Trey Parker and Matt Stone have never been afraid of using their controversial, pop-culture-mocking TV show, South Park, to lampoon topical subjects. Their upcoming video game, South Park: Fractured but Whole, will be no different. On the surface it's a lighthearted dig at the impact of comic book movies, as key characters role-play as superheroes. However, a seemingly innocuous player option has revealed a serious, stinging stab at American society.
Like most RPGs, Fractured but Whole has a difficulty setting, but there's a twist; the level of difficulty in the game changes the color of the playable character's skin color, the harder the difficulty, the darker the skin. As the player chooses the setting, Cartman explains: "Don't worry, this doesn't affect combat. Just every other aspect of your whole life." Yikes.
While talking to Eurogamer, Ubisoft Developers explained that the difference in setting correlates to how different in-game characters interact, as well as the amount of money the "The New Kid" has to spend. #SouthPark writers Parker and Stone are notorious for being on the pulse of topical issues, and while it'd be naive to suggest race relations are ever not topical, the release of the game coincides with a highly charged political climate in the US.
Satirizing A Tense Political And Social Climate
After the election of Donald Trump as US President, bigotry and racial intolerance has escalated, as far-right movements have been validated by the White House. In August, a significant white supremacist rally — dubbed "Unite the Right" — took place in the university town of Charlottesville. Protestors from a number of far-right groups campaigned against the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Tragically, a woman was killed when a car rammed into an anti-racism counter-protest.
In typical South Park manner, the satirical take is simultaneously crude and completely apt. While Charlottesville highlighted serious issues of Neo-Nazism in the US, less overt forms of racial inequality underpin societal issues, as Cartman candidly alludes to. One way inequality manifests is in a disparity of income for different races. A recent report by Stanford University revealed "profound racial and ethnic inequalities that persist in many domains."
The same report details that in 2010, the median income for black males was 32 per cent lower than white males, while the gap between white males and Hispanic males grew from 29 to 42 per cent between 1970 and 2010. On top of earnings, police brutality has also been a life-threatening issue; in 2016 there were 1,091 deaths at the hands of police. Black males aged between 15-34 were nine times more likely than white males to be the victim.
Male, Female, Or Other
Aaaaaand, there's more. The Fractured but Whole also gives the player the option of choosing their gender in a scene with school counsellor Mr. Mackey — options include male, female, or other. If the player chooses female, Mr. Mackey asks whether they identify as cisgender or transgender, before revealing the character was "actually a girl the entire time." This overrides the game that came before, The Stick of Truth, where the player was identified as male.
Sadly, gender identity has also made the headlines in 2017 for the wrong reasons, following Donald Trump's frankly baffling, misinformed and vitriolic decision to expel transgender people from the military (announced in a series of Tweets, no less). An estimated number of 15,000 troops are transgender.
It's a shame the game can't override the decision to elect Trump, too.
South Park: The Fractured but Whole is released on October 17, 2017.