It is tempting, when reviewing a game called Stacking, to invent metaphors such as the following: Like the living Russian matryoshka dolls of Stacking, the game itself is a complex creation whose many layers add up to an impressive figure. Like its Dickensian cast of downtrodden families, abused children and potbellied industrialists, Stacking’s heart can be found beneath its oil- and soot-stained surface. Like little Charlie Blackmore, who enlists the help of the entire doll population to rescue his father from the evil Baron, Stacking tries on many hats but never loses its identity. And so forth.
Like many recent games, from The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom and Helsing’s Fire to BioShock 2, Double Fine’s new downloadable nugget revels in vintage cool. It realizes that argyle and abject poverty look better alongside sharp, fourth-wall-breaking jokes—and fart gags. Beyond this, Stacking exemplifies the game-as-artwork ethos: It carries an individual vision. The problem with neat metaphors is that artistic visions are often indefinable at best, or otherwise incoherent. It is clear that Project Lead Lee Petty has something in mind here, but the picture is rather murky.
Stacking does have many attractive layers; but they don’t really fit together. Stacking might have something to offer beneath its strange and conflicted surface, but it’s hard to tell, because its surface appeal matters more. And while Stacking reinvents a number of gaming tropes, it’s simply hard to see past the novel pleasure of stacking dolls together with a clack.
Perhaps the first issue is that it is just hard to see. This is a third-person adventure, but the camera is situated at almost ground level, so that players prowl the world with Predator-like tunnel vision. Imagine that the camera is affixed to the underside of the wrist of the child who is pulling and knocking these dolls together. As tiny Charlie assumes the bodies and identities of the dolls around him, his view changes to reflect the doll that he is wearing. Stacking inside a dog, for example, will mute the colors into shades of grey. These visual choices mean to convince you that you are really seeing the world from a variety of perspectives—like that of a two-inch-high, colorblind dog-doll. But they also make exploring and navigating the world an uncomfortable experience. Each doll is already defined by the special skill it can perform—a Russian strongman gives terrible wedgies, a pigeon flies to its nest—so hasn’t the game already demonstrated that we are that character?
Stacking seems overly anxious to make its case. If the dolls in this world have voices, why are the cut scenes styled like a silent film? We already know this is the early 1900s. In the cut scenes, all dialogue occurs in intertitles that interrupt the action every other second. It works against any dramatic rhythm, which is why silent films with dialogue still show more than they tell. And why take the trouble to animate the “film” grain and edges and flicker, as if a cinematic experience must necessarily include all the distracting flaws of the physical medium? Why, despite the fact that the world is illustrated in beautiful color and that we are ostensibly seeing through our character’s eyes, does the game camera have vignetting at the corners as if we’re filming the action with an outdated lens? The effect isn’t vintage; it’s Hipstamatic.
Consistency is crucial in a game where style and gameplay feel like the same thing. If the dolls in Stacking inhabit real train stations and boats and zeppelins, why are these vehicles shown in the cut scenes as painted backdrops in a diorama? Why, when we play, does some scenery consist of cardboard held in place with pins and needles, while other parts are actually made of wood and brick? How come some dolls sleep in egg cartons, while others have real human beds with nice sheets? It’s apparently not enough that matryoshka dolls are inherently cute; they must also be cute because they are small—or maybe because they are arts and crafts. The game can’t decide which, so it looks like Katamari Damacy and LittleBigPlanet sank together aboard the Titanic. Is it not cute enough simply that the people are dolls?
It’s not that these elements don’t contribute to a charming and good-natured atmosphere. But they also cloud that atmosphere. Such mixed messages woven into the presentation kept me from feeling fully immersed, or outright frustrated me by obstructing the world with visual excess.
Consider also that they do not obstruct the gameplay. Stacking’s point-and-click-style puzzles—which include ruining a VIP party, stopping a caviar buffet, and finding and stacking together five famous composers who have an appointment at a piano bar—are logical, amusing, and eminently solvable. Each puzzle has multiple solutions, and only one is needed to advance the plot. Most every player will be able to finish the game in a couple of hours, and will doubtless experience many gaming firsts (punching out a museum artifact, giving a kid the flu) in the process.
But because Stacking wears its artistic vision on its painted sleeve, whether or not the game functions is less important than how it has been shaped. In other words, Stacking’s gameplay leaves ample room for its presentation. The world can be disorienting in appearance and in perspective, and in the later stages (a twin zeppelin and a three-story train), it’s too easy to get lost between corridors, staircases and ramps. Exploring is not very enjoyable, nor is it emphasized. Players can call up a glowing trail that they can follow to the next puzzle, which can usually be solved immediately, right on the spot. If the answer isn’t telegraphed outright, the doll needed to solve the problem is likely standing inches away. (And one can always find explicit instructions in the optional hint system.)
By design, I was led by the hand, and so ended up resolving some problems before I even understood why they mattered, or even where I was when I solved them. If a puzzle involving a locked castle gate and a well-placed peacock nest made clever use of space and architecture, I was only dimly aware, because I was still getting my bearings when I accidentally solved it.
Stacking, then, is much less about problem-solving than about collecting and admiring—truly a game of its time. Its problems are those of an unlockable concept-art gallery: How many pieces were found? How many pieces are still left? I found myself ticking off each puzzle like an afterthought, my mind refocusing on Petty’s aesthetic vision. The game’s best level is the second one, a cruise liner that consists of three wide-open levels spiraling upwards. What a relief that it has no ceiling. The boat is airy, expansive, easy-to-understand, and wonderful to complete.
Too often, however, Stacking lacks the clarity of Double Fine’s own Costume Quest, whose one stylistic indulgence was to animate certain attacks during battle scenes as comic-book panels. Costume Quest set up a stark framework upon which its smart writing and pastiche of influences could shine. In contrast, Stacking feels like an ornate container whose bottom might fall out. It’s unfortunately easy to miss the game’s many nice touches—like how character dialogue changes depending on the doll Charlie is wearing, or how the dolls shuffle about their everyday business like in a sandbox game, or even how the light through a window reveals dust particles. Or, above all, how Stacking resolves the oldest problems of point-and-click adventures by combining item, inventory and character, and making all puzzle solutions equally valid.
This is Stacking’s best and brightest idea. So why must it be hidden behind so many others?
Stacking was developed by Double Fine Productions and published by THQ. It is available on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.
Watch the trailer for Stacking: