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**
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
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
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
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
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.