Review: Stacking (XBLA/PSN)

Stacking is an adventure-puzzle game about the youngest child of a family of Industrial Revolution-era chimney sweeps fighting against the upper class. What separates this from other period pieces is every man, woman, child and beast is portrayed by a Russian stacking doll. How that design document was successfully pitched I may never know, but what resulted is one of the most original, entertaining and charming games I’ve ever played — possibly the best yet from developer Double Fine.

The protagonist is Charlie Blackmore, smallest of all dolls and considered unfit for even the most menial of labor. His objective is to rescue his family from a tyrannical industrialist, the Baron, and along the way aid others hurt by the Baron’s exploitative policies. The manner in which this plays out is far more entertaining than any historical sociology thesis would otherwise suggest. Charlie has a unique advantage: as the world’s smallest doll, he can stack into any other doll, thereby using whatever unique ability they possess. The abilities can range from single use (opening a door) to multi-purpose (flatulence).

Stacking is exceptionally clever in its themes and story. There is no voice acting, and cutscenes play out like a silent movie. Though none of the dolls have any appendages and facial expressions are minimal, the animation is so superbly realized that it’s never a question of how a character is behaving or feels. Likewise, each doll is so meticulously detailed it’s easy to pick one apart from another even without distinctive silhouettes or physical cues. What is truly exceptional about the experience is how Double Fine takes such serious subject matter, including the plight of the working class and child labor, and handles it in a way that is both humorous and touching. It’s a testament to the design that Charlie can stack into a child doll whose ability is “Black Lung Cough” and an adult with the ability to “Fart,” yet the game never feels depressing or crass. More importantly, these abilities are useful in their own right.

The primary flaw in most adventure games is linearity. The stories and quests are designed in a storybook-style progression, never deviating from the narrative plotted out from the start. Stacking partially avoids this dilemma. Every quest has multiple solutions, every level has several optional quests (called “Hi-Jinks”) and a set of unique dolls for Charlie to find and stack into, some of which are required for quests and some not. For completionists, finishing the game with a ‘100%’ rating requires finding all of the above; finishing the narrative requires just a fraction. Early puzzles may only require one ability to solve but there are more complex ones later on requiring combinations. Despite a couple of the solutions seeming a bit obtuse, moving through the game never became a chore.

In a medium entrenched in annualized sequels and third-person cover-based shooters, Stacking is a game that is truly original — both in the story it tells and the way it tells it. Double Fine deserves praise not only for the creativity on display but how well constructed a display it is. Every stage oozes charm with a well defined art style and musical presence that creates a sense of place better than other titles featuring real locales and more human characters. Stacking is absolutely a game that deserves to be experienced, and may even inspire it’s own uprising against the gaming bourgeoise.

Recommended for:

  • Adventure gamers and Double Fine fans who swoon for Tim Schafer
  • An inspired, unique and evocative art style
  • Marrying an interesting and underused period in gaming (Industrial Revolution) with a cheeky take on the plight of the proletariat

Stacking is published by THQ and developed by Double Fine Productions and is on sale now. It is available on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. The version reviewed was on PSN, but the views from this review are relevant for the XBLA edition. It is available on XBLA for 1200 MS Points and PSN for $15.

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