with the title The Fractured But Whole. And we were like: “That’s such a sweet title, dude. We’ve gotta make this game. For nothing else than that we could walk around E3 and see The Fractured But Whole in huge flashing letters. Millions of dollars in The Fractured But Whole.
How does it compare doing the work on a game like this versus a season of South Park?
PARKER: It’s harder. It’s different. Whether it’s a show or this, it’s the same thing. It’s super fun at first when you’re just slinging sh–. Then you get to, finally, “we’ve got to make all the gears work,” and it stops being fun. Now we’re in the not-so-fun part.
MATT STONE: The show still is the center. We’ve got to create the characters there. It still is where we have the most control. You can tackle dicey, edgy material, easier than in a video game. The interactivity changes the morality.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the last couple seasons of South Park was the sense that things were really changing in town, and for the characters. With the first game, it felt like it allowed you guys to dive deep into the history of the show. Is that a different creative outlet?
PARKER: What really surprised us, and what we really learned from The Stick of Truth, was how, for many people around the world, that was their first exposure to South Park. All these young kids, going “I love that video game! I think there’s a show, too?”
STONE: What do they think this thing is?
PARKER: It ends up having this Monty Python effect, “What the f— are they talking about?” Which makes it funnier! But we also knew that with this, we want to make something that stands on its own, and isn’t just this big reflection of the show.
How has the gameplay changed in the new game?
STONE: The thing that needed to be updated was the combat. It was pretty simple turn-based on the last game. So there’s a whole new combat system that’s gonna be pretty fun. There’s a lot of ways to use it, instead of just two-on-two facing each other. It still looks like you’re in an episode of South Park. Sometimes you don’t need a whole lot of technical stuff. It can just be a menu joke. When you die, it should be funny. When you get hurt, it should be funny.
When “The Coon” first aired in 2009, we thought we were at Peak Superhero. It turns out we weren’t even close.
PARKER: That first “Coon” was really just kind of making fun of Batman. We didn’t know what we were in store for.
STONE: It gives the boys fodder to fight for their franchise, which is so ridiculous. But it is two levels going on in the game. The main level is: You’re a kid in South Park. They’re playing Superheroes, so we can have fun with all that stuff. But sometimes we have to be reminded: They’re kids
PARKER: People aren’t playing this game to pretend they’re a superhero. This is not the superhero experience. People are playing it going, “I want that Earthbound feel. I want to remember what it was like to be in fourth grade, and go play in some kid’s back yard.”
You’re saying that there’s a fear of making it too much of a professional superhero-video game experience?
PARKER: We need to dial it back. Make it not “What’s the coolest superhero thing” but “What’s the coolest thing that they’re trying to make cool, but it’s a ridiculous way to do it.” It’s just like the show. You’ve got to figure out the overall tone. You can easily take it too far one way, and all the charm goes away.
STONE: The best moments in the game is when the kids are talking about something they actually care about, and then they’re dressing up as superheroes to solve that problem.
Were you comic book fans when you were kids?
PARKER: We’re fans. We go to the superhero movies. On the one hand, it is funny to take the piss out. But it’s also awesome that, [with] people like [acclaimed comic book writer] Ed Brubaker, people are seeing his work finally. There’s great. Great writers that wrote this stuff. That’s why it’s so successful, I think. There’s this backlog of amazing stories that are finally able to be told. I think they’re gonna finally do all the good ones, and then they’re gonna get through it, and they think it’s going to keep going. But it’s not. [laughs]
STONE: You saw from the trailer, we had that joke in there about the black guy. What I really like is some superhero stuff is starting to feel like real stuff. And some of the Marvel stuff, you can tell they stay away from anything too edgy or political. We’ve had this issue. In other video games, you can choose to be black, you can choose to be a girl. In our game, we’re finally gonna do that. You can be a girl. Very revolutionary. Very 2016 of us.
But it’s weird, because… on one end, it doesn’t matter to the superhero part of the game. Superhero franchises have that luxury: “We have a very open casting policy, women superheroes, black superheroes.” Doing all this inclusive stuff – which is great! But they don’t have to deal with racism and sexism. They’re dealing with these fantastical ideas.
You’re saying that, once those characters are in the world of a superhero franchise, they’re hermetically sealed off from real-world issue.
STONE: I think John Boyega’s a great actor, and the cast in the new Star Wars movies are f—ing great. But there’s not really racism. I just don’t know how much racism there is on Hoth.
In Stick of Truth we got halfway through the game, and we had narratively come up with the big Girls’ Quest halfway through it. [The Girls] were a faction in the fantasy world. And then someone’s like, “What if you want to be a girl?” Narratively, it didn’t work. We’d have to sh– can the whole game. So we just left it the way it was. This time, we obviously wanted to add that.
But the boys are little boys, because it’s really a story about little boys running around. So they don’t care about [your character being a girl]? That seems weird. They always seemed to care about it in the show. Are they dumb about it, and they don’t know? So you’re in hiding? Or do they totally care about that, and totally treat you differently? So we ended up doing those things differently for different characters.
It actually turned out to be quite a bit more work. I’m also playing The Division — I’m not just saying that because it’s Ubisoft. I made the character look like my wife, just because I thought that was funny, running around New York shooting people looking like my wife. But the game doesn’t treat you that differently. The guys still shoot you. The game doesn’t really react that much differently. That’s cool for that kind of game. It’s been a funny journey to go through, introducing something that we thought would just be a cool feature. You’re a girl! But now they’re going to treat you different.
I tend to play as a female character, if that’s an option.
Stone: I do that too, now. We figured everyone‘s gonna pick it.
You’re saying a lot of people came to this series through the last game. Are video games a major part of your vision of South Park?
PARKER: It’s not something we can ignore. We’re gamers, and gaming is such a big part of South Park. That’s why we treat this seriously. We treat this like a movie. We could have done a movie, instead of this, but we chose to do it as a game instead.
When you say, “We could have”…
PARKER: I don’t know if we would’ve made a superhero movie, necessarily. Just time-wise, if we were going to do another big thing, we could’ve said, “Let’s make that other big thing a South Park movie.”
The Fractured But Whole will come out right after the end of South Park eason 20. Not many creators work on a project for over two decades. But you both still seem really motivated by your work on South Park.
PARKER: it’s such an open-world. It’s still such a sandbox. What we did last season was just so different. It felt so fresh and new. It’s one of the best times I ever had doing the show.
STONE: To follow storylines through? We couldn’t do that when we started. We were from a different era of TV, when you had to do the sitcom-style reset every week. That’s why a lot of shows — you see it in The Simpsons and us, too — they have dumbest last one minute of a show, because we have to go back to normal for next week. We don’t have to do that anymore.
PARKER: It is nice to realize you don’t have to tie up everything.
Between the new storytelling style and the video games, is this the start of a new phase? A few years ago, with “You’re Getting Old,” people thought that was the end of South Park.
PARKER: We kind of did too, for a little bit.
STONE: I think we’ll probably do semi-serialization for the rest of it. Cat’s out of the bag. We can’t go back. If it’s the right thing for the end of the story, we let some things hang.
PARKER: We also know that this [he points at the video game] might be the future of South Park. This might be where things are going.
STONE: I think in 20 years, 10 years, people will be playing more. That convergence of entertainment, whether it’s VR or a more immersive thing. The more you get in it, the more you watch Pew Die Pie, and people watch Pew Die Pie play, and you watch E-sports. You watch young people, and the way they engage with something — sh–, maybe that is the future of South Park.
South Park VR in 2018?
STONE: You’ll take your South Park pill.