As I reached the last hours of South Park: The Fractured but Whole, I had an epiphany. My preferred party included a kid in crutches, a diabetic kid with a speech impediment, and "myself"—a Jewish pansexual hero who was white, but could have chosen from a wide range of skin colors, genders, and sexual orientations.
I don't want to insinuate South Park: The Fractured but Whole is sensitive or progressive. It's not. It has greasy "jokes" about strippers, trans people, child molesters, Catholics, black people, Mexicans, Jews—name it. I mean, Eric Cartman's superhero persona is "The Coon," and that says it all.
Despite all that, two of the game's strongest playable characters have obvious disabilities. The leader of your rival group, Timmy, is wheelchair-bound. Are the two movement-impaired characters, Jimmy and Timmy, always portrayed respectfully and carefully? Lord hell no (especially Jimmy, whose superhero persona is a Flash clone named "Fastpass") but neither do their peers single them out, coddle them, or ridicule them. They're just part of the gang. Separate gangs, maybe—South Park is beleaguered by divided loyalties—but nobody asks them why they're there, or tells Jimmy "You can't be a fast superhero! You're on crutches!"
It feels odd to point at the Fractured but Whole and tell other game developers, "Hey, this game has a few things to teach you about inclusivity," but it feels less odd the more I think on it. South Park is 20 years old. That's a terrifically long time for any show to be around, let alone a show that maintains its life force by sniping at every marginalized group imaginable. But unlike other shows that pride themselves on "edgy" comedy, South Park isn't an easy study. AV Club's Sean O'Neal published an excellent breakdown of South Park last July that clocks in at over 2,500 words, and I agree with its general message: South Park is hugely problematic, but I don't believe it should take the blame (certainly not all the blame) for the current rise of Nazis, white supremacists, and poisonous Twitter trolls.
Yes, South Park makes fun of political correctness, but its inclusion of Timmy, Jimmy, Scott "Captain Diabetes" Malkinson, and myriad race choices / sexual orientations for your character is exactly the kind of thing that gets denounced as "PC bullshit" in the grimier corners of the Internet. The story for The Fractured but Whole also addresses white privilege, racial profiling, and police brutality towards black people—problems that straight-up don't exist according to the alt-right.
And, like the show that birthed it, The Fractured but Whole even has moments that are genuinely sweet. Towards the end of the game, there's a scene where the kids get in over their heads and their lives are in real danger. Clyde—who goes by the moniker of "Mosquito" and wears a Vuvuzela as a proboscis—starts to cry and says he wants to go home. Scott puts his arm around Clyde's shoulder and tells him everything will be OK. Nobody laughs at them, calls them pussies, or tells them to man up.
Granted, many of the sensitive moments in The Fractured but Whole can be read as jabs at people who care too much. Thing is, it's impossible to be certain: Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are champions at being coy. The sequences where you select your gender and sexuality are fronted by Mr Mackey, whose air of general buffoonery while he questions the protagonist might understandably give players the feeling they're being mocked. Maybe they are, but Mackey's demeanor hasn't changed much across the past 20 years, and there's no reason why a school councillor wouldn't talk to a student about gender and sexuality. Moreover, when you exit your appointment, you're waylaid by a truck of drunk rednecks who mock your identity and initiate a fight while howling how socialist pussies like yourself need to get out of America. They look like the dumb assholes—not you.
Another "Am I being mocked? Yes? No? Maybe?" scene comes courtesy of PC Principal, who teaches your character about microaggressions and invites you to take a swing at anyone who uses them against you. While the character can easily be read as a cheap personification of the "Both sides are just as bad" argument, PC's explanation of why certain microaggressions are harmful prompts an apology from Stan after he uses one. "Sorry," Stan says, "I was trying to sound tough and I guess I forgot words hurt." It's a surprisingly solid apology from a character who's as down-to-earth and sensible as South Park allows. You're left guessing, sure—but it's better than being told "Oh, did I offend you, Snowflake?" To paraphrase a line Father Maxi delivers in the game, "South Park giveth, and South Park taketh a selfie."
I'm not writing this to make people change their minds about South Park. It's been 20 years; your feelings about the show are almost certainly set in (Matt) stone by now. Consider how The Fractured but Whole caused a stir prior to release when Ubisoft announced the game's difficulty is dependent on the color of your character's skin, with black being "hard mode." Later, Ubisoft announced the game's skin color slider is purely cosmetic. There was condemnation on both sides: People who believe the struggles of black people in a racist society shouldn't be used to make an edgy joke, and people who feel removing the unconventional difficulty slider dismisses that struggle. Still more people believe they shouldn't be subject to a harder game experience just because they want to play a character whose skin color matches theirs.
None of these positions are incorrect. It all comes down to your personal tolerance. I'm not especially amused by comedy's "New York Jew" stereotype, but Kyle's cousin still makes me howl. Laughing at Kyle Schwartz is my prerogative as a Jewish person who's unfortunately aware of the harmful Jewish stereotypes that exist across every shade of the political spectrum, but if I didn't find him funny, I wouldn't appreciate non-Jews telling me why I ought to find him hilarious. Parker and Stone are currently doing fine even though every person on earth hasn't pledged fealty to South Park; they'll probably continue to do fine.
South Park can be brilliant, but it can also be insufferable. Still, I don't believe the show or its games revel in meanness the way some other adult comedies do, and they occasionally deliver valuable messages in their own twisted way (poor Butters is a testament to how not all child abuse is physical), but I understand why some people want nothing to do with it. I even doubt I'll start watching it regularly again despite enjoying The Fractured but Whole. I'll wait for the inevitable sequel to get my next fix.
Surely another RPG from another big publisher will make a cast as varied as The Fractured but Whole's before then. Right? Right?