So there’s this game I like, Psychonauts. Maybe you’ve heard me gush about it before? Well, I’m always on the lookout for anything remotely similar, so naturally I’ve dabbled with a few games, films, and the like with similar art styles or premises or themes. Seriously, just look at the number of things I’ve compared to it in my archive.
So when I was told there was a game out there that was a spiritual successor to the most excellent Psychonauts (You know, back in the days of yore when Psychonauts 2 was a mythical beast of the internet), naturally I was sold immediately. And here we are. Aside from the VR spinoff Psychonauts: In the Rhombus of Ruin, Stick it to the Man! is likely the closest thing we have to another Psychonauts at the moment. If you need something to tide you over until Psychonauts 2 comes out and you want a bit of a different perspective on how a mind-bending comedy based around psychic powers might work, it’s not a bad experience.
3P Reviews: Stick it to the Man!
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: I NEED MORE TEETH!
Let’s play a game of pretend, shall we?
Imagine for a moment that you live in a world where Psychonauts doesn’t exist. I know, it’s horrifying, but bear with me. You have seen games and films and the like where characters have magical powers, read minds, and have dreamscapes that form around them, but you have never seen these combined with oddly colored claymation cartoon characters, 3-D platforming, absurdist adventure game humor, and squirrels.
Then this game comes along.
Technically, you still have not seen the same list of characteristics that make up Psychonauts, as this one is neither a 3-D platformer nor has any squirrels that I can recall. But the important question is, how does it come across?
Admittedly, I’m not great at this “let’s pretend” thing. I can’t go into this review unbiased because bias is the main reason I bought the game. I wanted to compare it to my favorite game. However, it’s important to recognize that despite the superficial similarities and cute nod to Double Fine as a source of inspiration, Stick it to the Man!, to my knowledge, has nothing to do with Psychonauts. It’s made by Swedish indie studio Zoink, which has many games that take after the unique yet familiar art style of Stick it to the Man!, that being one of curiously-proportioned figures with prominent lips and eyes, bright colors, and smooth shading. Actually, while the art style has other common principles unifying it, these three are distinct enough to differentiate it from most other major shows and games. The visual style of the game is far more reminiscent of a modern indie comic book, though again, I fail to draw a good analogue.
I should be clear, the visual style isn’t entirely pleasing. It’s not trying to be, at least, not all of the time. All of the characters in Stick it to the Man! have detached jaws or heads that float around when they talk, and while dialogue is extremely well-animated along with the rest of the character movement, it also gives the characters a rather uncanny look. The exaggerated proportions exacerbate this effect, as do the 2-D cutscenes.
Sometimes the uncanniness is intentional, as the game is technically a bit of a thriller in its story. There are seedy figures all around and even the main character, while not malicious, lives in a grimy city with every character archetype you could imagine. This isn’t a pretty game, but it is an interesting-looking one. In that vain, it’s a good example of how cohesive aesthetics are far more important to the visual identity of a piece of art than any one design choice.
The game does a particularly clever thing with its visuals that immediately sets it apart from any other experience I’ve seen: it asserts that its characters are all stickers, and their world is all paper and cardboard. This is endlessly charming, and not only gives the game its title, but also its core conceit.
This is an adventure game where you have an inventory of one and interact with the world by stealing parts of people’s faces.
Part Two: A Sticky Situation
Now if there’s any one thing I have gripes with, it’s the mechanics. Stick it to the Man! is not a platformer, but it really wants to be. The main character can jump, sort of, but mainly uses a psychic hand and conveniently-placed pushpins to get around his environment. The controls are not especially intuitive as they require walking and grabbing commands to work simultaneously, as well as aiming. When antagonists are introduced, the difficult controls become a problem because not only do you have to figure out how to get somewhere, you have to do so on a tight time constraint. Luckily, the game takes pity and offers plenty of opportunity to knock guards out using telepathy.
Actually, while I wouldn’t call this game especially kid-friendly or nonviolent, the mechanics present a relatively rare game that doesn’t ever offer the player a weapon. Even fists are off-limits, the game instead encouraging the player to evade and outwit enemies to survive encounters. You have two powers at the start of the game, telepathy and telekinesis, both with a limited range. Telekinesis allows the player character to grab stickers from his environment and place them elsewhere in designated slots. Telepathy gives players a look into the minds of other people and creatures, providing hints about puzzles, new stickers to pull, and adorably hilarious jots of writing. Using these powers, the player is merely the instigator of silly scenarios, taking teeth from one person to give another a dashing smile or turning someone’s thoughts of being tired into a well-deserved nap.
As there are a limited number of movable items, the game is far more about puzzles than anything else, mechanically. At times, these puzzles seem laughably easy, as characters will all but give the player exactly what they need to solve it. Sometimes they do just that, actually. Stick it to the Man! quickly escalates the challenge as it progresses, though, assuming far more intuition than I personally have. For instance, one particularly frustrating and satisfying moment came when I realized I could pull items I had already placed to reuse in another puzzle. I’m torn on whether this should have been included in the tutorial, as figuring it out on my own made me feel clever, but it was also not an immediately intuitive concept.
Oddly, I feel Stick it to the Man! almost has the same problem as Baba is You, which I love, but similarly resent for its steep difficulty curve and lack of freedom in the late game. In games where you can manipulate your environment, the promise of what’s possible is almost always undercut by the game forcing the player along a particular path. I’m not sure I’ve seen an ideal marriage of linear gameplay with non-linear mechanics yet. Both Stick it to the Man! and Baba is You offer early freedom in side quests and multiple solutions to problems, but as the games progress, they rapidly narrow the available strategies for progression. To some extent, this is necessary simply because of the complexity that comes with offering more player freedom, especially in Stick it to the Man! — unique interactions are difficult to animate, and not necessarily in the game’s best interest when it wants to control the difficulty of its puzzles.
Still, a little bit more flexibility might have been good to offer. Unlike Baba is You, Stick it to the Man! has discrete choke points where you must solve a single linear puzzle in order to progress.
Part Three: We Need More Cameos from the Parents of Every Story’s Villain
Curiously, though I praise the game’s art style as its strongest element, its story and writing are more of its defining feature for me. They’re memorable, and a big part of what makes the game worth replaying. They’re also where the similarities to Psychonauts firmly end, though the tone keeps to a similar vibe.
Hard hat tester Ray is at work one night, letting things fall on his head, when a canister falls from an airplane and crashes through his hat (apparently it isn’t military canister-approved). Something infects him, giving him a psychic arm only he can see and the ability to read minds and manipulate his world with it. As he makes his way home to his loving girlfriend, Arlene, he discovers he’s become a wanted criminal, subject to the evil whims of the shadowy titular Man. As one might suspect, an alien has taken up shop in Ray’s head and is providing him with these powers. The two eventually form a friendship, which is threatened when the Man reveals he intends to use the alien (whom Ray names Ted) for ambiguous world-dominating plans.
It’s a silly but cute little story, heavily reliant on its sense of humor to tie its wobbly plot together.
While not every location is especially pertinent to the main plot, every location features characters with their own dilemmas which require Ray to solve or exacerbate in order to progress through the level. Ray spends time trying to figure out where his special powers came from by exploring his own past with a shady psychiatrist, getting to know his alien buddy, and futzing about with The Man, whose determination to be evil is frequently cut short by his robotic mother, who he lives with.
Although the story itself and all of the subplots are simple, the characters lend them sufficient variety that the world feels fully-realized and vibrant. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any one character has a lot of depth, but they all feel unique. Even the NPCs who only exist as parts of puzzles and are almost exclusively archetypes of one sort or another are given enough amusing inner turmoil that they stand out. The visual style plays into this, but more important is the character dialogue.
One of the things I love about adventure games and RPGs is going up to characters and talking to them, not necessarily for plot purposes, but simply to see what the character is like. A lot of games have fallen short in this simple pleasure, the push for bigger, more realistic worlds requiring character interactions to be written en masse alongside world lore and quest dialogue. I know there are plenty of characters in Skyrim with elaborate backstories, but when half of the quests are, “I’m looking for the Cup of Sinter the Giant Slayer because I read about it once in a book, go fetch it for me and I’ll give you, a level 200 character, a fireball scroll,” pardon me for not being over-enthusiastic about hearing what Vladius or Thorgramir have to say. I think that part of the issue comes down to the expectation that every interaction should be of mechanical value to the player, giving them something new to do. If the player’s expectation is that interactions offer useless information, or that every interaction should contribute to some sort of quest, especially in a large open world, I wouldn’t begrudge the gamemakers distilling the social aspect of the game down to its functional components. Go to Gerald, he’ll mark a location on your map, find Agnes, get the stone from her, fight some goblins, return to Gerald, done. When that’s the purpose of the interaction, it takes far more effort to put in interesting reasons for the characters to want these things than it does to pull from a randomized list of motivations.
Smaller games are therefore at an advantage, but again, I tend to check out when confronted with the sort of lore you might find in a big modern fantasy epic. Hollow Knight‘s story, for instance, while charming, doesn’t appeal to me half as much as its in-game encyclopedia entries. The reason is that these entries provide depth to the creatures in the world, offer useful advice, and deliver the information in a direct, succinct manner. Talking to characters in the world seems to vary from boring practical exchanges to ambiguous prose that communicates atmosphere and little else.
Stick it to the Man! solves this problem by making social interaction a core part of its gameplay. You need stickers to solve puzzles, and most of the stickers are already present in the world at first, but some are only available in characters’ thought bubbles when they start to think of them. Reading someone’s mind will allow certain stickers to appear. Now, you could play the game by quickly reading everyone’s mind, locating all of the in-world stickers, and trying combinations as seems appropriate without paying attention to the actual thoughts of the characters, but the game makes it easier to consider each character as a unique entity with their own personality and internal monologue. Not all of them are straightforward in what they want or how you can help them achieve it, but all of those involved in puzzles will give you a sense of direction to predict how the characters might interact with the stickers. This gives Stick it to the Man! a bit of a leg up on conventional adventure game logic by allowing gentle nudges to establish why, for instance, the woman in the asylum will kidnap the guard if you give him a fly’s head (it’s because she thinks she’s a spider).
As you may have realized by now, the game is also genuinely funny. It doesn’t provide as hard or as frequent of laughs as Psychonauts or Broken Age (though of course, humor is subjective). It absolutely has its moments, though, and they’re worked into much of the character interactions, puzzles, and general plot. I think the game improves on its comedic grounds as it progresses, but that’s not to say it falters at the beginning. Quite the opposite; the initial charm of the game’s world, character designs, and conceit eventually give way for more absurd paths that its narrative beats take. The ending level had me rolling with laughter as it broke narrative conventions by establishing the menacing villain to be far less intimidating than imagined. While I’m not sure this would work quite as well in a fixed narrative like film or television, a game can get away with it because of the break between gameplay and story.
Normally, divergence between gameplay and story ventures into the ground of ludonarrative dissonance, considered by those who still use the term to be a blemish on a game. However, like most components of an art, ludonarrative dissonance comes in multiple flavors and intensities, and in the right combination, dissonant ideas can compliment one another in curious ways. In Stick it to the Man!, intensification of the humor by was of deescalating the narrative tension pairs with increased mechanical difficulty and the requirement that the player use their skills built up in the game to solve them. The story becomes more rewarding in its comedy, meaning valuable new social interactions and the desire to maintain story flow replaces what in a similar action-adventure narrative would be escalated stakes. As the player approaches the end of the game, they become more invested in seeing what happens next, which makes completing the end level efficiently much more important than it is in the early game. Failure here is more frustrating because it not only delays progression to the next level, it delays progression to the next witty bit of dialogue between The Man and his lovely mother.
I’ve long maintained that cutscenes and character moments are valuable motivations for game progression, and this is one of relatively few narrative-driven games that uses this feature to its advantage. The only reason it gets away with occasionally wonky controls and a relatively simple mechanical conceit is the appeal the game weaves into these elements through its story and aesthetic. The late game reveals how this strategy can pay off. It’s not one that would work for every game, and my instinct is that using cutscenes as motivation requires other conditions, like enjoyable characters and meaningful narrative beats, to run smoothly. However, Stick it to the Man! joins the ranks of Portal, Psychonauts, Papers, Please, Thomas Was Alone, and Bastion, in showing how small but satisfying narrative beats placed at regular intervals are an effective means of storytelling in games.