Wot I Think: Stacking PC

By Alec Meer on March 9th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

Maaaaaaaammy

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.

Stacking is out now.

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62 Comments »

  1. Diggidy says:

    The art and pedigree had me intrigued, but I really needed this review to push me over the top. Even if I only mildly enjoy it, handing Double Fine money will never bring me guilt. Thanks Alec.

  2. Torgen says:

    Well, darn. I was hoping to use this as a “gateway game” to get my wife interested in gaming, but it isn’t for Mac. (Yes, she even turned her nose up at the Sims, back when it first got big.)

    • equatorian says:

      Maybe The Sims was just the wrong game for her?

      Trying to get my boyfriend into PC gaming with shooters failed miserably, but he succumbed quite hilariously to the Anno games of all things. I still can’t manage to get him interested in ME whatsoever, to much sorrow, so maybe it’s just that everyone has a specific tickle spot and it’s not easy to pinpoint it or convince them to find something that might tickle it.

      • Torgen says:

        Windows Vista mah jong is her drug of choice. No other one will do, and there’s no Mac version. She calls MMOs “running man games,” because when she walks by and looks, there’s a man running somewhere. But even after twenty years together, she still can’t comprehend that I can’t just get up from a multiplayer game in the middle of combat to help fold laundry or kill a spider.

        • ttcfcl says:

          What about PopCap Mah Jong? They have an excellent version. Bejewelled 3 is also a sure bet. Then you could transition to PvZ, or Puzzle Quest 2. Next think you’ll know, she’ll quit her job for Dwarf Fortress!

        • HexagonalBolts says:

          Hahaha! That’s an extremely astute assertion about MMOs.

          Interestingly, my father ADORES peggle (i’ve been trying to get him to play a game for goodness knows how many years) – he will even grumpily demand that he be allowed on the computer to play it if somebody else is gaming. But he can’t abide plants versus zombies?

    • Shibbs says:

      You should show her “3D” Mahjong.
      Then, 2 years later, Blow her mind, with Real, Life, Mahjong!

      I swear it exists, Scientists are working on it as, we, speak.

      …You never saw me here, shhhh.

    • oyog says:

      The gateway game for my girlfriend was Knytt and then Knytt stories, both of which she beat far more quickly than I did.

      Then it was 0Space with my friend Drew and I and a couple of xbox gamepads for them.

      Then Dungeons of Fayte with my friend Scott and I. We still haven’t beaten that damn game.

      Indies seem to be her thing.

  3. kwyjibo says:

    Is it better than Messiah?

    • jonfitt says:

      Yes, how does this rank within the enter-em-up genre?

      • jonfitt says:

        Also, The Nomad Soul, sort of.

        • Godwhacker says:

          Also Fear 3, and Rage with the mind control bolts. Not played Fear 3, but 2011 was definitely the year of the enter-em-up

        • deke913 says:

          Is “The Nomad Soul” the one with David Bowie as a voice actor…I still have my disc for that. (and while looking for it I found my “Ultima Ascension” disc.)

          • noom says:

            Not just a voice actor. He’s more or less a complete character in it, though you don’t meet him ’til quite far in iirc. Also wrote at least some of the music, and your character can attend an ingame gig at which he plays. I did love that about Nomad Soul.

    • Turkey says:

      I kinda liked Messiah. It was infuriatingly difficult and stupid, but I’m obsessed with the idea of possessing characters in video games. It’s a shame it almost killed the whole gimmick.

    • ttcfcl says:

      The prostitutes were armed with tit-guns. That’s all I remember from the demo.

    • Jackablade says:

      Well, it’s less likely to be pulled off the shelves in the US for being “Satanic”.

      Actually, I can’t seem to find any reference of that ever happening on the interwebs, so maybe it was an urban legend. Word was one of the big general goods stores in the US that sells a lot of games was run by Christian fundamentalists . They got a little antsy about selling a game where you have to do a few missions for Old Scratch, so they refused to stock it, reducing the number of potential sales by some massive amount.

  4. Angel Dust says:

    I brought it the moment it popped up in those steam update things. Haven’t had a chance to play it yet but I’m looking forward to giving it a go tonight.

  5. fupjack says:

    Having this game just suddenly arrive is like finding out someone brought cookies to your workplace to share, or finding 10 dollars laying on the ground.

  6. zeekthegeek says:

    This game is just simply put: Great. For $10 I can’t think of an awful lot that is more satisfying than this. Especially good for breaking the funk of hating the games industry after seeing the end of Mass Effect 3.

  7. db1331 says:

    I think this game would look great nestled amongst my Steam library.

  8. thelongshot says:

    I’ve played it on PS3 and I think it is a must-have game. Entertaining and more than enough game for anyone.

  9. Birky says:

    Have to admin I tried the MicrosoftPCBoxLive version of this and didn’t make it far enough through the long cutscenes to give it a fair try. Perhaps I’ll give it another go and this time, persevere….

  10. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    I love this game… from a distance. I haven’t bothered to sink all my teeth into it yet.

  11. radioactivez0r says:

    I adored this game for about the first 70%. Somehow, as it went on, the concept wore thin and I never actually finished it. To be fair, I always tried to find every solution to the puzzles before moving on. Maybe it’s my fault.

  12. rockman29 says:

    I feel like other reviews never communicated I would actually like this game… sighs…

    At least I know now :)

  13. Stardog says:

    No demo, no buy…

    That goes for every game that wasn’t built for PC first.

  14. Kleppy says:

    Being Russian, I’ll get this game for the concept alone. I haven’t lived in Russia for 21 years now, but I still love those wooden little things.

  15. Phinor says:

    It’s still weird to read about developers who didn’t consider FOV issues in a PC game but the developer in question handled the situation well after he/(she) became aware of the issue. You read/hear about FOV problems with every other PC release (grrmrr, ME3, Syndicate, Amalur just in the past few weeks) these days yet every other game still continues to have the same damn issue.

    Anyway, I tried the XBLA demo last year and it didn’t really grasp my attention. But after watching Hugo the other day I’m suddenly very interested in Stacking again. I’ve no idea how similar these two are but it just reminded me of Stacking and that’s good enough reason to go for it.

  16. MastodonFarm says:

    Bought it after reading this review. Can’t wait to give it a go!

  17. MistyMike says:

    This review touches on a theme that has been on my mind recently.

    The video game community is corrupted by needless nostalgia. We don’t need Psychonauts 2, one is enough. We don’t need a return of hunt&click adventure games. Double Fine had the right idea by taking what was best about them (the humour! the literary charm!) and forging new types of games, instead of dwelling on the antiquated form.

    The reviewed title is a great example of this, as was Brutal Legend, but the recent Kickstarter campaign and Notch’s meddling threaten to set back this beneficial trend and herald the influx of reactionary sequels.

    • SurprisedMan says:

      I think Tim Schafer is well aware of the tension between catering to fans of the old and providing something new. From a recent interview with Eurogamer:

      “It’s not going to be an adventure game that apologises for being an adventure game. It’s not going to be trying to be something else and have a bunch of action elements or something like that. But it’s not a museum piece or just a nostalgia piece. It’s going to be fresh and feel modern and feel like what the next game would have been if I’d made one straight after Grim Fandango.”

    • InternetBatman says:

      Well, Psychonauts was a good concept and has plenty of fertile ground left to cover, and had several hooks for a sequel. Brutal Legend was supposed to be about one of the people from Day of the Tentacle, Hoagie, grown up. He just couldn’t use the name because Lucas owns it. Day of the Tentacle was the sequel to Maniac Mansion. Monkey Island had some of its best moments in the sequels.

      I don’t think you can say that that is nostalgia corrupting them, just that the works of the past influence the works of the present. It’s important also to note that nostalgia is not driving the Doublefine game, other way around. The creators felt they had stories best suited to adventure games and then asked for public funding when they couldn’t get it from private companies.

    • Acorino says:

      Double Fine never touched a point & click adventures before because they aren’t deemed profitable, that’s all.
      And I haven’t a problem with sequelitis as long as the game in question warrants it. Heck, many of the best games are sequels. Civilization IV, Thief 2, Hitman: Blood Money, Monkey Island 2, Indiana Jones: Fate of Atlantis, Jagged Alliance 2, Heroes of Might & Magic 3,…
      And Psychonauts definitely warrants a sequel. Heck, the ending is basically a setup for one!

  18. Runs With Foxes says:

    The only problem with this game is that the solutions are all pre-planned, to the point that it counts which solutions you’ve found and which you haven’t, and having cutscenes for each one. There’s so much potential in this concept to make the levels small sandboxes with some simple rules that lead to complex and player-made solutions, but they stuck with the old adventure game method of pre-scripting everything. It’s a big disappointment in that regard.

  19. malkav11 says:

    I liked Stacking on a basic level, both in concept and (less so, alas) in execution, but as cute as it is, it’s also remarkably slight. There’s little meat and no challenge. Of their four bite-sized game releases (Costume Quest, Stacking, Trenched (or whatever it’s called these days) and the Sesame Street Kinect game), I’ve played only the first two, but Costume Quest was definitely the better game for my tastes.

  20. HexagonalBolts says:

    ‘(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’.)’

    - I literally sat pissing myself for five minutes after reading that, just imagining a group of strained developers and a tense marketing department collectively wiping their foreheads and exclaiming ‘OH thank GOD for THAT.’

  21. Javier-de-Ass says:

    it’s like a non-violent hitman game isn’t it

  22. Hodge says:

    I played a bit of this yesterday and apart from the FOV problem (which is atrocious) it’s wonderful. The only real negative thing I took away from it is a concern that the idea will wear thin by the end, as there’s not an awful lot to it, but for $10 I can live with that.

  23. Cryo says:

    It’s all very nice, but that flickering effect they have on in cutscenes is murdering my eyes. I literally have to look away and miss most of the story. Really wish there was an option to disable it.

  24. RogB says:

    concept reminds me of Paradroid without the hacking minigame

  25. qd says:

    Something that I don’t think has been said yet, is that the game is locked at 30 FPS (which might get changed months later, see the other posts by the dev later in the thread), even if your frame counter is telling you otherwise: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showpost.php?p=29642315&postcount=11

  26. terry says:

    I’m enjoying this much more than Costume Quest, chilled out little game with lots of character and interesting style.

  27. InternetBatman says:

    I think Stacking represents an evolution in the adventure genre. One of the biggest problems with it was that you had to divine how the developer wanted you to solve the problem, and plenty of good solutions just didn’t work. Stacking almost solves that problem by providing multiple paths, multiple puzzles to solve at the same time, hints when you need it (and they’re timed to encourage you not just to reveal your answer), and free-flowing exploration of the levels. It’s really a brilliant little game and I highly recommend it to anyone on the fence.

    The cutscenes, especially at the start of the game, are a bit on the long side though.

  28. Crazy Horse says:

    The idea of entering multiple NPCs at whim and having those NPCs enter others while you enter them simultaneously is very intriguing. From a game mechanic standpoint.

  29. The First Door says:

    I meant to pick this up on Xbox a while back, but never got to it. Picked it up after this review and I have to say it is one of the cutest games I’ve played in absolutely ages! Every part of this game just makes me smile, even when I’m just remembering it. Scaary growwwwwlll!

  30. engion3 says:

    so many vaginas, yes a narrow FOV sucks but in no way does it make me sick or not want to play a game.

  31. elilupe says:

    I’m happy to say I have played almost every one of Double Fine’s games, although I personally didn’t find Stacking to be very fun. The idea was great, the art style was beautiful, the characters and story were pretty funny, but the gameplay just didn’t hold up after an hour or two of playing. I might go back now that I’ve read this article, but I just remember getting very bored while playing it.

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