I have a friend who likes to tell me that there are no new ideas in the world. Everything I could think of has been done and said before. It's a pessimistic attitude for sure, but he's stood by it for at least the decade I've known him. He laments that every movie plot, song lyric and book idea has been done already, so he doesn't even bother trying. I'm curious to show him Stacking, the brand new game from Double Fine. Because I guarantee he's never seen a game in which players use Russian stacking dolls to solve puzzles and save the day.
Stacking is yet another bizarre (albeit ingenious) idea from Double Fine, the people who brought us Costume Quest
, Brutal Legend
and Pyschonauts. It tells a story of a world full of stacking dolls in the turn of the 20th century. The presentation is one of a silent film, calling back to an era all but forgotten in modern video games (with the possible exception of Red Dead Redemption). It's a very specific style that may drive some gamers up the wall, but I quickly discovered that I couldn't get enough of this unrelentingly creative world.
You play young Charlie Blackmore, the youngest in a family of chimneysweeps. One day disaster befalls the Blackmore family, and Charlie's siblings and father are kidnapped by an evil industrialist named The Baron. Before long Charlie is out searching the world for the rest of his family, hoping to bring everybody together and save the day.
While young Charlie isn't very intimidating, he does have an ace up his sleeve. It turns out that Charlie can sneak up behind other dolls and take over their personality by stacking themselves inside. Unfortunately there's a limitation to his plan. Charlie can only stack himself in a character one size larger than him. To solve the puzzles he will need to continue to stack increasingly bigger dolls in order to get to the desired character.
Each of the dolls in Stacking has their own unique personality traits. Players aren't able to jump or perform any fancy moves (unless you count stacking, unstacking and talking to your surroundings "fancy"), but everybody does have a unique action tied to their personality. For example, the little girl doll will tap dance, another doll will have a sugar rush and a mummified doll will help Charlie wrap other characters up in bandages. And that's just scratching the surface. It's fun to watch how the other characters react to you having a sugar high or belching right in their face.
The puzzles come straight out of traditional graphic adventure games (Sam & Max, Secret of Monkey Island, etc.). You're given a problem to overcome and it's up to you to find the correct doll for the job, use their special ability and complete the puzzle. What sets this game apart is that it rewards you for finding several solutions to the same puzzle. That means that once you've completed a puzzle, you can turn back around and solve it a brand new way using a different solution.
Early in the game young Charlie Blackmore needs to get into a private club. Unfortunately, the guard out front is making this extremely difficult on our pint-sized hero. Getting through the door requires finding a gassy doll and making them fart (yes, it's THAT kind of game) into the fan circulating the club's air. Or better yet, just take over the body of the sultry blonde lady, who will seduce (and consume) the guard. Each of the game's puzzles has multiple solutions, each of which ends with a funny animation and a sense of accomplishment.
As Charlie progresses through the game he'll find himself forced to use his abilities in several different open locations. He starts his journey in a train station, but before long he'll be on a boat cruise, flying high in a zeppelin and even taking the scariest train ride of his life. There are several fun settings to explore, each with their own types of dolls. You can get lost just seeing what all of the new dolls can do, not advancing the story one iota. The world of Stacking is unlike anything I've seen before, sewn together using the trademarked Double Fine wit that makes these games so endearing.
Given how much personality this game has, it's hard to believe that the character animations are so simple. Characters sway back and forth as they walk, much like you would expect a motionless doll to walk across a table. But not everybody waddles in quite the same way. That sultry blonde doll I mentioned earlier shimmies back and forth, in a suggestive fashion that emphasizes her hand-painted hips. It didn't take me long before I completely forgot that I was dealing with a bunch of dolls and not miniature human beings.
The puzzles are challenging enough, though some players may find a few of their solutions fishy. Even though the world is large, it's easy to know where to go next thanks to a helpful market that keeps track of the closest puzzle. The game also aids players when it comes to problematic puzzles. By simply pausing the game players can view one of three helpful hints that should push them in the right direction. Some of the hints are a little too easy, but it's nice that they are there to keep the pace going.
Without question, Stacking is the best looking game Double Fine has ever made. Each of the dolls is expertly crafted and I love how the light shines off of their hardened exteriors. The world itself is made out of nothing but everyday items, giving off the impression that this is a world spawned from somebody's closet of spare knickknacks. This could easily be some child's form of entertainment as they play with grandma's collection of nesting dolls. Even the more spectacular effects (such as the cardboard water) feel like it's something anybody could do with the unused items laying around their place. It's hard to find fault in Charlie's world.
Unfortunately the control isn't nearly as inspired as the open world surrounding our hero. For the most part Charlie has solid control, but there are times when his waddle makes it difficult to turn the direction you want to go. There's no precise movement here, players will have to put up with smacking into other dolls and accidentally getting stuck in tight areas of the environment. It's a shame the gameplay isn't as refined as everything else in this game.
Even though I didn't solve every solution to every puzzle, I had a great time helping Charlie put his family back together. This is not a game about fighting or killing, it's a good-natured adventure with little to no risk of getting hurt. Having said that, I do want to mention how impressed I was with how Double Fine handled the final confrontation between you and the Baron.
I don't feel it's too early to say that Stacking is one of the most creative games of the year. Not only is it a visual tour de force, but the gameplay is unlike anything I've seen in a recent Xbox Live Arcade game. Even if this is a world of inanimate objects, there's enough personality to keep the adventure compelling from start to finish. The lengthy (and unskippable) cinemas may turn some gamers off, but Stacking is a fun journey everybody should take.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Double Fine proves yet again that you can make a great video game out of just about anything. Stacking may be nothing more than a world of nesting dolls, but that didn't stop the developers from coming up with one of the most intriguing game concepts of 2011. The gameplay is a little stiff at times, but the personality of this micro world more than makes up for any minor gripes I have!