When one thinks of puzzle/adventure games, matryoshka dolls may not immediately come to mind. Perhaps that's why one doesn't work for Tim Schafer. In our stead, lead designer Lee Petty broke ground with this unique idea in Double Fine's newest downloadable title, Stacking. The not-at-once-clear nature of this game is evidence of its ingenuity. And it is indeed ingenious.
You play as Charlie Blackmore, youngest in a poor family of chimney sweeps living in early-twentieth-century Euromerica. The father's disappearance—and subsequent separation from his siblings and mother too—sets Charlie on a quest to rescue his family. His motivation is thus, but along the way he sabotages the big bad Baron's child labor business. Using a train station as a hub world, you visit a few other locations, such as a cruise ship, looking for your lost relatives, causing mischief and solving puzzles along the way.
But what do you actually do? You stack. Charlie is smaller than any character you'll meet, meaning he can fit inside—and effectively take over—nearly every NPC. Charlie hops into a doll one size larger than him, which allows him to stack inside a doll another size larger, and so on. Stacking allows the player to utilize each doll's special ability to solve puzzles. Use a gassy gentleman to stink up a VIP lounge so the attendants will evacuate; or, as a mustachioed boxer, use your fists to destroy property at an exhibit; or, as a deck hand, use your scrub brush to smear an important drawing. (You see, a lot of what Charlie does is to piss people off.)
Each puzzle has multiple solutions; this is the meat of the game. Players will likely want to spend time discovering different ways to solve the puzzles. If not, they will miss the majority of the game. And while some solutions are more obvious than others—those that involve a single unique character with obviously helpful powers, as opposed to using an unlikely combination of dolls—most are satisfying (though some are less inspired). And, when needed, hints guide the experience.
The story really makes a difference, as well. Cutscenes are played out like vaudevillian silent films, placing the characters on a low-budget stage to act out their lines; all of which is played on old celluloid, and you can see the edge of the film roll sliding into view. The music is similarly period, and well done.
Much of the game—from the art design to the puzzles to the cutscenes—is polished and wonderful, but issues still exist. The camera struggles to find Charlie in tight spaces. The controls mostly work, but there is a noticeable moment of acceleration shutdown if you take too sharp a turn; in other words, the character is too eager to slam on the brakes.
Conversing with NPCs helps when solving puzzles, but as you go through each doll's dialog, there is no indication to stop hitting X. You are therefore forced to keep talking until the conversation loops. This is an illusion-breaking element to exploration, which is frustrating because so much time is spent talking. It would have been more natural if the doll turned away after it had said all it had to say.
Despite the issues, the game doesn't survive simply on its gameplay gimmick. It is genuinely inventive, and remains so for many hours, up until the somewhat heartfelt last level. Extras are abundant in Stacking, and the challenge is balanced to keep you reaching for the next solution (“The doll I need has got to be around here somewhere!”). Keep in mind, however, that you'll only want to play this game if enjoy solving puzzles. In other words, it pushes boundaries within the genre. That said, Double Fine has always been known for cleverness, and the industry seems pleased with its turn toward shorter games. Their creativity has succeeded again.