Academic Research

Retroactive Continuity and ‘South Park’

Radical Islamic website warns ‘South Park’ creators that they may end up dead for allegedly depicting Muhammad in a bear suit. I was shocked to see on CNN that a radical Islamic website had issued this message to ‘South Park’ creators:

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show,” the group said. “This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality that will likely happen to them.”

In a subsequent interview with Ayaan Hirsi, Hirsi says, “South Park episode of last week was not just funny… it addressed an essential piece in the times that we are living: [that] there is one group of people, one religion that is claiming to be above criticism.”

When asked whether they were afraid of being bombed, South Park creators said:

We’d be so hypocritical against our own thoughts if we said “ok, well, lets not make fun of them because they might hurt us. That’s messed up… ok, we’ll rip on the Catholics because they won’t hurt us, but we won’t rip on them because they might hurt us.”

[Spoilers ahead!]

The episode that sparked such controversy aired one week ago, and tonight’s episode revealed that, “just kidding,” the children of South Park had Santa Claus in the bear suit “pretending” to be the prophet, Muhammad. What an interesting instance of retroactive continuity.

Ok, so this isn’t the traditional application of “retcon.” Wikipedia describes:

Retroactive continuity (often shortened to retcon) is the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. Retconning may be carried out for a variety of reasons, such as to accommodate sequels or further derivative works in the same series, to reintroduce popular characters, to make a reboot of an old series more relevant to modern audiences, or to simplify an excessively complex continuity structure.

And it may not even really be retroactive, but perhaps to the credit of the creator’s foresight of cultural implications and public response, it is. In any case, I felt it is noteworthy in light of the research meeting I had earlier today where my advisor mentions the leverage that retroactive continuity has within the system I’m currently building.

My approach to story generation focuses on implicit character role satisfaction (such as victim or aggressor) as opposed to strictly plot generation. Making the mutability of plot a secondary concern, this system (which we are calling RoleModel) aims to explore the space of ideological models and novel implications of hot cognition in generating stories.

Now, I’m not going to go into all the details of the system (you can read the paper if you really want to know), but the direction I’d like to see my work heading is towards a system that generates novel variations, while maintaining the integrity of the some authored (or partially authored) plot.

For a whole week, we were correct to believe that Muhammad was parodied in a bear suit on South Park. That belief stirred strong emotions and international controversy. Today, it is correct to believe that Santa Claus, not Muhammad, was in that bear suit. The integrity of last week’s episode is maintained; however, a very consequential reality has been retroactively negated. South Park creates an unusually satisfying experience by using conventions of storytelling applied to an unconventional social situation. I hope that RoleModel can leverage these under-explored experiences and (similarly) apply them to immersive and interactive spaces.

The prototype system, “RoleModel,” will premier at this year’s Foundations of Digital Games in Monterey California.

10 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity and ‘South Park’

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Retroactive Continuity and ‘South Park’: Turns Out that Santa Claus was in the Bear Suit --

  2. It’s funny the comic book version of Retcon seemed to usually induce a facepalm reaction amongst readers and writers (who had to clean up other people’s messes, conflicts in story), the example par excellence being DC’s massive continuity clean-up in the 12 part series, Crisis of Infinite Earths. From Wikipedia:

    “Crisis was used by DC as an opportunity to wipe much of its slate clean and make major changes to many of their major revenue-generating comic book series. Frank Miller’s revamp of Batman with Batman: Year One, George Pérez’s relaunching of Wonder Woman (see Gods and Mortals), and John Byrne’s reboot of Superman (see The Man of Steel) all took place shortly following “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and changed substantial elements of the characters’ backstories.”

    On the one hand, DC’s main competitor Marvel may be applauded for not having to indulge in such a gimmicky about-face on the scale of “Crisis…” and it’s sequels. But on the other hand, I could definitely see the interest and potential in using Retcon consciously as an integral part of story-telling, while directing/enhancing a reader/viewer/player’s engagement. In a way, wasn’t Braid using a purely visual form of Retcon?

  3. @Patience,

    Wow, I was worried that people wouldn’t make the connection I was trying to make between retcon and (interactive) storytelling, but you totally got it. Unsurprising, coming from a such thoughtful comic reader.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Retroactive Continuity and ‘South Park’ --

  5. Hello Sherol,

    Nice job in analyzing this episode and the drama around it.

    “South Park episode of last week was not just funny… it addressed an essential piece in the times that we are living: [that] there is one group of people, one religion that is claiming to be above criticism.”

    Man, i get so sick of hearing about these extreme groups – of course, they are not the majority, but rather i sometimes get this feeling by the constant media portrayal – or rather constant focus – on the negatives only.

    It’s definitely a hard topic: respecting someones religion vs. following your own principles of freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

    Thanks for the nice article.

    Ivar Moesman
    Calonice Amorino

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  8. @Patience,

    I remember an interview with John Bryne (who at the time was on Fantastic Four) and he made mention how Marvel would view it’s characters’ history.

    Where Reed and Ben had initially served together in WWII, now they no longer did. The way they got around it, instead of making a huge song and dance revamp it, it was simply not mentioned it anymore.

    Now that is an interesting take; I don’t know if that’s neither here nor there, but I thought I would mention it. That the characters’ established history was malleable.

    Tanya Tate

  9. I can see where you’re going with this. And I agree that it’s a super important part of story-telling. Changing what is thought to be a definitive past by adding extra details is one of the best ways to add a twist to a story (Darth Vader’s relationship to Luke Skywalker for example). I do kinda wonder whether South Park caved in at all or if this was initially planned.

  10. I feel that a similar tactic might be used in Christian evangelism many times when there are unsure details of persay, the gospel… or at least I have done such a thing before. South Park’s usage of retcon in the social situation is definitely of an interesting note as it’s something normally used in character trivia or biographic continuation.

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