The console versions of South Park: The Stick of Truth have been censored in Europe. That confuses me. You see I live in Europe. I know the kind of things we get up to. I know the kind of things in media that we get squeamish and uptight about. In the latter case, that’s “not a lot”. We’re a pretty chilled out bunch on the whole. Okay, so Germany is still a bit of a delicate flower, and will probably ban anything that makes a loud enough bang, but that’s a special case. The rest of us are fairly relaxed, culturally. Yet our version of South Park has been noticeably censored.
**Note: From this point on I'll occasionally reference vague content spoilers for the game. No story or joke specifics, but the game's various varieties of grimness will be mentioned in generic terms**
America however, gets everything. All the anal probes, all the additional anal probes, all the tertiary follow-up anal probes that come after the initial barrage of anal probes... Even the two interactive abortion scenes. Obviously I’m looking at this from the outside perspective of a turtleneck-wearing, jazz-listening, garlic-munching, tea-sipping European dandy, but that latter content in particular seems like far more of a hot potato issue for the US than it does for us. And even weirder, the standard European PC version of the game comes completely uncut. So what’s going on?
There are a lot of interesting points and mysterious riddles floating through this issue, and I’ll get my teeth into those soon, but first I want to discuss whether this particular instance of censorship actually matters. My simple answer, having played a whole lot of Ubisoft and Obsidian’s excellent RPG-cum-interactive-South-Park episode, is yes it does.
I reckon the excising of the anal probe scenes in particular is seriously detrimental of the section of the game they (should) appear in. And no, that’s not a sentence I thought I’d ever write either. You see the thing is, those bits aren’t just one-shot sight gags that occur in isolation. Like most of the South Park franchise’s funniest, cleverest, most disgusting material, they’re layered and stacked upon each other during a prolonged sequence, eventually building into a brilliant running joke that becomes increasingly funny not simply because of its extreme content, but because of the sheer insanity and contrivance of its repetition. The comedy comes as much from the structure and pacing of the gag as from the sight of a man having a giant alien dildo jammed up the wrong ‘un.
What’s more, the whole flow of the lengthy section of the game in which these jokes should appear is built around the use of those scenes as punctuation. On top of the loss of the steadily building, layered joke itself, the whole sequence loses its momentum, its intended ‘shape’ and purpose. And that’s without even getting into the fact that this section as a whole presents the first large, unexpected, left-field escalation of the game’s narrative direction and scope, a specific intent somewhat neutered by its reduction.
So having established that this stuff matters, why is it missing from the European version of the game? The simple argument that the material in question went too far doesn’t wash with me. Even the EU cut of the game features plenty of other, much sterner stuff throughout its run-time. The Stick of Truth is a game that elsewhere trades gleefully upon full-frontal nudity, masturbation, graphic sex-scenes, infanticide, faecal jokes aplenty, and the regular appearance and disappearance of a six-foot satellite dish from and back into a nine year-old’s rectum. And towards the end, there’s something else that trumps everything I’ve just mentioned.
All of the aforementioned is still in the EU version. That in itself is curious, but the matter becomes really intriguing when you realise that the mystery can’t be hand-waved as the whim of an inconsistent local ratings board.
PEGI, the Pan-European Game Information group, rated the full, uncut ‘American’ edition of South Park: The Stick of Truth as acceptable for release with an 18 certificate, not far off the 17+ M-rating the game secured from the American ESRB. But for unexplained reasons, publisher Ubisoft then re-submitted a censored version to PEGI. This censored version got another 18 certificate, and is the cut of the game that Ubisoft chose to release in Europe. Curious, no?
So what was Ubisoft’s motivation? I dropped the publisher a line the other day with a few rather straightforward questions regarding the reasoning behind the cuts. The official response from a Ubisoft spokesperson, in its entirety, is that the censorship is “a market decision made by Ubisoft EMEA”. Not much help there then. Pretty much the what, but none of the why. Time to analyse a few possibilities.
First up, there’s the chance that Ubisoft of Europe was gunning for a lower rating than 18 in the more accepting European region, and so made a few cuts in the hope of a reprieve. The logic of this one, however, falls apart as soon as you ask why, after failing to achieve that goal, Ubi would release a censored version anyway. That would be a particularly odd decision given the long-held anti-censorship stance synonymous with South Park and its fans.
Option two: Ubisoft is playing on the safe-side, releasing an extra-cautious European version in the hopes of pleasing multiple different countries and cultures with the same cut of the game. Not a terribly logical suggestion either. If any country in Europe is likely to object to extreme content accepted elsewhere, it’s Germany, and Germany was confirmed as getting its own, custom version of the game long before release, due to the verboten Nazi imagery otherwise seen throughout. With Deutschland already covered, there was little need to water down the game for the rest of Europe. Also, consider the first two letters of PEGI. They stand for “Pan-European”. A PEGI certificate is (largely) a blanket judgement for the whole continent.
The next possibility? Ubisoft’s European arm is trying to whip up extra publicity around the game by infusing it with the (false) controversy of (artificial) censorship. The little information we have about the censorship process comes from PEGI itself, and confirms that the game’s edits were the decision of Ubi and Ubi alone. PEGI didn’t even suggest them. If Ubisoft was hoping to play on the controversy factor, I can’t help but feel it a misguided move. Surely by this point the world knows and accepts what South Park does? Surely the show is so well-known, and its fan-base so huge, that trying to sell it off the back of shock-horror outrage is an outdated and slightly naive approach?
The Stick of Truth, with its dense attention to canon, and flawless recreation of the show’s look and feel, is a game aimed squarely at South Park fans. Those guys don’t need to be titillated into playing it on the promise of naughtiness. That said, the game’s UK TV ads are currently selling it as “the most controversial game of the year”, so who knows?
The last option I can think of--and I feel cynical suggesting this one, because it is a cynical idea--is that we’re looking at a bait-and-switch marketing tactic. Consider that The Stick of Truth is currently only out on current/last-gen consoles (delete as per terminology preference) and the PC. Consider the fact that by Christmas there will be a lot more next-gen machines in people’s homes. That will make TSoT a prime candidate to join the swelling ranks of cross-gen re-releases, no? And what better way to sweeten the deal than by bringing out the Super Controvertial Uncut Badboy Edition THEY DIDN’T WANT YOU TO SEE!? Release it on the PS3 and Xbox 360 at the same time, and boom. Double-dips all round.
So, can we draw any definite conclusions from all of this? Not really. Given Ubisoft’s lack of clarification, and the conflicting facts and opinions swarming around the story--South Park co-creator Matt Stone recently expressed the belief that the cuts were necessary for a PEGI pass, which we now know isn’t true--it’s an incredibly hard conundrum for anyone on the outside to fathom. Have we heard the last of this? No, I don’t think we have. These kinds of enigmatic mysteries have a habit of quietly unravelling a while after the fact, even if they’re never officially resolved. But exactly how it will unravel is currently anyone’s guess.
Somewhere under the confusion and contradictions, there is a reason for Ubisoft’s odd treatment of one of the biggest and best games in its current slate. And someone knows that reason. How and when that reason might become clearer is something we’ll just have to wait and see. And if we do end up playing the full, uncut version of the Stick of Truth, as it was originally envisioned, on our European PS4s and Xbones later in the year, then I’ll be very happy about that. But despite my reservations in jumping to conclusions on this one, if that does happen, then I won’t be able to avoid wondering exactly how and why it happened.