In Soviet Russia, doll stacks you!
There’s one surefire way to tell when you have a good adventure puzzle game on your hands. Well, there are several, I suppose: When your last thought before drifting off to sleep is how to solve that last puzzle, you know you’re hooked (or alternatively, you may just not sleep at all). Another good sign is when you’re frustrated, annoyed, bordering on insanity because you can’t figure something out – and refuse to put the controller down until you do.
[image1]But I’m getting off track here. The way I always know that a puzzler has done its job is by the reactions of those around me. Play in an area where a few people come and go – if the game is a winner, you’ll inevitably accrue a crowd of backseat gamers. A friend to suggest combining some items; a co-worker to nudge you toward that spot on the wall that just looks suspicious; a family member to try pushing every button imaginable in every spot; and always, always, that one guy who keeps yelling at you to try hitting the same damn switch you’ve already tried 50 times.
Tim Schafer has a true knack for games like this, and despite its unique style, Stacking is reminiscent of Schafer’s earlier ventures with LucasArts. Much like a good old point-'n'-click, the gameplay is exceedingly simple. A button to stack, a button to unstack, one to talk/use objects, and one for the current doll’s special ability – that’s all you need to get to the bottom of every head-scratcher in Stacking. A quick warning, though: controlling movement with the analog stick feels a little clunky (perhaps appropriately, considering that these dolls just kind of waddle around without actual legs).
Charlie Blackmore is an unfortunate little kid. His entire family has been taken by an evil industrialist known as “The Baron”, a dude who’s really into child labor to cut expenses. Charlie's also a wooden matryoshka doll (but so is everyone else in this world, so I guess that’s not really a con). Luckily for Charlie, he’s the smallest size of doll, which gives him the slightly unnerving ability to hop into a doll the next size up and seize control of its every move.
[image2]From there he can hop into progressively larger dolls, or unstack to smaller ones if necessary. Since each doll has a unique ability, you’ll find yourself traveling quite quickly from body to body to find and use the ability that suits a particular situation. The game’s four main levels contain a wealth of puzzles that bar your way to rescuing your next sibling, and you’ll need every doll you can find to figure them out.
It’s the multiple solutions, however, that give Stacking its wonderful appeal and staying power. Every puzzle has at least three (sometimes up to six) solutions, and while you only need to find one to proceed, you can always try redoing the puzzle with different dolls to discover a new solution. Usually one or two will be on the more obvious side – like, say, using a mechanic to tinker with the big cannon to force a carnival to shut down – but figuring every solution out can be quite tricky; a more difficult solution to the same puzzle involves a bird, a window, and a bear.
There is a hint system in place, which is frankly a little too accessible. You can unlock up to three progressively clearer hints per solution, but you have to wait for a cooldown between hints so as not to get them all right away. The cooldown, however, is a ridiculously short 10 seconds or so, and there is no punishment in place for using them. Were the cooldown long enough to force you to actually try thinking for yourself (I’d say 15-20 minutes), it wouldn’t be an issue. And of course, no one says you have to use the hints, but they can get pretty tempting just staring you in the face with no consequences for using them. I fear that some players may not have the resolve to stick with their noggins for very long and that Double Fine is sabotaging their own efforts with a copiously flowing hint fountain.
[image3]If you take the time to work through it all yourself, the game is immensely rewarding. Each solution unlocks statues and artwork in your home base, an abandoned subway tunnel that Charlie shares with a friendly hobo (who wouldn’t?). Hijinks are entirely optional sidequests to use certain doll abilities on other dolls, resulting in a flashy gold color for the doll used. You can get even more rewards for finding and stacking together complete sets of like dolls, not to mention the obligatory Achievements/Trophies to collect. Stack it all together (sorry, couldn’t resist) and you’ve got some monster replay value for 15 bucks.
The cutscenes are just as fun to watch as the game is to play. The story is told entirely like a silent movie, complete with dramatic piano accompaniment and title cards for dialogue. Also, par for the course in a Tim Schafer game, a liberal sprinkling of humor pervades the narrative. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the rich soundtrack of great classical music supporting the rest of the game.
I’d like to end on a digression. Some games, for whatever reason, get me thinking philosophically as I play. In Stacking, I wonder if the other dolls are aware of what Charlie is making them do – and if they are, how do they feel about having their bodies controlled by a little kid? Which inevitably leads to the bigger question: Is it morally right to be doing this? The Baron uses forced labor, but isn’t Charlie doing the exact same thing for his own ends? Isn’t possessing someone’s entire body an even more egregious offense? Perhaps these questions would be best addressed in a sequel, which Stacking richly deserves.