Matt Stone Discusses The Highs And Lows Of Making 'South Park: The Stick of Truth'

February 28, 2014
Trey Parker and Matt Stone at VGX - Courtesy of Getty Images/Charley Gallay

The South Park franchise has become one of America's most beloved forms of entertainment. The TV show has been on for seventeen seasons, and has provided countless hours of laughter courtesy of the exploits of Stan, Kyle, Eric, and Kenny. The feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, was a huge success at the box office, and was even nominated for an Academy Award. The one area that the brand has struggled is in video games. Going all the way back to the Nintendo 64, the South Park games have been mediocre at best. However, the creative team behind the show, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are hoping to turn the tides with their next release, South Park: The Stick of Truth for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PCs.

It's the first release to really immerse players in the world of South Park, as they step into the shoes of the new kid in town. Parker and Stone were intimately involved in the game, delving deep into the writing and the development processes. Finally, after more than four years of development, the fruits of their labor will be released on March 3rd. We recently had a chance to sit down with one half of the dynamic duo behind the show, Matt Stone, as well as Jordan Thomas, creative consultant on the project, to get some insight into the differences between making the game and making the show, as well as some of the difficulties about getting the game out the door.

Spike: After writing the show, and the movie, what was the thinking going into the game, as to how to make it a funny, interactive experience?

Matt Stone: Well, that's it. I probably still can't totally answer that question. Jordan has some very sophisticated answers for that.

Jordan Thomas: Oh, you want me to pontificate?

Stone: Yeah, I want you to pontificate.

Thomas: Crap.

Stone: It was hard. The one thing I will say is that me and Trey have a really good sense of is how to make a 22-minute show that's funny. We know this scene has to be funny. We know scenes are about a minute and a half to two minutes long. There should be a montage. It should feel like this. We just have this intuitive sense of 22-minutes, and that just comes from years, and decades of doing that length.We've done movies, and when we do movies, or things like the Book of Mormon, or this game we always have to find our way there. We make a lot of mistakes, and go, "this is what it is. Oh, okay. That isn’t what it is, but we keep a little bit." So we do go like this (makes a hand motion in the approximate shape of a "z") to find that answer.

What we kind of found in this is that what we didn’t like in the first incarnation of the thing that we wrote. It was too much like cut scene hunter: you go here and you see something funny, and you go do some stuff, and then you maybe laugh when you see another cutscene. That was the main challenge of the game - how to make doing stuff funny. How to make it consistently. How to work the cutscenes in the game together in a fluid way where they kind of went into each other, so that there was actions in between them that made sense.

With South Park and the animation, we knew intuitively that it should be possible, because this was the look. It looks like the TV show. How do you go in and out of where you're in control, and not, and make it fun, that was the main challenge, totally.

Spike: With that being the biggest challenge, what were some of the smaller ones?

Stone: Everything. Everything else.

Spike: What has the game allowed you to do that the other mediums you've worked in hasn’t?

Stone: There's a part of the game where you have to get your photo taken for a passport. It's the simplest gameplay in the world. It's barely, barely gameplay, but there is some interactivity - you do have to press a button. It's one of my favorite parts of the game, and there's something about it. There's South Park. It looks just like South Park. The timing is just like South Park. You're pressing a button and you're doing it, and the joke itself is a South Park like joke, and so that feels kind of new, that feels like a thing.

When the Xbox 360 and the PS3 came out, that's how long ago we first started talking about this game, because that’s was the first time that it could do like 720p, and we were doing HD at the time. We were like "wow, you could do a game where you felt like you were in an episode of South Park." You're watching it on the same TV that you watch the show on. You just have a little black controller in your hand, and you're running around in that classroom that we're always in, or in that hallway that you see over and over and over. That felt like a really cool thing.

In the end I hope we pulled it off, and instead of watching an episode of South Park, you've kind of lived one. If we could pull that off, it would be really cool. That's the new thing. A cutscene with Catman, it's like we do those in the show.

Thomas: As a designer, for me, the most special qualities of the game are that there are moments where the game is strictly reacting things that you might do, kind of contingent humor. Where you chose to do this thing, but not every player will ever find that location, let alone ask themselves, "I wonder if I can…?" "What if I fart on this person, at this time," when it's supposed to be super dramatic, and everyone's supposed to be taking the moment seriously.

Matt especially ran a high-pressure writers room, intended to generate meaningfully funny responses to all those things. A lot of other people - bluntly, people that come out of linear media - would not have even bothered. They would have said, "eh, not my thing. I'm going to stick to structure, because that's what I care about." But, reactivity; there aren’t many games that have gone there. There are old LucasArts adventure games where there are a few cases where experimental play turns into a punch line, but you didn’t have a lot of tools to experiment with. This game has a full suite of action tools, and growth choices, like which class you're playing effects some of these jokes. That's why I was attracted to the project, because they were willing to say, "yeah, okay, there's going to be this narcissistic tornado in the middle of all of our jokes, and we're going to account for that."

Stone: The spread of the game… I know there are probably bigger, more sprawling games, like the Skyrims of the world, but when you listen to the dialog, you're like this could have been written by … I mean I wont put anybody down, but this kind of dialog, it's meant to be grandiose. It's meant to be spread wide. It's meant to feel this way, and ours isn’t. So it's like somebody is supposed to walk into something and it's like we can't just go like, "well, I wrote a line here, and there's a line here, and that's what I did here, and now you experience it."

Thomas: "How dare you question that line!"

Stone: Yeah, and there's got to be something that's like f*cking funny about it or something that's different from the one thing we did in the other thing. The spread of it, the spider-web of contingent things that can happen - I think we got it to a place where it's going to be satisfying to run around.

That said, somebody will run around and find something in the game and ask, "why doesn't that do ..." They'll just find something. It's just that big. Hopefully you get a good average where people feel like they get a payback for trying stuff, but it's really hard to fill that world out that much.

Thomas: Maybe you know, is it [John] Cleese who talks about the root of comedy being a lack of self awareness?

Stone: Probably, that sounds right.

Thomas: The reason I bring this obscure reference up is because I think the problem with a game is that the lack of self awareness gets mapped on to the awareness of the space that the player occupies. So, the player is going to do a whole bunch of sh*t that you, the frame, can not contain.

Stone: Yes.

Thomas: And a lot of the funniest sh*t in games comes out of moments when the designer really wanted you to do the right thing, and you did something else. You dropped a grenade in mom's backyard. Does the game bother to respond, or is it just the humor of her staring at you numbly while the explosion goes off behind her? We did our best to show you that we were watching, but people will find the edges.

Stone: Oh, they'll find stuff where they're like, "oh that doesn’t make any sense." It's impossible to get it all in line.

Spike: One of the things that you mentioned is that the game is big and sprawling, and one the nice things in the game is that you get to see the whole map of the town. Is that the first time that you guys have plotted out where everything is in relation to everything else?

Stone: Yeah, we had never done that before. There was some basic geography that we stuck to - Main Street, Kyle doesn't live next door to Cartman, and stuff like that. We had to make some decisions and put things places, because for years we just said, "oh, there's a mall, then we need a K-Mart. Okay, there's a K-mart, and it's over there." Whatever we need, it is just magically there. We did have to make those decisions.

That said, already on this next season of South Park, we'll put it wherever. It's just for this game. It's just too hard to figure this out. So this was the first time, and I think it's a pretty good version of the town. It is fun. The first time I ran around in the town, it was like, "wow!" There is that thing of like, I'm running around South Park.

Thomas: We went back and forth about how off the leash you were allowed to be, and I'm so glad we landed where we are. You could take a hard left away from the story, and just go f*ck around.

Stone: Just go wander around, go f*ck around if you wanted. Totally.

Spike: Since the game has been going on in yours heads for a long time, after you started working on it, and things fell apart a bit. Were you ever worried that the game wasn't going to see the light of day?

Stone: Oh, all the time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Other than the show, South Park, and even that maybe three times in a week we think it isn't going to air, every single long form thing we do we think about quitting like every two weeks.

Thomas: It's like, "this is a really long episode, f*ck it."

Stone: Oh man, we should f*cking quit this. We want to quit everything all the time. We're always calling people, "should we just quit doing this?" Especially with long stuff that we spend a lot of time on: we get excited, we get bored, we lose faith, we get excited again, we get bored, we lose faith. I'd like to make it sound like an admirable thing, that we always want to quit, but we always examine quit.

We talk very openly about quitting stuff all the time, and then one of us talks the other one into not. Sometimes there are things that we have quit that you don’t know about. I tend to think it's healthy to be going, "should we just f*cking quit this?," and having someone to go "no." It was me a lot of times on this project, or Trey at different times on this project - no, let's not quit, let's do it.

I think that when you just get into autopilot, and you're doing it just because you're doing it, that's when it turns to shit. I'd like to think that's an admirable quality, but I'm sure people that work with us hate it.Somehow we've delivered stuff, and we've gotten stuff done, so somehow we work through it, but that's an everyday kind of thing for us, for Trey especially. Every damn day we want to quit.

Spike: So it's the two of you that keep that balance?

Stone: Yeah, I think so. Like I said, when we have to live with something for a long time we end up questioning it, and losing faith. And then coming back around to it, and taking break from it, and all that stuff. That's why I think TV has been a great fit for us, because we're just like great, bam, bam, bam. I still love it when it comes out on the air and I'm not bored of it. I was pretty bored of this game. I think in a couple months I go and play it, and be like, "this game's f*cking great." But you just get too close to it, and you just don’t see it any more.

Thomas: It's key to watch other people play. I was only on it within the last year, and I still had moments where it was important for me to watch testers. You have to see, "oh that's right, oh that's right." All of these things are fresh to a new person.

Stone: Right, exactly.

Thomas: They don't see the sweat. That's the point.

Stone: We just end up seeing pixels. We don’t focus group stuff either, that's kind of our "thing." Trey and I, we've never focus grouped anything, and I don’t think we need to on linear stuff.

Thomas: But on this, it helps because you just move so fast.

Stone: We just moved so fast, there's no time for that sh*t. I think focus groups have ruined the world in a lot of ways. But for something like this, whether it's testers or friends or somebody, you've got to. I can't have fun in this game any more. I think it was more useful on this than on our other stuff, to see other people play it. When we have to release a clip, I show my wife, I show my friends…. Is this funny? Do you know what's going on? I can't see it any more.

Spike: What was your favorite part of the project?

Stone: Uh, being done with it? Like right now. I like learning, so that once we got through the pain of resisting, I like learning new shit. To go way back, I have a math background. I got a math degree in college, so before I drank and smoked my brain away, I used to be pretty smart at this shit. For that part of me, it was a lot of fun to get back into like the gears.