By Alec Meer on March 9th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.
Here’s what puzzles me. We’ve all been so terribly excited about Double Fine making a new point and click adventure game and potentially making Psychonauts 2 – as though the idea of getting games like that had hitherto been openly insane. And yet, on console, they’d already released Stacking, which is positively dripping in adventurey leftfield puzzles and Psychonautsy surreal-slapstick humour. So, before we get entirely wrapped up in crying for more, let’s celebrate lovely Stacking, which arrived suddenly on Steam just a few days ago.
Like so many of the best game designs, Stacking takes a concept that’s flat-out bizarre and then makes it elegantly straightforward to the point where it seems almost unbelievable that it hadn’t been done before.
It is set in a cartoonishly Dickensian land populated by Russian dolls. You, a tiny boy from a poor family who’s trying to save his siblings and dismantle the evil Baron’s child labour economy, are the smallest size of doll. You are thus able to hop inside an NPC who’s the next size up and control them. They can, in turn, hop inside the next size, and so on. This ceases to be sinister almost immediately and becomes both a rich source of puzzles and an entirely natural mechanic – left-click to ‘Stack’ inside another doll, right-click to unstack. (I can only imagine a huge sigh of relief was breathed when someone at DF came up with the word ‘stack.’ It’d have been a very different game if they’d not found a viable alternative to ‘enter’ and ‘insert yourself’.)
Each type of doll has its own ability, many of which are simply comedy effects like Jazz Hands or shouting GOOD DAY, SIR, while others can disperse a crowd or distract a doll so you can, ah, enter it. Scattered among the workaday dolls like violin players, stewards and pompous gentry are unique characters – pirates and pith-helmeted explorers and gavel-wielding mad judges and strongmen and very angry bears.
Finding the right doll, finding the right sizes to stack up to them and then establishing what/who you need to use its special ability is the heart of Stacking’s puzzling, and my hard heart was regularly melted by the inventiveness of the combinations it throws up. The Lego [insert license here] games are perhaps an influence, both in the comedic lateral thinking of the puzzles and in how the wobbling NPCs communicate via semi-recognisable, language-free burbling. Plenty of real dialogue’s there in text, and the combination of both means it neatly escapes the faintly jarring silence of the last Double Fine game, Costume Quest. If anything, I wanted less English and more squeaks and shouts, as some of the between-level cutscenes do blather on a bit too long.
The sight gags, though, are excellent stuff, and straight out of the Psychonauts book of twisting humour out of the deftly surrealised everyday. Granted, it sidesteps the sinister elements, and indeed almost all the violence, but the cheerful silliness of launching a furious bear at a crowd of funfair attendees, causing a pile-up with a gigantic four-man bicycle or scaring museum visitors away by stacking into a mummy and steering it around seems very much in what we might consider the classic Double Fine vein. This isn’t the mugging to camera of Brutal Legend or the subdued goodwill of Costume Quest: it goes for it. It brought the belly-laughs, and it brought them often.
I recommend Stacking extremely highly, and I’m so glad it’s made its way to PC. It’s neither slavish pandering to adventures’ past or departing too far from it – rather, it’s an easy blend of old and new. Even if having a specific central mechanic could be said to limit the variety of the puzzles, it’s really all about the pay-off. Not to mention that the vast majority of the main puzzles have multiple solutions, which you’re free to do all of if you want to collect all the achievements or just whichever one you naturally intuit first.
The puzzles are square peg, square hole, but between the multiple answers, the sizeable enviroments and the freedom to bimble around on collectormania sidequests (for instance, finding and reuniting via Stacking all four members of a magician family, one of which is a dog) en route, it comes across as an organic journey through Stacking’s cartoon-steampunk world. I should add that it looks lovely, finding a happy middleground between stylised and detailed, and offering a far richer prospect than the slightly sterile low-tech of Costume Quest.
My gripes with it don’t extend far past the over-long cutscenes getting in the way of the real merriment, some of the puzzles arguably being too quick and easy, and the text gags not being the equal of the practical gags, plus a console-inherited FOV that’s not well suited to PC play, but the devs have already pledged to fix that latter. Stacking could be said to be too small and short a game, but for me the steady flow of imagination, humour and variety it wrings out of its simple central mechanic entirely saves it from such a dismissal.
Nevermind what might happen with Kickstarter and Psychonauts, this is the Double Fine game you’re looking for.