Take a dash of silent movie, a pinch of theatre, mix well with a Dickensian and Borrowers-esque world inhabited solely by Russian Matryoshka dolls and blend it all together with Tim Schaefer’s classic style of humour. Bake well at gas mark 6 and you’ll get Stacking, by Double Fine.
Oh, you wanted me to elaborate more than that? Fine, here goes. Set in the industrial age, you play Charlie Blackmore, the youngest child of a large family. Charlie’s father mysteriously disappears and the family falls into debt. In order to repay it, all the children are taken away to be put to work, with the exception of Charlie, who is considered too young to do any real work. You must set out into the world to reunite your family and as a convenient aside, put an end to child labour.
Every single character in the game, including both people and animals, take the form of russian stacking dolls (hence the game’s title). Charlie, being so small has the unique ability to stack himself with any larger doll (which is pretty much everything but mice) granting him special abilities. Every character has a unique action; these can take the form of a wide range of things, from punching things, to sipping tea or breaking wind or shouting loudly. By combining the relevant abilities correctly you will solve puzzles allowing you to progress. Every puzzle has multiple solutions and whilst only one is needed to be found in order to progress the story, and it’s usually straightforward to manage at least one, half the fun is in going back and attempting to solve it via all of usually three to five different ways. For example your very first challenge is to break into an exclusive club. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) This can be done by stacking with a nearby woman, seducing the guard then unstacking and quickly running behind him and into the club while they are occupied. Or alternatively, find a mechanic carrying a wrench, stack with him and use his wrench to remove the cover to an air vent then walk inside via the air ducts. There’s one more but I’ll leave it out here in order that some mystery should be preserved. (SPOILER ENDS) For the truly dedicated there are further challenges beyond the main story arc and a set of lesser challenges described as hi-jinks usually involving using a character’s action on specific other characters around the world. The cynical may say this is a cheap way to drag out the length of an otherwise somewhat short game, but I find they’re a fun little diversion.
Visually, Stacking is very charming and original. The Dickensian world is complemented by everyday objects like matchboxes and spoons making up the scenery making it feel as though it is all taking place within The Borrowers’ world, or perhaps more appropriately, an elaborate dolls’ house. Cutscenes are rendered in the style of a silent movie, but with theatrical backdrops and scenery being flown in from above and spotlights picking out characters as though one were watching it on a stage. So ultimately, yes, there’s quite a number of different themes and styles in there but they all work together to make this game something really unique.
As with any title associated with Tim Schaefer, Stacking is also backed by an eclectic sense of humour. Anyone familiar with the likes of Monkey Island, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango or Brütal Legend will be right at home. The game is one of a number of titles to have been conceived during the development of Brütal Legend. The Double Fine team, in order to alleviate burnout from working on the title for so long, were given two weeks to work independently on anything else they wished. This seems to have been a very positive process as a great deal of originality has come from it.
At £11.49, it’s not the cheapest indie title you’ll ever find but the extra DLC mission, The Lost Hobo King, is thrown in for no extra cost in the PC version, which is always a nice bonus. If you burn through the story only bothering to solve each puzzle one way (which isn’t too hard) there’s a chance you might not feel the title’s worth the asking price, but for those who enjoy exploring and finding all the secrets there’s plenty to keep you entertained for a while.