Tim Schafer has had a long, long history of fighting adversity while trying to elevate his work to some creative merit. If I’m being completely honest, his video games have never been good video games. They’ve been wonderful, quirky worlds full of the finest humour around, but he’s never made a real video-game up until now. The studio he’s with, Double Fine, has changed all of that. They’ve made not only a charming, wondrous and often beautifully constructed world of aesthetic intricacy, but a downright fun game that is filled with charm and quirk down to its very mechanics.
Stacking follows the exploits of a matryoshka doll by the name of Charlie Blackmore who is attempting to rescue his family from The Baron, an evil industrialist tyrant. The narrative isn’t important here, but the writing itself just breathes magic, from the little bits of dialogue to the cut-scenes between sections. The game is set around a 1920s depression era setting and is told through similar ways to the silent films of the time, with little bits of action peppered with slides of dialogue. It should be obtrusive but winds up painting a perfect picture of what Double Fine was going for.
Being a matryoshka doll, and a small one at that, Charlie is able to dive into bigger dolls than him and control and use their abilities. He’s generally useless on his own, but the game requires you to solve little puzzles involving dolls who possess special abilities. For example, at one point in the game you have to disrupt a safari showing and there’s a small cannon nearby. Charlie is able to stack into a small girl, then into a woman, then a man, and finally into the cannoneer, therefore gaining the power to control the cannon and destroy the entire display.
What makes it work is the fact that there are often multiple ways on how to approach any situation. Usually in games like this there’s a linear path to succeed, but here we have something different. You’re not limited to just stacking yourself into one doll but multiple dolls. You can stack into the cannoneer or go for the boxer to punch the cannoneer off of his post. The game doesn’t just stop and allow you to go through menus to retry a puzzle after finishing it, instead it is wide open even after cracking it, encouraging a quick succession of puzzle-solving from different angles.
As the player progresses through the levels and gains more and more dolls, you unlock special awards back at Charlie's hideout. These can range from concept art to generally special bits. There’s a real sense of achievement when you’ve reached 100% on a section of the game. It’s quite easy to do, but it often takes a long time. It feels so good to finally leave a section knowing you’ve done absolutely everything there is to do.
As I said before, Double Fine’s worlds are often pretty to explore but poor to play. Here, I have a game that I enjoy both being in and playing. I love interacting with the characters, as it’s clear to see that Schafer and company have boiled the general charm of the game from a largely visual format and into the interactive format. It’s so satisfying to see a game where I can view the mechanics on the same level of the game’s look and tone. This hasn’t happened since Bioshock, where the mechanics completely suited the world.
The only complaints that come to mind are that while the silent film cut-scenes are wonderful, they are intrusive to an extent. They kill the pacing and you have to spend time reading each one. The animations of the dolls is charming, but the game often stutters while moving. It’s perhaps intentional to have these dolls stutter and fall about, but it’s not fun when you're just trying to move about the world.
Double Fine’s Stacking is their first genuinely amazing video game. The story is charming, the writing quite beautiful and the world carries a warm feel and tone. Apart from a few hiccups in the design, this is something I’ve never said before: this is more than just a great world to be in but an excellent video game to play.
• Stacking is available now from the PlayStation Store. The game is free for PlayStation Plus subscribers. You can also find it in the Xbox LIVE Arcade for 1200 Points.