In video gaming’s decades-long history, we’ve taken on the roles of soldiers, aliens, ninjas, jedi, plumbers, earthworms and ladybugs. We’ve never, to my knowledge, played as a nesting Russian matryoshka doll.
“Stacking” (rated E10+, $15 for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3), the latest downloadable game from San Francisco-based Double Fine Productions, casts players as unlikely heroes in an original setting. As it did with last year’s “Costume Quest,” the studio headed by Sonoma native Tim Schafer has crafted a charming, likeable game that can be finished over the course of a few hours. (As an added bonus, PS3 owners who subscribe to Sony’s $50-a-year PlayStation Plus service can download “Stacking” at no extra cost through the end of the month.)
“Stacking,” the brainchild of Double Fine’s Lee Petty, stars young Charlie Blackmore. Charlie, the world’s littlest nesting doll, must rescue the rest of his family of chimney sweeps from the vile clutches of the Baron, an industrialist tycoon who’s built an empire through child labor. The game is set in a sepia-toned, Dickens-inspired era in which most occupations are based on shoveling cool, cleaning soot or serving the wealthy. Exploitation of the poor is rampant, and one of your best buddies is an artistically minded hobo.
To rescue the Blackmores, you’ll need to use Charlie’s ability to “stack” with the other dolls he comes across on his adventures. Each doll has particular abilities, used to advance past challenges. The little kid dolls have abilities like “sugar rush,” in which the doll runs around frantically and bangs into stuff, great for causing a commotion. The big dolls have grown-up abilities like a judge who can “dispense justice” and a guy in a T-shirt who, um, farts. (Hey, this game is rated E10+, remember?)
Charlie can stack inside dolls who are one size larger than he is. Once players stack Charlie inside of a small doll, they can then stack that doll inside another, slightly bigger doll, with the outermost doll’s special ability being the currently available power. By the end of the game, you’re working with about a half-dozen different layers for some challenges.
Much like classic PC adventure games like the Schafer-written “Secret of Monkey Island,” the game’s puzzles require some ingenuity and resourcefulness to beat. Some require combinations of abilities, such as one solution that has you using a fireman’s hose to wet an enemy doll, then blowing cold air from a smaller doll to freeze the enemy. Most of the challenges have multiple solutions, so after you finish the game and rescue Charlie’s family, you can go back and attempt alternate strategies. (A generous, three-tier hint system helps if you get stuck.)
In addition to the ability-based puzzles, a few challenges require you to track down all of the dolls in a particular stack, such as a family of illusionists, or a group of powdered-wig-wearing musicians. The game also rewards what it calls “Hi-jinx,” using dolls’ special abilities on the world’s other inhabitants.
Gameplaywise, “Stacking” feels quite solid for a downloadable title. The game took four or five hours to complete but, once I finished, I’d only completed 58 percent of the stuff to do. Going back and finding all the solutions to the various challenges will add a couple of hours of play time.
While “Stacking’s” gameplay and writing are quite sharp, and its character animations often hilarious, it suffers a bit from its protagonists’ wooden nature. As graphics in games have evolved, developers have been able to supplement voice-acted scripts with increasingly complex facial animations to convey emotions and make their characters more likeable and easy to relate to.
In “Stacking,” though, the characters are wooden dolls, with static expressions. The dialogue, related through a cute, period-appropriate, silent-film-inspired text presentation, is sharply written, but relatively sparse. The result was that “Stacking” is the first Double Fine game I’ve played that didn’t have a memorable star character. Instead, the world, presentation style and gameplay are the stars while Charlie is more of a blank slate.
That said, the trademark Double Fine wit is there, particularly in one mid-game stretch when Charlie must rescue a set of ambassadors whom the Baron has locked up because they plan to abolish child labor. Once Charlie frees them, their arguments against child labor are quite hilarious. Instead of the usual pleas to common decency, they put forth positions such as, “Gentlemen, child labor is an endless hassle full of tattletales and crying,” something any parent could appreciate.
Interestingly enough, Double Fine’s next game, due out this fall, will be something that any kid can appreciate. On Tuesday, the studio announced its next title, “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster,” which will star Cookie Monster and Elmo and be playable on the Xbox 360’s Kinect. Unlike “Stacking,” which was published by THQ, “Monster” will be published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.