I adore the quirky concepts behind Double Fine Productions' games. Founder Tim Schafer and his crew of visionary game makers, who previously brought us Psychonauts and Costume Quest , reliably stew up great ideas, like 2009's Brütal Legend , which had us adventuring as a roadie-turned-fantasy-hero in a land inspired by heavy metal album artwork. However, the studio tends to employ unconventional play mechanics that sometimes turn me off; I found the large-scale battles in Brütal Legend, for example, to be awkward and tedious.
Happily, I've not yet encountered anything to make me want to stop playing Stacking, Double Fine's latest offering. A relentlessly original and often amusing puzzler for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it has players stepping into the casks of wooden stacking dolls in an old-fashioned world informed by early 20th-century design and presented to us in the style of a silent film, complete with title card dialogue.
Environments have been lovingly crafted and are filled with lush details. Whether it's the wooden cut-out ocean waves undulating alongside a steamship or the oversized everyday items-toothpicks skewering giant olives, building blocks stacked to form a castle-that serve to remind us of the world's true scale, the settings never want for personality. And the delicately painted, nearly photo-realistic wooden dolls we inhabit are enough to make this thirty-something gamer hope that some savvy merchandiser makes meatspace versions available for purchase.
But the real joy of Stacking is in the game itself. It begins with a family of stacking dolls torn apart by their financial troubles and the siblings sent off to work. The youngest-a can-do, cap-wearing little lad named Charlie-heads out to reunite his clan, and maybe put an end to child labour along the way. His only power: the ability to stack with virtually any other doll in the game and use their special abilities.
Early in the game I needed to get into a posh club, but the doorman wouldn't let me in. I found a doll milling about just outside the building who looked kind of sexy and hopped into her. It turned out her special ability was to attract other dolls. The doorman left his post, allowing me to hop out of the attractive doll and sneak into the club.
Every puzzle can be solved in several ways, and we are encouraged to come back and find new methods of completing them. When I was instructed to make artefacts disappear from an exhibit to close it down I simply hopped into a relic in the shape of a doll, waited for a larger doll to come near me, stacked inside it, then strolled out. After I finished the level I returned to the exhibit and stacked with a guard whose special ability was escorting smaller dolls. I used him to lead a trio of kids admiring a mummy out of the exhibit, then unstacked to a smaller size so that I could stack with the mummy.
There are seemingly hundreds of different dolls each with their own random special abilities-playing a violin, opening a parasol, bouncing a ball on a paddle-so it's largely a matter of trial and error to see what works. Even if a doll isn't of immediate use its special abilitiy will likely at least be good for a little laugh, whether it's releasing a flatus in a crowd or showing off a nice set of jazz hands to the amazement of onlookers.
What's more, Double Fine has provided loads of objectives to encourage experimentation. We can set about finding all of the dolls in specific sets, try a wide variety of side challenges, and engage in specific forms of "hi-jinks" that involve successfully using a special ability a set number of times, like taking pictures of other dolls as a flash photographer. Progress in these tasks is tracked back at Charlie's hideout, where players can view doll statues they've collected and murals depicting their progress.
I'm only around half-way through the game so far, mostly because I keep getting side-tracked on these extra objectives. Can I do anything else once I've stacked the family riding the old-timey bike on a ship deck? How else can I ruin the pernickety chef's caviar? But I'm not complaining; it's all part of the fun.
It's even captivated my wife, who rarely looks at the television when I'm playing games but actually sat down and watched this one for several minutes, later remarking, "I kind of like that weird game."
Not only does Stacking have a visual style that's just as arresting to non-gamers as it is for experienced players, it's also accessible enough that little gaming experience is needed to play. Simply move your doll around with a control stick, press one button to stack, another to "unstack," and a third to perform a special ability. Having trouble figuring out what to do next? Just tap a shoulder button to show a path to your next objective or enter the menu to get a hint for a specific puzzle.
Stacking probably wouldn't have experienced much success as a boxed title, even at a discounted price, but it's a great example of what a $15 digitally distributed game can be. Artistically expressive, challenging enough to make you think, and yet still accessible to all, Double Fine's puzzler is a completely satisfying light entertainment snack.
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Double Fine Productions