Tim Schafer has had a lot to say about the relationship between developers and publishers, and his cynicism about the state of the industry has manifested itself as a move from AAA titles to smaller, low-budget projects. Sometime after the cancellation of the sequel to Brutal Legend, his company split into four smaller teams, with each team working on indie-like titles. Costume Quest was the first project to be released, and now we have Stacking.
It's a new era for Schafer and his Double Fine studio. We're not exactly on Monkey Island anymore, but there's a sense of themes being repeated. There's Day of the Tentacle's tribute to 1950s schlock films and Grim Fandango's tribute to film noir - even Full Throttle was said to be inspired by Kurosawa characters. Continue down the line of Tim Schafer's career and you get Stacking, a kind of odd combination of 1920s silent film reels and Russian Dolls. What you get is a lineage of film motifs, so to speak. Stacking takes Schafer's penchant for those references literally, using that pre-Talkies influence to tell the story.
Using the silent film-like style and slides of text dialogue in each cut scene, you're introduced to the story of the smallest Russian doll in the world, Charlie, who has lost his family and now has to solve puzzles to get them back. Move beyond its references to 1920s cinema and you get a surprisingly novel idea that makes use of the Russian doll conceit. You'll recognise Russian dolls because your nan likely had one lying about on a shelf; they're hollow, wooden figurines that stack into one another from smallest to biggest size. Similarly, in this game you use your pint-size nature to hop inside other dolls and control them; stacking, didjagetit? Every doll in Stacking has a special ability, and as Charlie you make use of both their size and skills to save your family, one puzzle at a time.
Cutesy tendencies are likely to end up defining this game. Most of the humour here is derived from the abilities you can use; in fact it feels like a completely different sense of humour compared to other Double Fine titles. It's weird, albeit quaint, Fable-ish comedy, all farts and belches, and while it definitely can be hit and miss the variety of abilities you get is legitimately impressive. In this world there's a seemingly endless number of abilities to play with once you stack into the doll of your choice. The sultry widow doll can seduce others into following her; others will burp and clear a room or slap other characters.
But Stacking is a deceptively complicated game. Unlike most puzzle games, every problem you're introduced to in Stacking will have multiple solutions. It's a decidedly Warren Spector-like approach to design, which is what makes this game more than a series of twee indie signifiers. One scenario will ask you to get past a guard and through the door he's protecting. You might try hopping into a mechanic doll and attempt to open up a side-vent to run through, or you might try to seduce the guard away from the door and then quickly jump into him and waltz on through to the next room. Another situation tasks you with shutting down a zoo, and that might be solved by hitting X number of attendees, shooting animals with a cannon, or strategically arranging creatures in front of an oncoming bicyclist. You're consistently encouraged to find all solutions, although just one will do.
It follows with the Spector belief in "problems not puzzles", and looking at games as "an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle." The solutions are never clear-cut, and while it's definitely a puzzle game, it requires an intense amount of lateral thinking to find all the potential answers. It's certainly a new move for Double Fine, and while Stacking doesn't entirely feel like the Schafer we've grown up with, it will be interesting to see if holds up over time as his other games have.
Stacking is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 early this year.