I’m a gleeful inhabitant of Stacking’s imaginative, alluring world. I have a childlike exuberance for charming design, and Tim Schafer’s industrial-era marriage of matryoshka dolls and modernized adventure gameplay is nothing if not full-to-the-brim with the exact kind of charm I love. It’s a wondrous experience which offers a few, focused hours of great ideas rather than a sprawling opus tarred by the brush of repetition.
At its most fundamental level, Stacking provides a more accessible, less esoteric rejuvenation of the old-school point-and-click adventuring formula. In a broader sense, it succeeds so completely because it can take serious social issues such as the Great Depression and child labour, and present them as a whimsical, off-beat narrative premise while giving the player free-reign to explore the various humorous scenarios it creates.
Players control Charlie Blackmore, the youngest in a family of chimney-sweeps. When the family comes into debt, an evil industrialist called The Baron forces Charlie’s relatives into a life of slavery in order to pay off the money they owe, and it’s down to the runt of the litter to rescue them. Because he’s the smallest matryoshka doll in the land, he can jump into bigger varieties and use their unique abilities to help him solve puzzles, complete challenges and ultimately reunite his captured kin.
The idea of stacking up dolls and using their individual talents was conceived by Double Fine’s art director, Lee Petty, as a way to subvert the clunky interface of classic adventure games. What results is a simple, intuitive system that is accessible enough for the casual crowd while just about deep enough to be satisfying for the more experienced player.
Puzzles in Stacking are excuses for inventive use of each doll’s special abilities, and, crucially, rely on actual logic rather than trial-and-error. Admittedly, breaking wind into a ventilation fan to send a cloud of noxious gas into an adjoining room only really makes sense in this world, but it’s a far cry from the “use chicken on rope” nonsense that characterised the genre back in the early 90s.
Following the natural progression of the story without deviation won’t hold your attention for long – the conclusion is reached a little too quickly, and many of the challenges you encounter on the way can be solved with minimal fuss. However, the real joy arguably lies in exploring the world in greater depth; finding alternate solutions to the primary puzzles, jumping into various unique dolls and performing Hi-Jinks such as games of tag with the children or catching unsuspecting passers-by with “proper” uppercuts. It’s a lovely way of adding replay value without cluttering the narrative arc.
Stacking is a lovely, unique game that bears all the hallmarks of a Tim Schafer product. It’s wonderfully written, funny, stylish and clever. It won’t hold your attention forever, but if you take the time to explore it’s subtleties you’ll find sparks of ingenuity that are a great credit to the downloadable market. Highly recommended.