Playing With Dolls
Stacking embraces much of what makes the Live Arcade so good. It is a low cost, high creativity project that took less than a year to produce, and doesn’t mess around with superfluous concepts or multiplayer modes.
It also happens to be made by Double Fine Productions, the amazing studio that shaped the hilarious psychic, summer camp adventure, Psychonauts. And they have created yet another clever, well-written adventure game with more heart and style than almost every other game on the market. The chuckle heavy script carries the lack luster game play at times (would you expect anything different from a Double Fine game?) but Stacking’s concision keeps the burden from growing too large.
Stacking is a game about just that: stacking. Players control little Charlie Blackmore, the tiniest matryoshka doll (Russian stacking doll) in the world. Told through the grainy filter of an early 1900s silent film, Stacking spins a fairly simple, but ironically lighthearted yarn that sends Charlie to break his siblings out of the clutches of forced child labor. Now how could a character of such insignificant stature achieve this? By doing the only thing Charlie really can do: stack. See, since Charlie is a stacking doll he can assemble himself inside other dolls to use their talents and abilities to solve puzzles. These puzzles play out much like point and click adventure games of yore, and (befittingly) the stacking single handedly drives Stacking; but much of your enjoyment won’t come from the game play, but rather the ridiculous situations that you solve through stacking.
An example: need to get past a guard to free some factory children? Go cause some trouble as a glove slapping, aristocratic doll to trigger a heinous security precaution—a disgusting, beastly clown—and stack with him to scare the guard off. I couldn’t make this madness up if I tried, and many times you’ll be amazed at some of the correct stacking orders.
This doesn’t quite cover up the actual mechanics of Stacking. Movement is (ironically?) wooden, and there really isn’t much going on with the action of the game. Stacking has a severe variety crisis as it doesn’t evolve past, “stack with these dolls, use their abilities, and move on”. Not that Stacking overstays its welcome as players can easily finish the whole thing in an afternoon. Each of the puzzles in Stacking do have up to five separate solutions, and it is worth it to see all of them through, but in case you grow tired, the game allows you to move on after solving just one of them. There is even a three-tier hint system—which hopefully will become a gold standard for all games—that keeps players from reaching sticking points for too long.
Filling out the gaps between story beats are side challenges (“hi-jinks”) that can be done with numerous dolls. For example, use a gaseous doll’s flatulence on five other dolls and you’ll complete that hi-jink, and be rewarded both with a special gold marker on that character model and the joy of farting on innocent dolls. It lengthens the game a little, but my motivation to complete all of them was nil.
The ridiculous nature of Stacking’s puzzles and optional mischief is married wonderfully with great artwork. Each doll looks hand painted just like real matryoshka dolls. There is no facial animation, but the precise, thin brush lines give otherwise wooden features life. From old, deaf commoners to circus sideshow wrestlers, all the dolls have great personality in their appearance. There isn’t even voice acting, but the dialogue is so well toned for each doll that I didn’t miss it.
Stacking is in the same position that all of Double Fine’s games have been in: so-so mechanics, but a great perspective and lots of heart. There never has been a game concept quite like this, and it is almost worth buying just on that conceit. Like Charlie, Stacking may be short, but it has too much charm to ignore.