Deniability is more essential to the quality of a multiplayer experience than the quality of the game. You could have more fun playing tiddlywinks with your best friend and denying that you’ve wasted the afternoon than you could braving the most enchanted odyssey with someone you just met. Even if I ranked games numerically I would never include multiplayer games on principle – their quality diffuses over the quality of your company. Stick Fight: The Game on Steam knows this in its bones – it’s stark multiplayer minimalism not because it couldn’t think of anything, but because it knows the players have to pull their own weight in this kind of fun.
People who say Goldeneye 64 has aged well are playing it with their college roommates reminiscing over pizza on the emergent deathmatch shenanigans of their youth. If you watch it on YouTube, it’s a polygonal fossil you can’t imagine anyone would pick over Call of Duty 4, which now no one can imagine picking over Overwatch. But people still play Goldeneye; they still have classic Halo parties. The guys at my university sitting in the breezeway with their CRT monitor and Super Smash Brothers Melee on GameCube well into the Wii U era knew that the experience outweighs the game in multiplayer.
Stick Fight is like if Super Smash Bros. was aware of this phenomenon, with a simplicity that eliminates wait-time by reducing the need for options, with visuals that work in any era. It eschews essential fighting game constructs – character select, win conditions, stage select, battle options –in favor of gameplay that starts immediately and doesn’t stop until everyone’s too tired to keep going. “Kill your friends to start” appears and that’s all you get in the way of tutorial, game type, and stage select all rolled up into one glorious economical statement of purpose.
Like the best fighting games, the controls in Stick Fight are simple while the gameplay is complex (see Soulcalibur for the reverse). With four buttons (light/ heavy attack, jump, and block), you can wall-jump Mega Man X-style, knock guns from your frenemies’ hands like you’re Max Payne in two dimensions – all of its mechanics are implicit in the central scheme, things that can occur by design but for which there never seems to be a precedent. Every micro-hilarity in Stick Fight feels like it’s never happened before and never will again, though it threatens to at any time. Super Smash Bros. has an option to take photos of the battle and save them on the machine – in Stick Fight it always seems appropriate to do so, though you cannot. Every battle is epic, hilarious, and tragically impermanent.
Great multiplayer is always like this: the real fun can never be repeated. It is buried in momentary flashes of animosity between friends, in breathlessly relenting to a situation over which you have no control, despite the controller in your hand. Stick Fight seems to strive for the highlights reel of other multiplayer game sessions, with battles lasting from one to thirty seconds, depending on your bloodlust. The restart is immediate and the shifting stages keep things locked in entropy. It’s a fighting game made only from the chewy center of the genre.
For instance, the only items to collect are guns, which descend slowly and visibly, almost sarcastically, to the stage. This makes every single item a Smash Ball, for which you are just as liable to kill your opponents trying to obtain as you are to kill them with the gun. Stick Fight contains only what is essential to multiplayer and outwardly defuses what is unfortunately so often contingent to it: the loser’s frustration. No one wants to be 8th place racing Rainbow Road or three lives behind in stock battles on Smash. The battles in Stick Fight occur so frequently and innocuously that before you can get mad, the next battle is nearly over. I have never played a multiplayer game with less external conflict.
I won’t call Stick Fight the best brawler out there, but it might be the least acidic. It’s precociously funny – the particular micro-emotions of every moment are physically hilarious, like everyone is playing as those inflatable tube guys that line the roadsides of car dealerships. Stick Fight has so much lovely running around, so much ecstatic disorder that you can play 50 games on a whim and call the last hour well-wasted.
Disposability enhances it as a multiplayer experience where its lack of pretensions would nullify a single-player campaign. Most fighting games are built around the player running around, grinding for experience, or achievements, to unlock all the characters and stages in an “Arcade” mode so you can invite your friends over and the real game can begin. Today the real atrocity is when advertised characters are locked behind paywalls. In multiplayer, what we want is so shared that the “playing together” is what creates the mutated economy of purchases that so many companies now use as leverage to withhold goodies (in the case of Forza Motorsport 7 and Battlefront II these include basic necessities of enjoying the experience).
Next to these, Stick Fight is simple almost to the point of being a Flash game, as earnest as a mom n’ pop restaurant next to a McDonald’s. The artistic insight required to conjure up a grenade that explodes into wriggly snakes, while hilariously fun, is still less than the ingenuity required to be simple. In single player, you are an explorer looking in, always role-playing, dis- and re-associating, playacting, dressing up. In multiplayer, the character is always you, whether it’s a swimsuit model, stick figure, or Donkey Kong. Simplicity always manages to be more personal.
Multiplayer games can scarcely be judged even against each other – they are reconstitutions of real life, responsible for their emotional content only as a canvas on which the players are responsible to paint with their friendship or animosity. Stick Fight realizes its role less as a video game than as a simulation of play, being both cruel and funny, jeering at losers so the players don’t have to, selecting everything in advance and never once stopping life to make room for eternity.
What friendship does?
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org