Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions really seem to live outside the box when it comes to creative processes. The series of indie games being developed by Double Fine is actually the result of a so-dubbed Amnesia Fortnight, where Double Fine was divided into four teams and each came up with a prototype of a game. Costume Quest was the first of the indie games, and now Double Fine has offered up Stacking to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network customers. I certainly hope this isn’t the last Amnesia Fortnight that Double Fine decides to have, because the thoughtfulness behind Stacking makes it short but sweet and extremely satisfying.
Stacking is a game that almost sounds like a parody if you read a summary or see a screenshot. The world of Stacking is an industrial age populated entirely by Russian matryoshka dolls that move, speak, and act just like humans. Bizarre Definitely, but it’s the special brand of quirkiness and eccentricity that Double Fine does so well. The doll character lack voices but the old fashioned screens that progress the story and the upbeat piano overtures are reminiscent of silent era films of the 1920s. Light, pleasant piano music provides a backdrop for a world in an industrial revolution built on the backs of hard labour by these intricately designed and detailed dolls.
You step into the nonexistent shoes of Charlie Blackmore, a tiny matryoshka doll living during the reign of the Baron, an industrialist forcing children to labor in his factories. The Blackmore family is torn apart when Charlie’s father disappears after going to his supposed new job, leaving the family unable to pay off debts. A debt collector takes away all of Charlie’s siblings away to labor in the factories, but little Charlie isn’t having any of it. He sets out into the big matryoshka doll-populated world to rescue his siblings and stop the Baron’s cruel child labor schemes.
The presentation of the matryoshka dolls is an interesting example of ‘showing, not telling’ – rather than expressly giving us facial expressions or voices to work with on characters we’re expected to fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. I found myself attaching these qualities to characters – imagining squeaky resolution in Charlie’s voice when he sets out to rescue his family or nonexistent limbs waving when a character fled from a conflict. It’s a game that gives you an existing character but also encourages you to draw in character traits mentally, and it’s why Stacking is such a unique experience.
Charlie may be small, but his diminutive stature lends itself to the central gameplay mechanic in Stacking. If you Google matryoshka dolls, you’ll see that they stack on top of one another from smallest to largest. Charlie is able to literally take control of progressively bigger dolls by stacking into them. For example, Charlie can’t directly stack into a large doll, but if he stacks into a medium doll he can then stack onto a large doll. The titular stacking aspect of gameplay opens up a huge world of puzzles that form the lion’s share of of what you’ll do in Stacking.
There are some immediate advantages to stacking, such as stacking into a doll that will allow Charlie to access restricted areas or to have another doll react differently by talking to the doll that Charlie has stacked, rather than Charlie himself. Individual dolls also have unique abilities. Some of these are just for fun, like a highbrow-looking doll taking a sip of tea, but one doll’s Eagle Eye ability points out unique or otherwise quest-specific dolls, which can cut down on experimental stacking to find the doll you’re looking for. The mechanic of stacking adds a unique flavor to what would otherwise be traditional quests, such as reuniting three members of a traveling family by finding all three and then stacking them from the smallest child to the largest mom.
More importantly, stacking is always part of main puzzle solutions. Charlie is confronted with everyday situations impeding his progress, such as a union revolt that prevents trains from running. Puzzles always have multiple solutions and while you can ask for hints if you’re having trouble, there’s a very appealing sense of exploration to walking around, listening in for clues, and figuring out how to use the different environments to get what you need. Spoiling too many puzzle solutions would ruin the fun but an objective as simple as clearing out a lounge lends itself to the possible choices of using unique dolls to fart into an air vent, seduce the vigilant lounge guard, or break in with a handyman’s tools.
The only problem during gameplay occurs when you have a big batch of dolls clustered in a crowd and you want to stack onto one in particular. You need to be behind a doll in order to stack onto it – something that factors into quests – but the targeting system can get messy. Sometimes it switches to a nearby doll just as you press the button to stack, then you try and unstuck but a different doll is already in your way and you stack into that one. It causes a bit of a mess when it happens but dolls are usually spread out fairly well. Just make sure you know which doll you’re stacking into.
Charlie’s small form also lends itself to an awkward camera that has a weird habit of moving low enough that you look upwards into the sky towards Charlie, particularly upon unstacking from other dolls. It’s not a big issue, and you can fix it just by readjusting the camera, but it may prompt some players to walk around stacked into one or two other dolls just to have the better camera perspective that a taller character offers.
Let me make it clear that if you want to blast through the story as quickly as possible doing the minimal number of puzzles then Stacking will take less time than making a cup of coffee. However, doing that would be cheating yourself out of the charm, the atmosphere, and the satisfying process of discovering this matryoshka-populated world for yourself and slowly discovering different solutions to puzzles. The game actively rewards exploration and taking time to enjoy your treks through the 1930s industrialist world by offering little extras. There are unique special dolls to look for as well as the optional puzzles like the one with the lost family members mentioned earlier.
Stacking is like most of the games developed by Tim Schafer and Double Fine in that you’ll never play anything quite like it. Words don’t do justice to how unique Stacking is in terms of its ingenuity, creativity, and being completely outside the box. After conventional console releases with Psychonauts and Brutal Legend Double fine is demonstrating that it can not only hold its own in the increasingly busy indie marketplaces but also stand above the pack. The shortness of the main story at under five hours may put some people off, but the overall quality definitely make this a case where less is more. At fifteen dollars Stacking is absolutely worth it.
The vision of Stacking brought to life with beautifully detailed matryoshka dolls in an equally vibrant and detailed world
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The stacking mechanic is unique, innovative, and put to excellent ways during the game
The soft piano music adds to the silent film atmosphere of Stacking, and that's all it really needs to convey what it wants to
Stacking's four or five hour run time depending on how many puzzles you do is short, but very worthwhile
Stacking is a fun, memorable experience and its sheer uniqueness makes it another successful endeavor by Double Fine