In response to a few recent games that appear to be lacking in the criteria. This is a short list and thoughts on some stand out game mechanics that developers seem to be ignoring and need to build upon.
4 Ways South Park: The Stick of Truth Is The Best Licensed Game Ever
In case you haven’t played it yet, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a really good game. I’ll let our review do most of the heavy lifting here, but I wanted to go a bit beyond that. All due respect to Rocksteady (and Warner Brothers) work on Batman, but Obsidian absolutely blew the doors off what we thought possible with a licensed property. Of course, that starts with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who were heavily involved in the making of the game. Let’s examine four ways I think The Stick of Truth perfected the art of the licensed game.
Hands down, no game has captured the sound of a franchise better than South Park: The Stick of Truth. I guess an argument could be made for Rock Band, but that is really an entirely different beast. Obviously having Matt and Trey do the voicework is paramount, but everything from the background music (which in itself features character voices) to the sound effects recalls an episode of South Park, and I was impressed by little touches like recognizing a snippet of commercial while walking through Cartman’s living room, or the 8-bit rendition of Blame Canada, which made me laugh out loud (something I did often throughout the game) when I recognized it.
99% of the time when working with an established fiction, certain factors limit what exactly the game can do. Be it restrictions on where the story could go, or shoehorned in movie ties, or crazy guidelines for how a character must act, developers rarely have pure freedom to integrate fully with the fiction. South Park handlded this in a masterful way: planning from the beginning to assimilate the game into the larger fiction. We have seen this before with titles like High Moons’s Transformer games, but that felt more like a bullet point than a key feature. Rockstar’s The Warriors did an excellent job of this, and is generally overlooked as one of the beest licensed games ever. But even they were working within the confines of a movie decades old. With the Stick of Truth, Matt and Trey designed a series of full episodes (entitled Black Friday) that literally lead-in to the game. While they are quality episodes in their own right, the fact that these two things tie into each other so well is what makes The Stick of Truth special.
Making The Mechanics Fit
Sometimes when dealing with licensed properties, concessions must be made for the sake of the game. Why is Brian wielding a shotgun in Family Guy: Back to the Multiverse? Who knows, he has to have something to shoot right? Obsidian could have easily given your protagonists thunder magic or whatever in The Stick of Truth, but instead opted to make the combat fit within the universe of the story. These are elementary kids wailing on each other in the backyard, not actual wizards and paladins warring it out. So instead of a flame spell and guns, we get firecrackers and dodge balls as weapons. Sure, some of the powers are over-the-top, but when Butters turns into Professor Chaos and hits the enemies with an energy blast, we understand that is happening in their imaginations, a regular occurrence on the show. And honestly, who needs magic when you can hit your foes with a Nagasaki fart anyway?
Exploring The Property In Unfamiliar Ways
South Park has been around for a long time, so it is no surprise they have a dedicated and expansive following. For them, one of the key elements of the game is getting to explore the sleepy mountain town of South Park at their leisure. Again, games like Transformers and the Arkham trilogy have let you experience iconic locales from their respective fictions, but none, in my opinion, have matched the personality and joy that The Stick of Truth provided. Sure, chasing down hundreds of Riddler trophies made for great gameplay, but am I really expected to believe Riddler and his henchmen are capable of hiding all those trophies and riddles? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (at least in South Park logic) to find Al Gore hiding behind a bush searching for Manbearpig, or for Timmy to shuttle you around for fast travel. Exploring places like Tom’s Rhinoplasty or Kenny’s house is an experience I won’t soon forget, and made me feel even closer to the South Park franchise.