Don't let the farting, the peeing of pants and the tossing of cookies let you think that Russian doll adventure game Stacking is just about sophomoric humor. There's depth to this downloadable game, layers to this tale of a pint-sized chimney sweep.
Double Fine Productions founder Tim Schafer calls the gaseous characteristics of Stacking the "stinky layers" of the onion of this Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network game, likening the game's cruder aspects to that of South Park; cute characters doing sometimes crass, mischievous things for adventure and laughs.
But Schafer argues that "there is an undercurrent of class struggle in the game," explaining Stacking's more highbrow side highlights the divide between the rich and poor, kids and adults and how they're treated. "By jumping into other people's skins, you alter how the world sees you," he says.
Jumping into the skins of others is the core mechanic in Stacking, an adventure game with "a more immediate way of interacting with the adventure," according to Schafer. As tiny matryoshka doll Charlie Blackmore, the runt of the Blackmore clan, you can hop into the bodies of larger dolls, assuming their identities and skills. Those skills include the ability to clear a room with a vicious fart, to scream, to tap dance, to cough, to seduce a guard, to charge through a crowd and much more. There are more than 100 unique dolls in Stacking, each with its own talent—even if some are about straightening one's hat or urinating in one's trousers.
Charlie can use other dolls' unique skills to help him solve puzzles. On a mission to rescue the rest of the Blackmore family (or stack) from an Evil Baron, Charlie sets out from a train station, the hub of his world, where we get a look at his doll-jacking skills in action. After meeting up with a friendly hobo named Levi, his adult ally in Stacking, Charlie attempts to gain access to a locked portion of the station. To do so, he must find one of the unique matryoshkas of Stacking, one with a key attached to his head. Charlie hops into a doll one magnitude larger, then into the key-headed doll, who is now a perfect fit.
Other challenges in the station have less obvious solutions than finding a doll with a key jutting out of its noggin to inhabit. Charlie's next task was to break up a train workers strike and get the lines running again. To do so, Charlie had to track down three engineers from the Train Guild. The trio, you discover, are hanging out in a members-only club, to which Charlie must gain entrance.
The first solution to this puzzle is to lure away the doorman guarding the entrance to the club. Walk up to him as Charlie and he'll shoo you away. But inhabit a pretty lady doll armed with a parasol and the "seduce" ability, and one can lure the smitten guard away. Walk into the club stacked inside an adult doll, then hop out as Charlie and the Train Guild engineers will be offended that any riff-raff can come through the doors. They'll promptly leave the club and Charlie can jump into their bodies.
Another solution to that puzzle (named "The Fug of War") is to locate a gaseous, burly matryoshka with the ability to clear out a crowd with his flatulence, jump into him and have him fart into the ventilation. The stink will clear out the room, forcing the engineers to leave. Finally, Charlie can hop into the body of a wee mechanic who is armed with a wrench. He'll open the ventilation shaft, providing a new entrance for Charlie, who will again offend the club's attendees with his presence.
Stacking's puzzles are designed with multiple solutions in mind, with three to six ways to solve each challenge. Players have the option to try out each, as the challenges will essentially "reset" after finding a solution. The game also offers a series of optional hints for each solution, as well as a glowing breadcrumb trail, a la Fable or Dead Space, to help players get where they're going.
After solving the problem with the Train Guild engineers—a unique "set" of matryoshka dolls, by the way, one of the game's collectibles—Charlie hopped into their larger bodies, using the biggest engineer's skill, "Make Way," to steam-charge his way through the striking workers. With the trains back on schedule, Charlie's coal-shoveling brother Albert free from his servitude as well, the littlest Blackmore moved onto his next challenge, freeing sister Abigail from a luxury liner, the Gilded Steam Ship.
This level, a luxury cruise ship, was a much brighter, more lively environment than the dreary train station hub world. Both are subtly beautiful, however, designed as dioramas and built from tiny materials like matchsticks, playing cards, pins, olives and popsicle sticks. Stacking's design aesthetic carries through to its stylized cut scenes, which play during key events and after finding unique doll sets. (They're silent film shorts, with deliberately choppy animations and dialogue cards delivering story background.)
The Gilded Steam Ship offered a peek at some of Stacking's other facets, like the optional activities known as "hijinks." One of the hijinks demonstrated for us was a mini-mission that involved a slap-happy doll swatting his fellow passengers with a white glove. Some dolls slapped back, while child dolls skillfully dodged every slap attempt. After smacking ten dolls, the white glove turned gold, this particular hijinks activity complete.
It's also where we got a look at some of Stacking's non-human Russian dolls. Charlie popped into a seagull to fly through a porthole, then into a growling bear during one puzzle challenge.
The larger mission on the steam ship was to cause a mutiny amongst the passengers. This involved a multi-doll solution, in which four key passengers must be riled up enough by Charlie's actions to take their grievances to the captain of the ship. One passenger will take issue with an on-board theme park, the Seaside Safari, being unsafe for passengers if Charlie can cause enough chaos around it. He can do so by causing accidents, taking possession of a growling bear or gumming up the shipworks with a cannonball. Another mouthy passenger can be convinced to mutiny by interfering with the ship's flow of caviar at a specialty restaurant.
With plenty of creative solutions, heaps of personality and hilarious scenarios, there's much more to Stacking than one might originally assume about a game in which one is playing with dolls. The game also offers plenty of collectible opportunities, with unique doll sets, dozens of puzzle solutions and more to add value to the downloadable game.
There's no price yet for Stacking—Schafer says that aspect of the business is "above my pay grade"—but Double Fine's founder says he's "totally comfortable with what you get for the price" of a game like the company's previous downloadable effort, Costume Quest. He also calls the Spike VGA award that Halloween-themed role-playing game won "a sweet little vindication" of the company's strategy, which is currently focusing on a quartet of smaller downloadable games instead of big investments on the scale of Brutal Legend or Psychonauts.
"By having multiple teams working on multiple projects, we're able to try new stuff, be nimble and not worry about risking the whole company on a new piece of technology," Schafer says.
"I would love to see more small innovative games from studios," added Stacking creator and Brutal Legend art director Lee Petty. "This last year has seen a big change in the console downloadable space. I'm excited to see that these things actually work."
Stacking is due to be released by THQ on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade in early 2011.