Stacking is special; born from a time of uncertainty.
When the future of rock RTS Brutal Legend was unclear, rather than letting the situation consume them, Double Fine rolled up its sleeves and got creative. Taking a short break from their metal homage, the studio divided into teams and set about prototyping smaller concepts. From which sprung last year’s Costume Quest, a game which pretended to be about children trick-or-treating although really it was an RPG.
For an equally uncovential followup, Double Fine turned to the world of Russian stacking dolls. On one level allowing them a gloriously unique visual style, and, on a more practical approach, streamlining an age old formula.
However, for those living within the Stacking world, such niceties pass them by. It is a return to the Victorian era, where child labour is rife, an evil industrialist Baron rules the land, and the smaller you are the tougher you have it. And smallest of all is Charlie Blackmore. Charlie’s family, after falling into debt with The Baron, are taken to work like slaves within his industrial empire with little chance of escape. Being of plucky persuasion, Charlie refuses to stand for this injustice and sets off to free his family and put an end to The Baron’s nefarious deeds once and for all.
The pint sized lad can’t go it alone, though. The land is filled with dozens of dolls, each of varying size and ability, and by the wonders of the Russian doll world he can hop into and seize control of others. Tiny Charlie could jump first into a small boy, with the mischievous ability to play tag; before possessing a medium sized woman, with the power to seduce others; and then finally taking control of a large, pompous conductor whose head blows like a steam train when angry.
One of the joys of Stacking is wandering about the place and finding the unique talents of those around you. Some may seem to have little purpose other than to amuse – I am still yet to figure out if breakdancing has any place in Victorian society – but the variety on display not only shows the care lavished upon it but also cunningly plays into the puzzles that block Charlie’s path. Be it winding the train station’s clock, breaking an ambassador out of the slammer, or spoiling a Lady’s caviar, there are many obstructions between him and his family.
Each can be completed in multiple ways, too. Take the need to shut down a cruise ship’s Egyptian exhibition, for example. So far I have figured out that by using a certain character I can fake the mummy’s disappearance by painting it the same pattern as the curtain behind it, or alternatively find enough dolls that I might stack myself inside the sarcophagus and simply walk it out of the exhibition hall. But that’s only half of it. Quite how a bouncer capable of picking up smaller dolls and a Sphinx made of cheese tie into the other solutions I don’t quite know. Those are challenges for later; I just need to find the right connection.
Some are straight forward and chatting to dolls should reveal the answer quickly enough, but not belying their roots, the solutions are mostly comic affairs. Have you ever eaten soup a pigeon has nested in? No, I don’t recommend it either.
Many can be solved easy enough just by being aware of the talents around you, but the multiple solutions serve more than just a bullet point for replay value. From person experience, I find there’s nothing more annoying than a game you were enjoying comes to a sudden halt because your brain is not wired in the same way as the designers. The choice should give most players the ability to battle right through to the end without reaching for an FAQ or smashing their pad in frustration.
And frustration is something that should never enter your mind whilst lost in Stacking as it is just so beautiful. Every doll looks expertly hand painted and glossy, the settings trimmed with matchboxes and cotton reels to suit the scale of the inhabitants, and the range of emotion that can be squeezed from characters that have no right to be so expressive. Even the story has that Pixar-esque quality of overcoming adversity and proving the world that even though you might be small you too can stand tall. Or something.
Throughout there are so many lovely touches that serve nothing other than to make the most of this glorious world. There are hijinks to partake in on each level, little hidden challenges that exploit unique situations and the quest to collect all unique dolls.
And I can’t go without saying, on a truly nerdy level, the way they trick us into using an inventory system without even realising it, i.e. stacking a series of dolls with powers and then jumping them around the level and unstacking when we want to use an ability, is absolute genius. This is the modern day point-and-click, and Double Fine I salute you for almost slipping it by me.