[23 May 2014]
Stick It to the Man has one of the most unique worlds that you’ll ever see in a game. The land is literally a cardboard diorama, which is perfect for the platforming controls. All non-character objects, like houses, cars, beds, etc. are drawn onto pieces of cardboard cut vaguely into the appropriate shape. The game so commits to this style that it ends up looking kind of realistic; one imagines you could actually make these levels in real life given enough time, materials, and dedication. Of course, everything else about Stick It to the Man is unrealistic in the best ways possible.
You play as Ray, an amiable “hard hat tester” who has an unfortunate run in with a piece of space stuff, and the next thing he knows there’s a tentacled brain slug named Ted living in his mind, which naturally gives him psychic powers and puts him on the run from “The Man”.
The character designs fit the tone of the story. Every character is deformed or exaggerated in a unique way. Early on, one character trying to hang himself has a foot-long pencil-thin neck, but also a crazy slouch that puts his chin at his chest. “The Man” is always present in shadows, even in brightly lit rooms. No one looks normal, and that makes them all the more endearing.
The game is surprisingly story-driven. Despite its initial appearance, it is more of a point-and-click adventure game than a platformer, though there are jumping sections. Each level drops you into a large open environment filled with people and their personal problems. Like any good point-and-click, Ray uses his new mind reading ability (here presented as a magic pink hand sticking out of his head that grabs peoples’ brains) to help people, who in turn, help him. The puzzles usually involve moving thoughts from one person to another, and those thoughts are cleverly presented as stickers, fitting given the D.I.Y. feel of the world. When Ray’s psychiatrist is too depressed to help, you have to figure out how to reunite a father/son pair of clowns so that you can steal from them the idea of “fatherly praise,” a sticker of a smiling mouth, which you then stick onto the psychiatrist’s ghost dad who praises his son and brings him out of his depressed funk. The whole system is a brilliant way of literalizing abstract concepts like “thoughts” and “mind reading.” It’s also impressive how the puzzles interweave with each other. One solution leads to another and another and so on. The snowball effect is always satisfying.
Stick it to the Man is also a consistently funny game. A sense of self-awareness pops in every now and then for a joke (a pilot talks about flying a paper airplane and Ray notes that his house is “all the way to the left”), but the meta humor is never overdone. Most of the humor stems from Ray’s crazy situation and the crazy situations of those around him. Even when a joke or gag risks falling flat, the superb voice acting carries it to success. The skilled comic timing ensures that even if you don’t laugh, you’ll at least smile.
All the humor and diorama-like trappings make Stick it to the Man feel less like a video game and more like a set of toys. It’s an imaginative game with such a powerful, visceral sense of play that it is impossible not to love it.
It’s also refreshing just how sweet the game is. Multiple levels delve into Ray’s mind, and for a brief moment it seems like the game is about to get really dark. Ray is such a good natured guy, but he’s so put-upon by the world around him that it seems natural for him to have a horrible love life, horrible family life, and just a horribly sad life in general to counter his upbeat nature. But Stick It to the Man is more lighthearted than that, and every one of Ray’s potentially sad memories (like a botched first kiss or bad prom) turn out to be embarrassing in cute ways that work out for everyone involved. A psychiatrist even gets frustrated looking for Ray’s “darkest, innermost secrets” because Ray honestly doesn’t have any.
That goes for the game in general as well. Since you spend a lot of time invading people’s minds, you see a lot of their personal problems, but the game constantly takes a lighthearted approach. When a guy decides to bring home a giant pet sewer alligator, it turns out funny in a sweet way, not because we think the alligator is going to eat everybody. This balance of tone is incredible considering that you spend an entire level in a mental institution, complete with abusive nurses and electroshock therapy.
If there’s any downside to the game it’s that the platforming sections aren’t as fun as the rest of the game. Platforming is more of a puzzle than a test of jumping skills: You have to steal thoughts of “sleep” from minions of the Man, then use those thoughts on other guards to sneak past them. Like all puzzles, these require some experimentation, which means you’re constantly going in and out of mind reading mode, stealing the same thoughts from the same people, and all the minions are dimwits who think the same thing every time. But I’m just reaching for something negative here.
The style and substance of Stick It to the Man are in such perfect harmony—the writing, the mechanics, the animation, the voice acting, the music, the set design, the character design——it’s easily one of the most well-realized visions of a game I’ve ever played. Everything about it is done with a purpose. It’s not a big game or a long game or a difficult game. I finished it one sitting on a Saturday afternoon, but it embraces that small scope. It’s a dense game with no filler, that lasts exactly as long as it needs to, and every second of it is a joy.