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Stacking Review

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Both a well-crafted puzzle game and a good-natured send-up of antiquated industrialist politics, Stacking is one of the more satisfyingly strange downloadable games you're likely to encounter.

The plight of the proletariat has never been so preciously portrayed as it is in Stacking, the latest game from the newly download-focused developers at Double Fine Productions. Set against the backdrop of the industrial revolution's autumn years, Stacking uses the concept of Russian stacking dolls as the core conceit for its puzzling adventure. As a sentient doll in a world full of dolls, you use your ability to stack with larger dolls to take control of them, thus giving you access to their unique abilities to solve world-based puzzles and defeat plutocratic greed in the name of the working class. Not exactly the kind of subject matter one tends to find in games intended to amuse and inspire warm feelings, but honestly, when has Double Fine ever stuck to tried-and-true, broad-spectrum comedy? That the brains behind Stacking were able to create such an engaging and chuckle-worthy puzzle game around such depressingly bleak concepts as child labor and the working man's burden is, in a weird way, almost par for the course with this studio. 
 

You're a good man, Charlie Blackmore.
You're a good man, Charlie Blackmore.
In the game, you are Charlie Blackmore, the lil'est child born into a family of hard-working chimney sweeps mired in debt, poverty, and (paradoxically) almost disconcerting levels of hope and positivity. One day the family patriarch returns to inform his family of good news: the local baron (whose industries seem to mostly revolve around indistinct acts of evil, hatred of children, and a generalized insidiousness) has hired him on, meaning the family's money troubles have come to an end. Grand news, until father disappears, and the baron's cronies come for the rest of the Blackmore brood to pay off his debts--except, of course, for Charlie, who is far too little, and thus far too incapable of manual labor to be of use to the baron. As it turns out, the children are being held prisoner along with myriad other adorable scamps who should all be enjoying the innocence of their formative years, and not toiling away in the bowels of luxury ships and monstrous zeppelins as chimney sweeps, coal shovelers, and, most undignified of all, waiters.
 
So Charlie sets off on a mission to rescue his family, despite many a doubt about his fortitude, due to his minuscule stature. Good, then, that he can stack with other dolls to make himself larger, and able to solve the problems that unfold in front of him. Stacking's mechanics are simple enough. As you move around the world, you need only to sneak up behind an unsuspecting doll and press a single button to essentially possess them for as long as you please. The only requirement is size. The doll you stack with must be one size larger than you, though once you have a larger doll, you can then stack multiple dolls atop one another until you've run out of sizes to ascend. In effect, you can possess the souls of several different people at once, and use their bodies to do as you please. There's something vaguely terrifying about that idea, but hey, it's all in the name of saving your family.
 
Each doll that occupies this world has a specific ability. Some of these are little more than trifling amusements (that occasionally still solve puzzles), like the ability to cough sickly on other people, or the ability to fart at will. Others are a bit more generally useful, like a boxer being able to deliver a "proper uppercut" to anyone and anything nearby, or a fancy lass who can immediately identify other dolls who are "important." Others still are very specifically useful for certain puzzle objectives within a given level. 
 
There's a wide variety of dolls to inhabit and use throughout each of the game's four main levels, and though not all of them seem immediately useful, many actually have some function within the game's more opaque puzzle solutions. Every level presents multiple problems that must be solved, be it guards that must be lured away from doors, caviar-consuming aristocrats who must be denied their delicious delicacies, or gigantic goons who must be scared, sickened or stiffened in the name of rescuing a family member. Every one of these objectives comes with multiple solutions. For instance, a guard could be dispatched by stacking up a fire chief doll (who comes complete with a fire hose atop his head) and a doll encumbered with a freezing fan, then using their abilities in combination to wet, then freeze the hapless fellow. If that's not to your liking, how about inhabiting a waiter doll who permanently travels around with a bowl of soup for a hat? In that case, you can have a nearby bird fly down and use the soup for a bird bath, thus poisoning the fowl-intolerant fellow
 
Stacking inside other dolls affords you new abilities, and opportunities to make awful, awful jokes.
Stacking inside other dolls affords you new abilities, and opportunities to make awful, awful jokes.
In that regard, Stacking is an obsessive completionist's dream. The game is dead set on having you discover every possible way of solving a specific puzzle, rewarding achievements and trophies for finding all the solutions in each level--or, at least, all the ones the developers conceived. It is very occasionally possible to solve a puzzle using a method not intended by the designers, which rewards you with nothing more than the knowledge that you're smarter than the people who make the games you buy, and an ultimately empty feeling in your heart. It's a rare enough issue, thankfully, and if you're the sort that likes a challenge, many of the puzzles offer extremely off-kilter solutions for you to deduce. 
 
As for those who aren't into completionism? There is, thankfully, a reasonably obvious solution in front of you in most cases, meaning you rarely have to push your logic skills to their limits if you just want to progress through the story. The downside to that methodology is that you skip roughly half the game in the process. Aiming to do everything nets you a little over six hours of game to play through, but skipping the extra solutions results in a game that's roughly half that length. The good news? You can always go back and play through the stuff you skipped, should you feel so inclined. Still, if you're dead-set on blowing through the story and ignoring the content that lies beneath the beaten path, you could be forgiven for finding the game's $15 price tag a touch steep.
 
Still, you may find yourself compelled to explore, even if you're vehemently anti-exploration in most games. Though you'll see the bulk of the game's humor and plot just by going one-and-done on each puzzle, there are hidden objectives, obscure secondary dolls, and a variety of goofy sight gags you might not see on a cursory first playthrough. Double Fine has done a fine job of crafting a relatively expansive open world that's actually pretty fun to paw through. Perhaps taking a cue from the design concept of "big, but not huge" that governed Costume Quest's world designs, it's easy to get lost exploring each stage's nooks and crannies, though you'll never actually be lost if you have somewhere you're aiming to go. 
 
 There are multiple ways to lure this guard away. This one is the most erotic.
 There are multiple ways to lure this guard away. This one is the most erotic.
As they are often wont to do, Double Fine has imbued Stacking with its trademark sense of humor. The entirety of the game's story is presented in cutscenes steeped in the sepia-toned silence of the earliest films, with large title cards spelling out the dialogue the dolls have with one another through wild gesticulation--despite their lack of limbs, they're awfully expressive--and old timey piano music signaling the moments of tragedy and triumph with delightful results. The early goings of the game are perhaps more clever than legitimately funny--you get a lot of moments that inspire thoughts like "Yes, that was quite amusing" than actual, bona fide laughter. But as the game rolls on, the sets and scenarios get increasingly elaborate, and the humor follows suit. There are some truly excellent comedy bits peppered throughout the adventure; the scene leading up to the final confrontation of the game, in particular, is the first legitimate belly laugh I've gotten out of a game in ages.
 
Stacking looks like a trifling little downloadable title, but the game has a surprising amount of heart. There's nothing particularly heady about the game, mind you. Its a relatively easy-going puzzle game that only rarely, truly challenges, and it uses its marginally Marxist leanings to send up wanton materialism in a fairly lightweight and cartoonish way--though, that said, if you're the sort of person who clings aggressively to Ayn Rand's writings, enjoys the meaning behind Neil Peart's lyrics, and/or unironically considers themselves a monocle enthusiast, be forewarned, you may be horrified. By the same token, every time Charlie encounters a new character, a new situation, or a new environment in Stacking, you can't help but smile at the painstakingly crafted silliness of it all. Similarly, it's hard not to love the all-too-obvious metaphor of a family's need to stick (or stack, in this case) together to succeed--a metaphor that plays out beautifully in the final moments of the game. Like its pint-sized protagonist, Stacking is a small game with scads of pluck and spirit, and only the stingiest, penny-pinchingest players would fail to find something lovable about it.
Alex Navarro on Google+