by Chris Priestman, reviewed on
It’s Not A Doll, It’s An Action Figure
It is quite an achievement for anybody to get a grown male, like myself, to play with dolls. Even more impressive is the ability to make this time spent with the said dolls to be unashamedly enjoyable. This is no Barbie we are talking about, though. Double Fine’s Stacking invites you to a wonderful matchbox world that is inhabited by some personable Russian Matryoshka dolls.
Basing gameplay on the utilization of just one mechanic, as is the case here, is often a risky proposition. However, Double Fine proves that when given enough thought, even the most simple of things can contain many layers.
Silent film vignettes
Although the highlight and certainly the appeal of Stacking is its clever use of the eponymous attribute of the dolls, it is not this sole element that carries the quality of the game. Instead, the gameplay blends into a harmonious whole that is complimented by a superb presentation and deceptively complicated narrative. Stripping the game of these layers to analyze its construction is the intention here, but it is the amalgamation that truly opens up the game to greatness.
At its basic level, Stacking is a simple tale that sets out to prove the common aphorism “size doesn’t matter”. Set in the depression era that is the 1930’s, you play as the smallest doll of them all; Charlie Blackmore. He is the youngest child of the working class chimney sweep Blackmore family, but this does not stop him on his quest to reunite his family after the evil industrialist overlord Baron has kidnapped them. With the Royal Train Station acting as the game’s hub, Charlie can travel by steam train to the different freights that his siblings are enslaved upon for the purpose of child labour. If not obvious, the game’s underlying strength is its pertinent themes that not only touch on child labour, but class division, pollution, human greed and the value of family as well. Fitting with the period, Stacking’s story is told through silent film vignettes with accompanying text plaque’s providing the dialogue. Although the lack of voiced dialogue is fitting with the style, the absence did cause these scenes to drag after a while. Fortunately, the game’s delightful soundtrack of classical pieces makes up for this and further authenticates the world that the game is set in.
Play around in the doll world
The style of the game that is realised through a matchbox recreation of the industrial era, sits well within the currently popular steam-punk movement. This is combined well with the miniature world of the dolls that sees floorboards made of lollipop sticks and ship funnels made of cigars. Of course, the most outstanding feature of the game is the amusingly personified cast of dolls that you play as. The advantage of being the smallest doll around is that Charlie is able to stack inside the other dolls. Approaching from behind, Charlie can go inside a doll and essentially then become that doll. More and more can be stacked on top until you have a number of different sized dolls with their own abilities at hand. Puzzles are provided by tasking the player to work out how to get around a number of barriers that prevents Charlie from reaching the sibling in need of a rescue. Your means to doing this then is to use the variety of dolls walking around the level as your inventory and means to solving the puzzle. An example is using a beautiful widowed doll to seduce the guard of a club so you can get behind him and use him to open the door. The majority of the puzzles revolve around trying to find the doll with the ability you need to surpass the puzzle. Combining this with having to avoid guards, limiting entry to certain areas according to size and gender, and other similar variables ensures the game offers fresh challenges throughout its running time.
A simple idea that offers multiple layers of discovery and fun
Cut-scenes and ‘inventory searching’ drags at times