The response to South Park: The Fractured But Whole has been conflicted. Critics say the predecessor was funnier, while fans accuse the critics of failing to understand the show’s comedy.
I grew up with South Park and still watch the show, which is strange for a self-professed ‘lefty vegan’. I have long struggled with the problematic hit-and-miss, offend-all-sides humour. Rarely do I agree with the views of the show – I know where I stand on politics, gender and all the debates that light up Twitter like a daily igniting phoenix – but it still makes me laugh. At times. I guess I mostly stick around because of a loyalty to the characters and creators. Plus, when a joke really lands for me, it really, really lands.
Despite being a fan, The Fractured But Whole is a flawed comedy simply because it’s an RPG. The pacing and player agency of an RPG undermines the directed comedy of the show. Silence, repetition and cuts are fundamental techniques of comedy that become tedious when player agency is introduced.
The Fractured But Whole is at its best when these techniques support a punchline. On one occasion when moving between areas, you find that Randy Marsh – Stan’s alcoholic dad – has been keying his wife’s car while drunk but cursing and hunting the perpetrator the following day. As a comedic reveal, the ‘cut’ of moving between areas is perfect.
Such a cut could be used similarly on TV but the most important use of a cut is to frame scenes and maintain pacing, something The Fractured But Whole sorely lacks.
The slow, silent moments of an RPG are usually filled with finding loot and managing an inventory or character stats. They’re rarely exhilarating or laugh out loud moments. Here, the silence is filled with throwaway callbacks. It’s filler and it isn’t funny. Sarcasm is safe for now. The lowest form of wit is constant inane references that rely on an encyclopaedic knowledge of a show. Which, I have to admit, I have. But it still isn’t funny. It elicits an ‘ah! I acknowledge this’ response but it’s not funny. It’s definitely not funny the tenth time.
And this is The Fractured But Whole’s problem. Silence and repetition can be hilarious when utilised properly. Andy Kaufman’s Mighty Mouse sketch on SNL is one of my all-time favourite comedy moments, and the majority of it is Andy standing around looking awkward. That’s the point of the joke. The funny moments use the silence to build tension, rather than simply exist around it. The silence isn’t a by-product, it’s integral to the joke.
During combat in The Fractured But Whole, there’s a similar moment when a car is passing and the kids have to stop playing on the road, stand on the pavement and wait. It’s an awkward, mundane moment that reminds us these are just kids playing in a country town. It’s brilliant. The first time. And the first time was when this was shown in previews. By the end of the game, this was infuriating.
It’s the same for combat. The actual combat has been improved with its grid-based tactics, which is great. But watching the attack animations over and over is the perfect example of how repetition ruins comedy. The unskippable cutscenes for the ultimates, while inventive and suitably mocking of the superhero genre, become tedious. The Fractured But Whole is a perfect example of how filler, silence, repetition and tedium completely spoil comedy if not used to set up a punchline.
The punchline here? It’s underwhelming. The novelty of the predecessor has been spent and the comedy does not translate well to an RPG. This sequel was completely unnecessary.
Fittingly, this punchline is overly long and not particularly funny.