Tim Schafer and Double Fine have built quite a reputation for themselves when it comes to taking usually mundane subjects or topics and creating hit games. Think about it, they turned rock and roll into Brutal Legend and trick or treating into Costume Quest
. The team also created Psychonauts, which is an insane concept in itself which they managed to turn into a modern day classic. The studio just seems to have a true knack for putting their imagination to good use when it comes to creating games. When it comes to Stacking, their latest title, the same concept applies. Double Fine has taken an idea as simple as Russian stacking dolls (also known as matryushka dolls)
and managed to turn it into a hilarious adventure that has an originality unmatched in today’s industry.
Stacking tells the story of the Blackmores, a simple, lower class family. The Blackmores struggle simply to make ends meet, and before long
nearly the entire brood is forced into indentured servitude by the villainous Baron. The only two family members spared from a life
of manual labor is the matriarch and the smallest doll on the lot, young Charlie. In an attempt to ease the heartache of his mother, young Charlie embarks on an adventure to free his family from the bonds of servitude. While the subject matter may sound serious, Double Fine approaches it with a light-hearted and entertaining tone which reduces the gravity of the situation to comical levels.
Charlie isn’t just the smallest doll in the family, he is the smallest doll in all of the Stacking-world. Thanks to his paltry stature, Charlie has the ability to fit into any and every stacking doll you will encounter. Just as with real life nesting dolls, one figure will only fit into another one that is one size bigger. Charlie has the uncanny ability to fit into even the smallest characters he will meet, which will then allow him to move up the nesting food-chain and take hold of huge cast of personalities. This is the core gameplay mechanic of Stacking. Using the ability to stack dolls according to size, you will be able to compile small teams of characters with varying abilities to accomplish the goals set forth for you by the game.
In conjunction with the concept of stacking the dolls, the game is built upon the notion of solving a series of puzzles to get what you want from the world. Players are presented with seemingly impossible situations and encouraged to manipulate the environment and the characters within it to their benefit. Charlie will need to seek out other personalities within the world who possess abilities that will allow him to progress in his journey and complete tasks that he normally isn’t capable of completing. Perhaps you need to gain access to a restricted area of an adult social club, find a mechanic and use their skills to remove a vent and sneak in through the side; if you need to disperse a crowd within a crowded dining hall, why not take control of the chef and ruin the evening’s fare? The world is yours to experiment with and manipulate to your heart’s content. To be perfectly honest, I found half of the fun of the game to lie in simply “playing around” in the world and interacting with the various inhabitants.
The main drive of the game involves solving sequences of situations which can be completed in a matter of a few short hours. In order to alleviate the brevity of the experience, the game offers you the chance to approach its puzzles / situations from a variety of ways. There isn’t one solution to each of the game’s trials, instead there are multiple solutions and players are rewarding for going back and trying to do things in different ways. Even after you have completed your primary goal of a level, there is still plenty for you to do before moving on and progressing the storyline. Each level offers multiple problems with multiple solutions, unique dolls to find and collect, special doll sets to encompass, and a wide variety of mischievous hijinx that do nothing more than put a smile on your face (and of course earn you achievements / trophies).All of this is encompassed in a beautifully designed and detailed world that has the physical appearance of a child’s homemade diorama. The planks at the seaboard are made of matchsticks and what would normally be a colossal crane in the real world is a small fishing pole. It appears as though everything in the world has been crafted, albeit delicately and ingeniously, by the hands of a child. The same attention to detail can be said of each of the dolls that you will encounter in the world. All of them are intricately painted with a serious attention to detail and filled with their own, unique personality. Not only are they visually intriguing but they all seem to have a life of their own and the world will hustle and bustle around you at all times. The world feels alive and encompassing in its own right, aside from the tasks at hand and what was crafted simply to drive the story.
If anything could be considered a flaw in Stacking it would have to be its length. The main story of the game can be completed in literally a matter of two to three hours; the game was designed with the hope that you would spend additional time exploring the alternate solutions to the puzzles and finding all of the unique dolls, but the game never really pushes your to accomplish either of those goals. Many players will likely play through the story driven portion of the game and look back with regret that it was over and done with so quickly. Double Fine leaves it up to you, the gamer, to seek out and “get” more from the game, which is a bold move considering the short attention span of today’s gamer. Technically speaking, I did experience some brief stuttering in the animations of the PlayStation Network version of the game that I played. There were brief moments of lock-up when moving from one place to another, such as within the various areas of the initial train station. It isn’t anything that would cripple the experience, but the game just seemed to hang on itself every once in a while.
Stacking is one of the most enjoyable games that I have played in years and also one of the shortest. I find myself looking back at the experience as if it were more of a proof of concept than a full game and am in a position where I am craving more. Double Fine did a phenomenal job of crafting a unique and entertaining world but in the end, it felt more like a tease than anything else. There is a lot to do but most of it is done by your own volition. Double Fine doesn't force you to complete all of the activities that the game has to offer and puts faith that the strength of the experience will drive players to do them on their own. I found going back to find alternate solutions to puzzles more enjoyable and rewarding than solving the initial ones. The Stacking world is filled with so much life and energy that just being a part of it is as enjoyable as playing the game and accomplishing the goals. I want more of this world, and hopefully the developers will bring us more adventures from it in the future.