Friday, July 10

Stick it to The Man: A Silly Diversion

          I really thought Stick it to The Man was on my list. I played the whole thing through, I kept the best notes of any game I played this year! I’m not going to cross anything on my list out, but I played this game, and damned if I’m not going to talk about it.
          Stick it to The Man is a sort of spiritual sequel to Psychonauts, a fascinating game about a kid who runs away from the circus to go to a summer camp for psychics. It’s wacky, clever fun that churns out so many inventive scenarios and characters that it’d be impossible for me not to love it. Stick it to The Man is a game about a working-class shlub who has an alien land on his head which gives him mind reading and the abilities to pull thoughts and items into his head as stickers, which he can then implant into others’ minds or the real world.
          The first thing that struck me about Stick it to The Man is its ugliness. The game is aesthetically consistent, put people tend to look kind of upsetting, with black bags under their eyes and bulbous purpled lips. The world is mainly 2-D, and it apparently made of paper, which it why things turn into stickers, I guess? The whole premise doesn’t have as much internal consistency as Psychonauts manages, but it’s never enough to break the experience.
          The gameplay is weirdly designed to me. Each area consists of a series of puzzles with an Adventure game sort of logic, but limited enough in variation to be reasonable. Basically it’s find Key A that finds Key B that finds Key C, and so on. The puzzles are logical enough, but the real thing I noticed about them is how they are laid out. Each area is at least somewhat free-roaming, and the first Key in the chain of moves I mentioned above is always the furthest away, or the one you are least likely to get first. By the time you have it, you’ve collected four or five other bits of the chain, and you get to end the area with a satisfying series of entertaining scenes where you see how a man undergoing electro-shock treatment can charge a Car Battery in his mind, or how turning TVs to specific channels get the watchers to think of certain items.
          Puzzles are hard to design well. As a guy who’s played D&D for a fair number of years, puzzles are hard to fit in without making them boring or inscrutable. I don’t know which of those two it worse. Sometimes it’s tempting to resort to riddles, but riddles are almost never easy to figure out. You either know the answer or you don’t, and so the party sits around for an hour, tediously taking shots in the dark until they get it by chance.
          A puzzle is a problem you have all the information for, and the joy in a puzzle comes from what is called “The Aha! Moment.” You know this feeling, it’s when you do a little fist pump when a jigsaw puzzle piece fits where you thought it would.
          Stick it to The Man illustrates this very well. Before you get all the pieces to your puzzle, you will have little to know idea why they aren’t fitting together. But when you get that last piece, you have this cascade of “Aha! Moments,” and the experience really comes together. There’s enough varition in the way these puzzles are set up that it’s never rote, it’s always neat to explore the areas and find the new item. Plus, the game is only about three hours long, so you can knock it out pretty quickly.
          I like looking at and analyzing puzzles, but the real enjoyment of solving them usually is watching the funny little interactions and strange logic that brings you from puzzle too puzzle. Inflate a clown’s dad with helium, plant a target on his belly, fire his son at him out of a cannon, and steal his proud smile at the end. Yep. Ryan North is credited with the writing, and it largely hits home. It has a couple problems comedy often does, but finds a nice middle ground for its plot twists and fun recurring characters. Charting the life of a snarky nurse who gets zombified and forced to sing show-tunes is the kind of inventiveness that made Psychonauts so great.
          There are a couple of moments of tonal break that really took me out of the experience, but overall I liked my experience with Stick it to The Man, and if you’re looking for a quirky gaming experience in between Tales from the Borderlands episodes, you’ll like it too.

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