Getting into downloadable games might be the best thing to happen to Double Fine yet. Sure, Psychonauts was a critical darling that left fans clamoring for a sequel, and Brutal Legend made a name for itself based solely on the talent and passion poured into it, even if some people never quite grasped its mish-mash of gameplay styles. Yet in the span of less than six months, the studio founded by Tim Schafer, granddaddy of humorous adventure games, has managed to put out two equally bizarre titles on Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. The first, Costume Quest, had its roots planted firmly in simplistic RPG territory, while still maintaining the style and humor expected of Double Fine. Now we have Stacking, and while this latest experiment with smaller, digital ventures stands on its own as a thoroughly unique and satisfying experience, it may be even more important as proof that there is a developer out there willing to take a ridiculous idea and go all the way with it.
So, what is Stacking, you ask? Well, it’s an adventure/puzzle game set in a world inhabited by living matryoshka (or Russian nesting) dolls during the Industrial Revolution. You play as Charlie Blackmore, youngest child from a poor family of chimney sweeps, who must rescue his family from the oppressive Baron while fighting social injustice. As crazy as that all sounds, the game is truly as simple as its title suggests. Because Charlie is the tiniest doll around, he is able to jump into dolls larger than himself in order to use their abilities and size to solve challenges and progress through the game. One scenario tasks you with talking to guest locked in a VIP-only room. You can either use a doll whose only ability is ?Flatulence? to clear the room, or seduce the guard with a larger, prettier doll. There are over a hundred unique dolls of varying sizes to use, but you can only stack into a doll one size larger than your current one. There are matching sets of dolls to assemble, and the abilities of some dolls can be combined with others to create interesting interactions. None of the puzzles are especially difficult, with the answers being either painfully obvious or a simple hint and nudge away. But that doesn’t make solving them any less rewarding, thanks to the charming cutscenes that play out and the ability to tackle the same problems from multiple angles, and getting congratulated each time. It’s virtually impossible to get stuck anywhere in the game thanks to a breadcrumb trail that leads to your next objective, and optional clues that you can request for each challenge that will eventually spell out the answer. Stacking doesn’t ask you to flex your mind, but will still make you feel smart with its witty humor and classical presentation.
While Stacking features no voice acting and has cutscenes that play out like silent films, the dolls manage to feel as lively and human as any game character despite their static expressions and hopping animations. The graphics are stunning for a 1 gigabyte download from both an artistic and technical standpoint. Every doll is rendered in amazing detail, looking as real as any wood-carved nesting doll you may have seen in real life. The environments are large and lively, littered with items such as huge thread spools as well as real furniture, giving the game a surreal feel. Many dolls grunt or yell in gibberish that fits the setting and individual perfectly, and the music hits that turn-of-the-century vibe with plenty of spirited piano tunes. Most of the humor is delivered through text, but the excellent comedic timing of Double Fine still manages to shine through with writing so good that you’ll be repeating the dialogue of some dolls over and over just to get another laugh. As for the rest of the game, all I can is that not since Fable has there been such a seamless melding of Victorian Era aesthetics and fart jokes.
Despite giving my best attempt to explain what Stacking is, the best way to experience it would be to go in with no expectations and give yourself over to its unique brand of quirkiness. If the $15 price tag makes you question such a gamble, just know that there is plenty of content to be had. While the main story quest can be completed in a few hours, each area has a multitude of secrets, from special challenges to complete and dolls to find as well as Hi-jinks that make use of the crazier abilities. You can revisit a challenge at any time, but if you’re like me you’ll find yourself wanting to spend hours in each area striving for 100% completion before moving on. Once all those secrets have been found, though, the incentive to play quickly fades. As much fun as this game is, the best thing Double Fine can do now would be to not make a sequel. I eagerly await their next game that is hopefully even weirder and funnier than Stacking.