California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Stacking


February 23rd, 2011 at 3:42 pm

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Stacking box art

Release Date: February 7, 2011
Platform: Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network (Version Reviewed)
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: THQ
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
ESRB: E10+

CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Double Fine’s Downloadable Proves
Well-Stacked with Imagination

It’s common knowledge amongst both gamers and game developers that some things just sell when it comes to games. Combat, gunplay, swords, sorcery, and the ever-appealing heroic quest. Science fiction soldiery, dragon-filled dungeons, and the ruins of civilization following the undead-nuclear-communist apocalypse. All of these settings and conventions are safe, familiar, and simply work.

Thank goodness then, for Double Fine games and its penchant for memory loss. Their latest effort, Stacking, is the product of “Amnesia Fortnights,” a periodic in-studio effort to simply “forget” what it is that makes games work and sell, and to come up with fresh, pioneering ideas that tickle fancies and inspire innovation.

And it shows. No one will mistake Stacking for an exercise in modern military semi-simulation or, for that matter, any other adolescent power fantasy so often pandered to by the industry’s marquee titles.

Video Game: Stacking

Yet another take on modern warfare this game is not.

Set against the background of the Industrial Revolution, Stacking puts players in the role of Charlie Blackmore, the littlest member of the Blackmore family, as he goes off to save his siblings from slavery at the hands of The Baron, a dastardly industrialist. It sounds like a rather bleak story, but Double Fine plays it effectively for chuckles and witty, light-hearted humor. A difficult proposition, considering the story involves such bleak concepts as rapacious plutocrats, child labor, and the working man’s burden.

Thankfully, the imagination behind Stacking‘s unique artistic style and offbeat sense of humor make the gaming positively warm and fuzzy-feeling. Rather than realistically-rendered humans, all the actors come in the form of bulbous, wooden, Russian matroshyka nesting dolls. Smooth-textured and carefully detailed, the dolls bear cutely-detailed likenesses of their individual characters. Tuxedo-wearing tycoons wear monocles and top hats, and high society ladies waddle around wielding parasols and opera glasses. They would look just as comfortable on a curio shop’s shelves as in the game itself.

Environments too reflect that Oliver Twist-ian atmosphere, evoking New York’s Grand Central Station, the Orient Express, or the great ship Titanic, except assembled from toy-box knick-knacks. It’s never an unpleasant thing to notice that a supposedly impregnable vault door shares textures with a cardboard box or that a glittering chandelier is actually a glass marble suspended with thread.

Video Game: Stacking

Even otherwise annoying mimes look charmingly pleasant.

Even the game’s narrative moments are given a similar treatment. Story sequences and cut-scenes are steeped in the style of early silent films, set to the background rattle of an old-time film projector, complete with sepia tone, filigreed fonts and film-reel borders. Dialog lines are displayed on interstitial frames, and in a cute, appropriate touch, Double Fine chose not to use voice-acting, and instead had the little dolls’ conversations be accompanied by the clickety-clack of a typewriter.

The music of Stacking settles in just as perfectly, all tinkling, nickelodeon-appropriate piano ditties and cheerful violin strains.

Like the matroshyka dolls themselves, Stacking‘s charm nests itself into multiple layers, permeating the production with a warm, feel-good positivity that contrasts well with the grim, serious undertones of the modern, “adult”-targeted video game.

Video Game: Stacking

I’m sorry, but that caviar looks like it needs some spilling.

Of course, an atmosphere and aesthetic do not a great game make. Stacking maintains a core of simple, subtly-detailed game play mechanics oriented around solving a myriad of cleverly designed puzzles standing between Charlie and his family.

Being the runt of the Blackmore family (and apparently the world), Charlie can “stack” himself into larger dolls, taking control of them and gaining access to their unique skills and characteristics. For example, stacking into a doll with a key might allow Charlie to gain access to a locked door. Possessing a well-dressed tuxedo-sporting matroshyka gentleman may open doors into the VIP club, as well. Most every variety of doll can perform a unique action. Tea-sipping ladies of leisure can spot special, unique dolls through their spyglasses, and little doll-children can play tag, or barf up a mouthful of cookies.

Not every action is absolutely necessary for making progress, and many are there just for pure, giggle-inducing amusement. Like the aforementioned cookie-barfing. Just as one might wish to see each and every corner of a new amusement park, the environments of Stacking, as well as the little wooden people inhabiting them, invite exploration and discovery, even if said activities don’t exactly solve the puzzles that await.

Video Game: Stacking

Using the right skills for the right job is critical.

The puzzles themselves, as well as their multiple solutions and angles of approach, are couched in the same sense of humor that affects the rest of the game. One puzzle involves trying to evacuate a locked room full of people. Charlie could choose to use a voluptuous lady doll (amusingly named “The Widow Chastity”) to attract a watchful guard away from his post and open an opportunity to stack into said guard (dolls can only be stacked from behind, adding a rudimentary stealth component to the proceedings). Another solution might be to possess a somewhat queasy-looking doll in the bathroom and use his “flatulence” skill (indeed, it is an actual skill to use) right in front of a nearby ventilation intake, clearing the room like a chemical bomb.

More complex puzzles require the use of multiple dolls’ abilities. Sometimes goons guarding a door may need to be bullied, sickened, or punched out of the way in fairly rapid sequence. In such situations, finding and “collecting” the right mixture of dolls becomes key. Adding in the wrinkle that Charlie can only stack into dolls in appropriate size order (small to medium to large and so on), and the game shows off potential for mind-bending levels of complexity. Unfortunately for players aiming to bend their minds, the actual puzzles remain fairly simple, barring a few notable exceptions.

That said, finding all the possible solutions to each puzzle can prove addicting, and increases Stacking‘s longevity significantly, adding much to its default four to six hours of play time. Adding even more enjoyment are a diverse range of optional challenges, from stacking into all the unique dolls in an area, to assembling special sets of dolls (such as a family of matroshyka magicians). Called “Hi-jinks,” the challenges are a completionist’s dream, and persevering players are often rewarded with special cinematics and amusing sight gags.

Video Game: Stacking

Just one of the many amusing ways to sneak a pair of hillbilly dolls into an elite top-hats-and-monocles lounge.

Stacking stands as a great example of a little game powered by a big idea, and like its tiny hero, wields much more power and heart than many of its “big boy” contemporaries. These dolls may not be clad in the armor of a space marine or fantasy knight, but nested inside them is a unique, feel-good, all-ages attitude.

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Stacking Trailer

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