Double Fine Productions has made a name for itself by creating games around quirky, off-beat scenarios that are supplanted by a competent, entertaining gameplay structure. Within their new focus on small, downloadable games that came to fruition over a two week period of brainstorming, Tim Schafer and the gang have found their grove. Stacking is the second offspring of this storm of brains, following the endearing Costume Quest.
Stacking is a non-sensibly sensible absurd adventure game. It’s also an adventure game where you play as a wooden stacking doll that can stack within other wooden stacking dolls. Some of these said dolls can help you by barfing on things and lighting farts on fire in the most clever of fashions. Stacking is also a heartwarming tale full of charm, puns, and wit. And while none of the aforementioned features would seem to mesh well within a downloadable piece of digital media, Double Fine art director and Stacking mastermind Lee Petty and the team made it happen.
The world of Stacking has an instant, yet odd appeal. The trials of ultra-tiny stacking doll Charlie Blackmore are set into motion through a series of quirky cutscenes that play out like silent films of the 1920s set to a series of tunes that seem to have roots in Vaudeville. In a world populated exclusively by anthropomorphic wooden stacking dolls, Charles is charged with rescuing his older siblings from the clutches of an evil baron in a world with weak child labor laws. The written dialogue exercises restraint with while maintaining hilarity. A keen eye will quickly notice the subtle and ingenious pun-work that wordsmiths at Double Fine are known for. The written dialogue in Stacking is an art in itself; it’s enriches the experience simply because it’s smart, funny, yet subtle.
Despite its unbeknownst- to-man feeling aesthetics, Stacking is able to create vibrant, bustling environments that are simply fun to be in. The train station, for example, emits a Great Depression era vibe through an intelligent use of color, styling, and character placement. Traversing the world of Stacking is a well-paced and leisurely experience. The well-placed level of pragmatic discovery found at each and every turn creates a unique hook never dulls exploration. The weakest exploration mechanics generally fail to grant the player a sense discovery – and with new dolls, new puzzles, and new doll interactions at nearly every turn, Stacking seemingly never lulls.
Though it has its roots in traditional point-and-click adventure games, Stacking is filled with sensibilities that curb the monotonies of aimlessly wandering or tinkering with an inventory. Stacking replaces the traditional inventory system with its signature stacking mechanic. Charlie, being the smallest of all stacking dolls, can stack inside of dolls exactly one size larger than himself. This allows Charlie to “gain influence over adults” and in turn stack in even larger dolls. Each doll type has its own cleverly-named unique ability such that Charlie can utilize to solve puzzles and clear challenges (such as the ‘Proper Uppercut’ or ‘Toot’). The experience of simply discovering what each doll can do and how the abilities effect the environments, puzzles, and other characters is a joy in itself.
Charlie’s challenges generally have three to five solutions. While not necessarily intuitive in a real-world setting, the solutions largely involve exploiting the off-beat attitude and mechanics of the game world. Stacking allows the player to make an attempt at completing all possible solutions. Discovering the various solutions to each challenge is perhaps the most intriguing things about Stacking. In fact, it seems that simply following the critical path would seriously delude the creator’s vision and the overall player experience. Sometimes solutions are intuitive in a real world sense, other times they are intuitive in the “world of Stacking” sense. Overall, the game does a fine job at eliminating the feeling that you’re simply stumbling across the answers. The moments of discovery are well-paced throughout and gel appropriately with the old timey-time blue-collar aesthetic. Throughout the experience, Charlie’s trials are overcome through observation, discovery, and intuition. It just so happens to be that bodily functions and abuse of total strangers are sometimes involved. It’s ridiculous, it’s creative, and it’s an inviting experience. Stacking is simply the realization of a great idea.