Magnificent And Important Advent Calendar: Day Five

By RPS on December 5th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.

FIVE GO-OLD RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGS! (trad.)

The happiest time for Horace worshippers is the ritual of the infinite ritual, where we nest small things inside large things, until everything in the universe is inside something else. It’s a tricky business, but one that we take great pleasure in. No surprise, then about the fifth game on the advent calendar

It’s… Stacking!

Alec:

A theory: Double Fine are the Pete Doherty of videogames. Everyone wants to discuss them, the media is obsessed with them and their frontman is highly charismatic (though, to the very best of my knowledge, Tim Shafer is not a heroin addict) but, well, no-one seems to be saying all that much about the things they make, the things they were supposed to be famous for in the first place. Even on this site, the bulk of our coverage is LOOK AT THIS CRAZY THING DOUBLE-FINE HAVE DONE NOW rather than what’s actually in their games. Stick a red banner and topless pictures of Kate Middleton on the front of us, basically.

It’s hardly surprising, and I suspect it’s at least somewhat deliberate on their part. This is a studio that, after a rocky few years of B-list status, has successfully picked up a series of zeitgeist balls and run with ‘em, and essentially become A-list as a result. They’ve become expert at being on the forefront of online trends – indeed, establishing some of them – and bringing mass focus and devotion onto themselves as a result.

There’s one big huge reason why I do lament that the story is forever ‘Shafer does funny video’, even though Double Fine’s viral shenanigans are unquestionably a ray of light in the often conflict-fuelled gaming quarter of internet. That reason is that, just before they shot off into the skies of sensationalism in a Kickstarter rocketship, they were turning out some quietly brilliant games. Bafflingly, not too many people seem to have played those games, let along hailed them as they deserve to be hailed. Indeed, I believe am the only RPS staffer to have played either the game behind today’s festivus door or its slightly more recent and also splendid stablemate Iron Brigade. Superficial observation of comments upon my write-ups of those games seem to imply not many of you have, either.

What’s going on? How did it come to this? How we can we be so obsessed by this company and the things its hairy frontman says, but apparently so uninterested in its games? Something has gone badly wrong, much as we may be entertained by Double Fine’s social media hi-jinks.

Iron Brigade put a smile on my face and appropriate sleepless compulsion in my brain, but it’s the lack of web-wide euphoria about Stacking that most baffles me. We give Double Fine millions to make us a point and click adventure game, we hang on every implication that they can bring back The Good Old Days and yet, there it bloody is. There they bloody are doing it already. There is their delightful Stacking being witty and smart and weird and alternative and a puzzle-based adventure game and oh-so-pretty and characterful to boot, and yet the world only looked up from Twitter briefy, smiled vaguely then got its head back down to shouting and moaning and accusing the industry of dumbing down all over again.

Stacking, as I wrote in more detail here, is old-fashioned and modern at the same time, not a game with its nose shoved firmly in the musty feedbag of nostalgia. It has inventive puzzles that cleave to a strict logic based around the nature of its Russian Doll world, rather than abstract use custard on ballgag gibberish, yet it hardly flees from absurdity. It has an evocative Victoriana visual style twinned with bobblepeople cartoonishness. Every character in it positively screams a story and an identity from their look alone. It might not quite reach stone-cold classic status but it does what so many people keep calling for, and new things too.

It is funny. It is sweet. It is surprising. It requires some use of a human brain. It is the Double Fine game you want Double Fine to make, so why didn’t you play it?

I know Stacking is old news now – its PC version was out way back in March and that arrived a good year after the initial console release. But it’s not too late. It is still there, waiting to charm you into pieces. Don’t make Double Fine be Pete Doherty.

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63 Comments »

  1. fauxC says:

    It would be greatly amusing now if this doesn’t attract any comments.

    Hang on a minute…

  2. Meat Circus says:

    I am ashamed to say I am one of the Bad Internet People and forgot this game existed. Forgive me, Tim.

    Still, I did give him all of my money to assuage my guilt.

  3. wiper says:

    Yes!

    Stacking is a wonderful, inventive little game. It’s short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, yet long enough to feel satisfying; its puzzles are split up nicely allowing for casual jumping in and out of the game, while their many solutions encourage replaying. The charming world and frustration-free controls make it ideal for newcomers as well as seasoned gamers, and indeed make it a great spectator game – discussing various possible solutions, giggling at the daft characters and the entertaining plot.

    It remains one of my highlights of digitally-distributed gaming, and ties with Psychonauts as my favourite Double Fine game. An absolute classic, and I’m glad to see it get recognised here (even as I’m horrified that Alec is the only RPSite to have played it. And John calls himself an adventure game fan? For shame).

  4. Museli says:

    Stacking! I loved this game – it’s utterly charming, and it’s great for luring non-gamers into our shiny bleeping world. It’s simple enough to while away a casual hour here and there, but if you want to complete every method of solving each of the puzzles, you’ll need to stretch your brain a bit. In summary: why haven’t y’all played this yet?

  5. AngoraFish says:

    Will wait for Steam sale. Will not play, like 90% of the games I currently own.

  6. Retro says:

    I hated its long unskippable cutscenes.

    • stahlwerk says:

      Most of them are skippable, and you have no heart.

    • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

      The problem with the cutscenes was the attempt at a silent film schtick without (apparently) understanding how silent films actually communicate. Double Fine sticks card after card of dialogue into their cutscenes, and it’s tedious. Silent films made occasional use of dialogue cards, but relied primarily on stock characters/settings and exaggerated acting—much like mime—to communicate their stories without dialogue.

      • Ninja Dodo says:

        That’s a good point, but it’s hard to get across pantomime and broad acting with no arms or legs. I think it worked well within given constraints.

  7. antoniodamala says:

    It is the most inovative adventure game in years. I played the demo for like 5 minutes and felt in love. I don’t want another point & click from lucasarts era, i wanna something new from double fine.

    • D3xter says:

      Hopefully something new akin to the Point & Clicks from Lucas Arts era, like the Double Fine Adventure.

      I played Stacking and it was alright, but it didn’t exactly “wow” me, I never really finished it though, I think I was in the very final level with the chimneys and the factory and haven’t completed that part yet.

      Costume Quest was better I think, at least in my mind and I have yet to try Iron Brigade when it goes on Sale.

      • soco says:

        I really enjoyed Costume Quest as well, but I am one of the bad people that hasn’t played Stacking yet. Perhaps I can rectify that in the Steam sale in a couple weeks.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I too thought Stacking was a great evolution of the point and click adventure. Instead of trying to limit you to one specific path, it tried to accommodate you and then reward you for finding different paths. Fluid movement is nice too. I feel like the one flaw in the game was its overly long cutscenes, particularly at the beginning when they are too close to each other.

  8. Jakkar says:

    I found it incredibly boring :(

    • Pazguato says:

      As a Tim Schafer / Double Fine fan I’m ashamed to agree with this… (just an average game: as always, charming artwork but the gameplay here is lacking).

      • calendar_man says:

        Double Fine’s games always appeal to me with their look and their story but I am not a fan of the gameplay that they have. Loved the concept for Brutal Legends, Psychonauts, Costume Quest, and Stacking but I hated the gameplay. Most games only scratch either the story or the mechanics itch for me anyway but usually I can just ignore the parts I don’t care for and just enjoy the good bits. I could not do it for Double Fine games for some reason.

      • Ragnar says:

        Yeah, that’s been my problem too. I loved the witty and funny writing for Costume Quest, but found the gameplay to be tedious and boring.

        Stacking had better gameplay, but without the witty and amusing writing, and I found the doll interactions more tiresome than amusing. I liked the concept behind Stacking, but found playing it tedious.

  9. Jams O'Donnell says:

    I have it installed and I’ve never gotten around to playing it. Maybe I should address that. Certainly, the comments I see talking about how charming it is make me think fondly of World of Goo, and lord knows I’d like another experience like that.

  10. Lars Westergren says:

    It’s like a game created out of nothing but easter eggs. Every combination of doll, item and action has a unique and often funny result. So damn good. I want to try out every combination of doll-on-doll action there is!
    Wait. That came out wrong.

    And the graphics!
    http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=4971870

    Alec, I share your grump. You should jump into the upper class lady doll and do a “GHHD DHAY SUHR!” noise and stomp off. Those are the best.

  11. Oozo says:

    I DID play the game, actually, and found it to be one of those games I more liked to love than actually loved. I love that they tried to alter the sometimes somewhat stale Adventure-formula, and I liked the idea of a world made for and out of stacking dools…

    That said, I found that the interface might have forced them to stick to simplistic puzzles (the ultimate symbol of which is the doll with a key on the head standing in front of a locked door), and somewhat tiresome navigation of the world. What’s more, I failed to connect with that world, which, for a world so original in concept, often reached for easy chlichees. (It’s maybe just that I did not find it as funny as I hoped I would, so YMMV.)

    So, while I applaud them for trying, for me, the execution was somewhat lackluster — the fact that it went by largely unnoticed might to some small degree mean that I’m not wholly alone in thinking so.

    • Pseudonym says:

      You have to take into account that the key doll standing in front of the locked door was really part of the tutorial. Most of the puzzles are much more interesting than that.

      • Karuji says:

        I found the puzzles lacking. In the sense of how it was more about finding a location and completing a specific task as opposed to the spread out nature of a puzzle that requires an inventory. On the other hand this is less frustrating, but also less rewarding.

        So while I enjoy the concise style of gameplay in Stacking the lack of challenge made it felt somewhat less rewarding.

  12. Patches the Hyena says:

    I bought it on release, but fell sick soon after and didn’t play more than 2 hours. What I did play however, was upto the ship level, and it was marvellous. My 8 year old sister has almost finished it, looking forward to playing it again over Christmas.

  13. Prime says:

    Going to try the demo just because of what you wrote, Alec. Also: we do not need another critically acclaimed gem in our history that no-one bought. Psychonauts, BG&E and the Thief series were plenty painful enough to endure.

  14. Just Endless says:

    I hated many, many things about Stacking. Costume Quest and Iron Brigade I enjoyed, but my was Stacking a slog for me.

  15. aDFP says:

    Yes! I’ve been saying this (well, quietly mumbling this) since I first picked it up on the consolebox. It’s a point & click game without all that bothersome pointing or clicking to get in the way, which is what you just said!

    That said, I didn’t think it had the personality of any of Shafer’s classic pointy/clicky games. It was drop-dead gorgeous, and brilliantly intentive, but your character was no Guybrush Threepwood, or Manny Calavera, as evidenced by the fact you didn’t mention him once in this entire piece.

    Maybe that’s why we’re still crying out for a decent point & click game?

  16. InternetBatman says:

    I loved Costume Quest and Stacking, and personally thought Stacking was the better of the two. One thing that struck me about the games is that they were released very quietly; I wanted Costume Quest for a long time, but didn’t find out it was on PC until I saw it on the front page of Steam.

  17. Scatterbrainpaul says:

    I never knew this existed. Will probably pick it if it ever goes on sale

  18. Lambchops says:

    I almost forgot Stacking in my games of the year list and put it in with the qualifier of “it did come out this year didn’t it?” (yes I’m too lazy to check Wikipedia, sue me!).

    I loved it. More charming than hilarious (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing), some clever puzzles (they were generally easy to solve in the first instance but if you were going for all the alternate solutions some of them were gleefully roundabout) and a neat unique concept driving it.

    It was successes like this that made backing that first Kickstarter easy. Sure Schafer’s history as an adventure game designer was a factor but the fact his studio had a proven track record of some excellent game in both Psychonauts and this (alas no Brutal Legend PC version) made it an easy decision to back.

    Iron Brigade on the other hand completely passed me by, maybe I should give it a shot.

  19. hardcorebabbler says:

    Yep, this game is really good. Everything about it is charming, the puzzles are logical (perhaps the biggest improvement on the old adventure games) but not too simplistic (particularly if you want to get all of them), and the central “nesting dolls” mechanic allows for so many weird, off-kilter interactions…it’s a shame it didn’t get more attention.

    Very happy to see it get highlighted like this, particularly since as you noted it was released quite early in the year. And shame on your fellow RPS writers for not playing it, particularly since it’s not like it’s a prohibitively long game.

  20. Ninja Dodo says:

    I played this on PS3 and enjoyed it but didn’t like the emphasis on internal ‘achievements’. It made finding solutions less like discovery and more like going down a checklist.

    • The First Door says:

      Yeah, as much as I love Stacking (and it is rather a large amount) I found this to be a problem near the end for me, too. I think it was made worse by the last level being much more linear than earlier ones, so there was less wandering around and poking stuff and more just finishing a check-list before moving on.

      Still… the Station and the Steamship levels were brilliant to explore and play!

  21. AlonePlusEasyTarget says:

    As this game comes from previous Amnesia Fortnight, I guess it’s quite appropriate to say that the public AF they’ve done this year is really great and very insightful, so for those who managed to miss the Double Fine Adventures videos and curious about it should get this Humble Amnesia Fortnight.

    http://www.humblebundle.com/double-fine

    With 5 different projects and 2 weeks you can really how those games built up from scratch to finished prototypes which you can try after that. They also do a stream of their daily works (from 10-6) with the additional HD videos. Everything from coding, audio, concept arts, animations etc. Greg Rice who handle the stream always answer any questions asked in the chat, as does Chris Remo.

    http://www.twitch.tv/doublefine

    Me, I somehow feel really involved just by watching the projects that I’m interested in and see how it comes along

  22. jhng says:

    I am astonished that only one member of the hivemind has actually played this.

    For me it was definitely one of the best games of the year. The puzzles are fun but a bit easy; however, what really makes it is the overall aesthetic and world-building. It riffs particularly on silent film, Dickens and Marx and present a really meaningful and coherent vision of the sort that I have seen in very few games.

    It also makes brilliant use of classical music. The main theme is Chopin’s mazurka no. 5 which I had not been familiar with but which is now a firm favourite — partly due to the associations with the game where it complements the silent film stylings really effectively.

    It’s relatively short. It’s cheap. It’s easy (perhaps a little too easy, if I’m honest). But it’s also a great vision of what a videogame can be. Go and play it!

  23. malkav11 says:

    Stacking is amusing and stylish, but the gameplay is quite simple and unsophisticated. In the environments I’ve played so far, almost every solution involved finding a particular unique doll, nesting into them, then using their power in a specific spot. No real multistage puzzles or other brainier interaction. It’s true that it can sometimes take a bit of observation and experimentation to figure out that a particular unique doll is appropriate to solving that particular puzzle, but that only goes so far. That said, I’ve been dipping in and out of it because it really hasn’t felt deep enough to sustain prolonged play sessions, and it’s possible it gets more complex later on.

  24. stahlwerk says:

    What was your favourite level? For me it was the airship, becuase it had a great style and the layout of the place was nicely tied into the story arc. The racetrack setting in the later part reminded me a lot of Grim Fandango, somehow, maybe because we’re never shown the cat races.

    • Skeletor68 says:

      The airship was my favourite too (at least I think was in the air, was there an earlier one on a yacht?)

      Stacking is just pure heart-warming fun. I’ve gone about half way through it but got distracted by Autumn sale stuff. Will return soon. As noted earlier, the multiple puzzle approach is great. Really rewarding. Great little characterisation of the various dolls too. The way the hip-swinging lady moves had me cracking me up.

  25. Bluerps says:

    Hah! I’m playing Iron Brigade right now. I will play Stacking too, sooner or later.

  26. airtekh says:

    I played Stacking for an hour or so in the summer, in between other games, and it failed to grab me.

    The game has charm and is well-presented, but I didn’t find the gameplay particularly interesting.

  27. Suits says:

    Just don’t like those adventure games. Maybe if it has a sale

  28. rustybroomhandle says:

    Idea: A game about the food chain, called Snacking. You put animals inside other animals. Preparing my publisher pitch right now!

  29. I_have_no_nose_but_I_must_sneeze says:

    Hey, I not only know of Stacking’s existence, I’ve also played it through to completion with great delight. If it weren’t for Botanicula, which I’m sure will end up on this calendar somewhere, I’d nominate it for This Year’s Most Joyful Personal Computer Video Entertainment Release (TYMJPCVER). So there! Admittedly, it was Alec’s original article that convinced me to give it a go. You win.

  30. FranticSociety says:

    Such an awesome game. It’s very creative, imaginative, funny, and interesting. I would recommend it to anybody.

  31. Runs With Foxes says:

    Nice concept and great presentation, but the puzzles didn’t allow for much creativity. It was just a matter of finding the pre-scripted solutions instead of learning the game’s systems and making your own solutions.

  32. Cooper says:

    I fell in love with this.

    It’s great to see it here. It’s a shame so few have played it. Hopefully this will prompt people to do so…

  33. MikoSquiz says:

    Just like Costume Quest, it was one of those cute, charming games that I wanted to love but didn’t actually enjoy playing. The big draws of classic adventure games for me were always story and funny dialogue, and .. well, you see the problem, yes?

  34. Frank says:

    Yeah, it’s one of my all-time favorites in the adventure genre (behind the Last Express and maybe Monkey Island).

    It solves so many of the genre’s problems with it’s core mechanic (the dolls): its world is populated and alive (while most adventure games have like a dozen characters you can speak to, none of whom move), it doesn’t have godawful inventory puzzles (the dolls serve as the inventory and….also often the puzzles) and it was huge (presumably because it was easy to scale up the number of characters, given the simple art requirements).

    Of course, the art was incredible (especially for such a small game) and the writing was very entertaining.

  35. Lucas Says says:

    Stacking has the problem that it starts out miserably. Impossibly miserably. You think they’d play the beginning of the game and realize, “Wait, no one wants to sit through ten minutes of tiresome scene setting without voice acting or anything besides writing,” but alas.

    So it kind of had the Costume Quest problem: they got too impressed with themselves as writers to actually show off the game they made. The difference being, there’s probably actually a game here, which makes it doubly a shame.

  36. robc says:

    For me Stacking was long on charm but short on fun. Some of the puzzles were clever but many relied on trial and error to solve. This also required the player to do some trekking back and forth. The problem is that charm doesn’t keep me playing a game. I got through about 40% of the game before I couldn’t take it anymore and quit. Even though I got it for about $5 I wish I had passed. Thumbs up for their creativity and willingness to try for something different, but it didn’t work for me.

  37. StingingVelvet says:

    Calling them A-list for making a series of marginally successful download only games is a bit weird.

  38. Brise Bonbons says:

    Ugh, I have also been a terrible internet person and not bought this yet. It must have been in my steam cart about 8 times by now (twice each major sale since its release? Maybe more than 8…), I just never actually buy it. Blame my ambivalence towards adventure/puzzle games, I guess.

    Maybe for the Christmas sale? Maybe…

    Glad to see it get so much positive attention here, at least! Good show better-than-me internet people.

  39. cpt_freakout says:

    I first played this on console way back when it came out, and I think many people’s problem with this is that they’re looking at it as if it was an heir to the good ol’ adventure games. In my opinion, it’s not – it’s more of a puzzle game, and it’s fantastic because each map (each step of progress) is a huge scenario full of puzzles instead of being mostly transitional places, like it used to happen with adventure games, or being mostly for décor, like it usually happens with puzzle games. I think you have to consider this was a console game first – point and clicking with a stick is not much fun, after all, and the mechanics play wonderfully in the Ecsbawks controller. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this game has more in common with stuff like Tetris than with Maniac Mansion; if you like adventure games, then approach this with caution, but if you like puzzle games, then this is totally for you.

  40. Skabooga says:

    Well, I went out and bought Stacking after reading the ‘Wot I thought’ here, but I’ve yet to actually play it. But it’s position in the queue has definitely risen. I’m just waiting for the right mood to play what I assume will be such a beautiful game.

    No matter what I say, it still sounds like a lame excuse.

  41. TheIronSky says:

    $15 listing on GOG is asking too much for a casual game I’m only going to play through once and might not even enjoy all that thoroughly. Psychonauts, on the other hand…

  42. Frank says:

    Wow. I hate you all and all your stupid reasons.

  43. wererogue says:

    I loved Stacking – I just put the bow on The Lost Hobo King, and now I have all of the lovely achievements.

  44. Foosnark says:

    It was charming… but the cutscenes were just way too long, and I generally got bored of the game. But my main problem was nasty motion sickness. Few games do that to me.

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