For those of you clamouring for a game that lets you live out your dream of crawling inside dolls and wearing them like a pelt: you're in luck.
Stacking is the latest game to be born out of Double Fine Production's recent development strategy. After Brutal Legend's release Tim Schafer and the team went a different direction and implemented a system based on a brainstorming technique from Kar Wai Wong, the Japanese director who once wrote the scripts for two of his most successful films by sitting in a hotel for two weeks with a few actors. Similarly, Double Fine was split into teams to develop smaller titles faster. Heading one of these teams is Brutal Legend's art director, Lee Petty, who had a hand in shaping what's likely to be one of the most imaginative titles of this year.
As the story goes, the idea behind Stacking came from Lee watching his daughter play with Russian Matryoshka dolls, and keeping in the context of child's play the game's environment looks like it's been modelled after a cubic tonne of playroom leftovers. Planks on ships are made from Popsicle sticks, tents are held up with spoons, and so it makes sense that you're a toy as well. In this case you're Charlie, the Matryoshka world's smallest doll. You're a chimney sweep in a makeshift nineteenth-century toyland, and your family has been forced into indentured servitude as child labourers by a local industrialist. Your job is to find and reunite them, and to do this you use your skills in jumping inside of others and taking over their bodies, and I write that in the twee-ist sense of the phrase.
On a scale from quaint to whimsical Stacking hits somewhere directly in between the two, with Charlie stacking into others and acquiring their specific special abilities to solve puzzles. Some of them will shake salt from their hair, some of them will burp and clear a room, some of them will play violin or sip tea, some of them will be birds or terriers. Every doll has an ability, some more unique than others, and finding them is the key to getting 100% completion.
At times it touches on the classic absurdism we've seen in past Schafer titles. An example: The Baron screaming "RELEASE THE FISH" as Goldfish cheese crackers pour onto the sides of his blimp like an orange geyser. Even the puzzles have a slightly absurdist edge. How do you clear a room of toxic gas? Introduce it to a woman that farts flowers. How do you get past a guard? Stack into a dog. How do you ruin navigation maps? Stack into a window-cleaner and wash off the ink.
To a degree it follows in line with the standards of nineties adventure games, but it would be more accurate to look at its gameplay as a response to the tropes of the same decade. Even back when games could be solved just by sweeping your cursor over the entire surface area of your screen, it would take an aptitude for wading through piles of 2D junk before you could finally find that one lizard rune you needed to power a kite. Puzzles were often counterintuitive, with a single - and often outlandish - route to solving them.
Stacking requires a similar kind of imaginative thinking to solve its puzzles, but instead of having a single way to crack each puzzle it offers between 3-to-5 different solutions. Solve them all and again you're on your way to a completionistic gamer's dream score, but all you need is to find one logical answer and you can continue through the game. The result is a variation on the traditional lock-and-key adventure games of yore, with Stacking leaning further away from rigid linearity and more toward systemic game design: a design philosophy favoured by the likes of Warren Spector, which encourages players to find various alternative methods of solving a problem. A guard can be lured away from his post by a sultry widow or alternatively you can stack into a mechanic, open up a vent on the side and bypass the guard altogether, and therein lies Stacking's potential for multiple playthroughs. Find one solution and you can always come back for the rest.
Likewise, the game offers various "hi-jinks" for you to complete, meaning you perform your abilities on other dolls: Fart on 5 dolls, slap 10 dolls, head-butt a few others. This is another one of the categorical differences between Stacking and Schafer's past work. Lee Petty has been at the game's helm since the beginning so its style of comedy is never quite in the same vein as Schafer titles. Instead the game focuses on visual gags that don't quite carry the same punch, ones that lean more heavily toward family-friendly whimsy than laugh-out-loud jokes.
It harkens back to the game's origins: Stacking rarely treks toward the outskirts of the playroom, and not as far into alternative humour territory as some Schafer fans would hope. But instead it offers a fully-formed, self-contained world of colour and quaintness, charm, and more importantly an individuality of its own. Its voice might be weaker than Schafer's work but Stacking is one of few games with its own visual identity.