South Park: The Stick of Truth is a great game – that’s certainly something most reviewers have agreed on. Developed by veteran studio Obsidian Entertainment, responsible for a range of successful adventure titles, and written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it is easily the most faithful tie-in with the scurrilous animated series.
But the fact that several scenes have been censored in Europe – apparently by the title’s own publisher Ubisoft – has had fans in uproar. In a game that boasts the CircumSythe as a special move, cuts are to be expected, but not those of the censorious kind. So why?
Games have, of course, often fallen foul of overzealous ratings boards in the past. In the UK both Carmageddon and Manhunt 2 were threatened with bans unless graphic scenes were removed, although both were eventually released, while in Germany, the country’s own classification system, USK, comes down heavily on violent content. If there were some sort of official national censorship going on here, however, we would surely expect a hefty dose of righteous indignation from the show’s creators, both of whom have fought any interference in the TV show, most notoriously when a depiction of Muhammed was censored in the ”Cartoon Wars” episodes, despite the prophet having already appeared in the earlier episode, ”Super Best Friends“.
But censors weren’t at fault for this – it was Ubisoft’s choice. Six 20 second scenes have been removed from the Xbox 360 and PS3 editions, including an alien probe and two abortion sequences. The only comment the company’s spokespeople are willing (or able) to give is that this was a ”market decision made by Ubisoft EMEA” – which isn’t particularly enlightening, especially when the PC version is apparently to be released uncut (at least in most of Europe – it‘s likely the German version will remain censored). When querying the reason, we were pointed in the direction of the Ubisoft and Obsidian forums, but these only had a series of posts from enraged fans, with no further engagement from either company.
On sunday, someone claiming to be the game’s producer then appeared on Reddit to explain the situation, but the comments have since been removed. “Only the North/South American one is completely uncensored on every platform,” the source wrote. “The Australian one is censored on all platforms, the European and Russian ones are censored on console only, and the German one is censored on console for anal probing etc, and censored on both console and PC for swastikas, Heil Hitler arm salutes, etc. To avoid a ‘Hot Coffee’ type situation, the 20-second-or-so gameplay/cutscene is removed completely from the disc and replaced with the screen you see at the link (times six more 20-second scenes).”
But that doesn’t explain much. Console releases are routinely self-censored for the German market without affecting the rest of the continent; and if this was about the depiction of Swastikas and Nazi salutes (which is illegal in Germany under the country’s criminal code, Strafgesetzbuch, section 86a), why were the alien probe scenes edited out too? Indeed, it seems Ubisoft hasn’t even managed to remove Nazi symbolism from the censored version. PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun has reported that the German release of the game seems to have been delayed because somehow Swastikas have remained in the localised version.
Also, the comparison with the Hot Coffee scandal is disingenuous; that involved a game – GTA: San Andreas – being pulled from the shelves for a hidden interactive sex sequence, which was found on the disc and distributed by hackers, whereas what’s been removed here are portions of the game integral to the plot. These mini-games, as tasteless and juvenile as they may be, are entirely in keeping with the rest of the experience – and with an 18 certificate, they would not have been problematic for Europe’s video games ratings board, Pegi. Indeed, the organisation confirmed to us that it was passed uncut at 18 with the scenes intact and then, when resubmitted with the self-imposed cuts, was again passed as an 18. Pegi also made clear that it does not have the ability to censor video games nor has it ever done so – it simply rates them.
Its spokesman said: ‘The game was assessed by us and deemed acceptable for a Pegi 18 rating. For some games released in the UK, we are obliged to consider UK legislation as the Video Recordings Act 2010 currently affects video games. This consideration applies to games that are likely to attain a Pegi 12, 16 or 18 rating and which may contain potentially harmful or illegal material. As there was no such issue with the game, it was duly given its Pegi 18 uncut.
“Let me emphasise that we did not censor or edit the game in any shape or form. Some time later, the publisher made a decision to make alterations to the game which meant it had to be re-submitted to us as a different version. We are not privy to reasons why the game was edited and cannot, therefore, give you any other details. This version was subsequently rated 18 uncut also”.
Probing the reasons
So there seems no good reason to remove interactive versions of jokes dating back to the cartoon’s inception. The very first episode is, after all, called Cartman Gets An Anal Probe.
Within the game, the cuts have been treated with the attitude fans of the series would expect. Comically explicit descriptions, apparently constructed by Stone and Parker, of what would have happened are placed over a holder card of the European flag and a face-palming statue to replace those scenes. However, it will still leave gamers and South Park fans feeling uncomfortable. It highlights the disparity in treatment between interactive entertainment and it’s non-gaming counterparts, and it seems somehow more invasive when this comes from inside the studio rather than a meddling censor or hand-wringing politician.
If Ubisoft thought that removing those sequences would reduce the rating to a Pegi 16, they were wrong, so why not admit that and restore the removed content? The company must have known what it was getting when it greenlit the project, and if the cuts were carried out for commercial reasons as the terse statement suggests, it seems peculiarly wrong-headed. Leaving aside the free marketing the controversy may have stirred up, the game is aimed squarely at South Park fans and they would certainly not be shocked by anything in the missing sections.
The only shock will be that two creators who have railed against censorship for the last 17 years seem happy to keep quiet now. The removal of these sections may not harm the quality of the game, but it certainly damages its integrity.
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image: © Comedy Partners