Stacking was born as a result of 'Amnesia Fortnight', the two week period that followed after Double Fine's Brutal Legend was dropped by Activision. Small teams were formed to come up with smaller ideas for downloadable games, with Lee Petty coming up with the idea that would become Stacking - a new spin on the adventure game genre, where Matryoshka dolls became the new user interface for all interaction. It's a wonderfully inventive concept, and now that Stacking has finally digitally landed in our hands, it shows how far a little imagination can go in game design.
The game is set in a world inhabited entirely by Matryoshka dolls, the scenery a blend of seemingly real expansive locations and smaller, scale-appropriate objects. It's not uncommon to walk from a meticulously detailed train station, and find pins and playing cards bigger than you lying around, almost as if the whole game is in some kind of transition from a kid's playroom to their imagination.
The story itself is set during the Great Depression, as you control Charlie, the runt of the Blackmore family. His father's debts lead to the evil Baron forcing Charlie's siblings into child labour to pay them off, leaving little Charlie behind to mount a rescue. This is all conveyed in cutscenes mirroring silent films, as dolls bobble about in pantomime-like fashion on little stages and dialogue is shown as text in intertitles. These are charming, although perhaps a little wearing for the less patient among us, as they can drag on with their emulation of the form. However, they are frequently amusing, including a pretty hilarious and unexpected Michael Bay-like firey escape towards the end.
As mentioned, the game certainly has roots in the adventure game genre of old, as the game revolves around talking to other dolls, interacting with them and the environment to solve puzzles. Charlie has the (seemingly) unique ability to stack into other dolls, which each have unique abilities that are activated with the action button. For instance, one sexy female doll can seduce male dolls and force them to follow her, while another can just walk up and punch dolls in the face. There's also a recurring doll that can release volatile clouds of fart gas that would make Abe jealous.
The fact that there are so many dolls with such a range of abilities means that there are several ways to solve each of the puzzles in the game, and in fact the game actively encourages you to explore all the possibilities. For every method you use, you gain a puzzle piece, which is used to form a painting back in your secret hideout (guarded by Levi the Hobo). Similarly, there are also unique dolls to be stacked into, and sets of dolls to collect, all of which are also recorded in your hideout. You can tell the game is working incredibly well when even after solving a puzzle, you find yourself going back and trying to solve it again without prompting, simply because it's so fun finding the different solutions. However, it is not required to solve any of the puzzles more than once, and if you like you can barrel through the game in a matter of hours. This playtime is lengthened considerably, of course, if you take your time and enjoy the game world.
The stacking itself is an addictive little mechanic, and there is strategy involved. You can only stack into a doll one size up from you, so if the doll you need is much larger than your current size, then you'll have to find a way to work up to it using different dolls. This gets a little more complicated late in the game, as you gain the ability to combine the abilities of stacked dolls - for instance pouring water with one doll, then unstacking down one level and using the smaller doll to freeze the water. It would have been nice to have this ability earlier in the game, as it only shows up on the second last level and opens up a whole lot more gameplay possibilities. Most of the game is quite easy up until that point, with all of the harder puzzles (which require you to find very specific dolls) crammed into the last quarter or so of the game.
With an inviting game world, and fantastic graphics, Stacking has a very strong presentation. Each of the dolls is meticulously painted, even though some of them can appear very similar (especially among the upper-class dolls), and the environments are wonderful fusions of 1930s design. There are occasional gripes, like some weird slowdown in places, and the camera tending to lose sight of your doll in tight corners, but overall it's an outstanding package for a downloadable game. The music is mostly maudlin violins appropriate to the era, and fit the tone of the game nicely even if they're not very upbeat.
Stacking really is a game that deserves to be played by anyone with an interest in adventure games, puzzle games, or just original games. It's not very often you get something this inventive and fun stacked inside a polished presentation, and while the game may be short for those looking to just finish the story, it nonetheless remains a triumph of imagination.