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Review: Stacking
by Parker Scott Mortensen

Stacking is a simplified and more casual version of the adventure games of yore. To me it was particularly evocative of the Monkey Island series, titles known for their quirky, humourous stories and esoteric puzzles. Despite only being Double Fine’s second foray into the downloadable game arena, Stacking is a delightful game for anyone pining for a classic adventure game.

The player controls Charlie Blackmore, the smallest (and perhaps most adorable) doll in a family of Russian nesting dolls. Charlie can stack into, and 'unstack' from, larger dolls to solve puzzles and save his family, who have been captured by the evil child-labour propagator, known as the Baron. Charlie explores a larger-than-life, early 20th century Britain, as he quests to save his family from the Baron and undo nasty child labour laws once and for all.

In the same way that Monkey Island was about finding and combining items to solve puzzles, Stacking is about applying the correct item to the correct situation. The only difference is that your items are characters, the dolls, spread out across the environment and full of such personality and quirkiness that they colour the game a strikingly unique, enjoyable puzzle-playground. What would be static, menu-based inventory items in most games turn into a circus of charming dolls scurrying around the playable field. Each doll has one ability that it can perform, ranging from generally useless actions (breakdancing and flatulance) to uniquely applicable ones (vomiting cookies and playing pied piper). The flavour provided by these character-items makes puzzle solving much more visual and friendly to those not well-learned in the obscurity of adventure game logic.

Stacking actually does a lot to circumvent much of the frustration which adventure games can inspire, most notably the tendency for visual puzzle-solving to become repetitive and irritating. Take Monkey Island, or even more modern adventure games, like Sam & Max; it’s easy to get stuck or lost in the game’s language, which is often impractical or humourous rather than logical. Who knew that a rubber chicken could be used as a zipline trolley? A pot can double as a helmet? There’s a certain out-of-the-box abstract logic to adventure games that takes a conditioned mind to recognise, and that invites some negative frustration. Being able to see the dolls' abilities in Stacking helped me to understand how a particular doll could aid in a situation. Even though the puzzles are rarely brilliant, elegant, or even all that complex, the impressive visuality of it all is a nice design choice that cuts through a lot of that nebulous misunderstanding and frustration that adventure games have forced players to wallow in for years.

Every puzzle has multiple solutions, but usually it only needs to be solved once to proceed through the game. If you were to just go find one solution to every puzzle, Stacking wouldn’t take you very long to complete, but there’s fun to be had in discovering every solution: they’re usually clever and make use of an unfamiliar doll. The real upside of multiple-solution puzzles is that, chances are, you’ll be able to figure out at least one of the solutions without much trouble, which goes a long way in removing the dissatisfaction of getting stuck on a particularly tricky riddle.

A trend in modern iterations of adventure games that I really appreciate is the hint system, and Stacking has a three-step hint system that begins vaguely and ends by directly outlining how to proceed. This mechanic can help anyone along at any time, during any puzzle, only augmenting how ideal Stacking is for adventure game fans of any calibre.

Stacking bookends puzzles and levels with stylised cutscenes that mimic the silent films of the game's era: bouncy piano music plays whilst the dolls bounce up and down to indicate who's talking to whom, and after a second or two the screen shifts to text and dialogue. It's part of the charm, but the scenes come up often and run slowly, and none are skippable. If anything, their use highlights how antiquated the idea of a cutscene can be in a game, but given Stacking’s late 19th/early 20th century motif, the antiquation feels almost appropriate.

There’s a strong aesthetic in Stacking that’s both charming and cohesive. Dolls scuttle and wobble about with an almost stilted animation that feels very appropriate for they way they look. The garbled grunts and chubby faces of the dolls provide just enough enjoyment to make me fine with being stuck in puzzles momentarily, because at least the experimentation was still visually fun. Environments in the game range from a high-class train, to a cruise boat, to an ominous zeppelin. Each feels decorated and is populated with a cast of new dolls and puzzles that fit the setting. In one level of a train car I found a crowd of humongous dolls wearing monocles and top hats, feasting on piles of golden coins served to them by lowly child labourers, as a fire - fuelled by hundred dollar bills - roared behind them. Much of the reason to play this game is to enjoy the art style and the embedded humour.

Adventure games are definitely a 'certain type' of game, one that hasn’t changed much since their inception. Stacking is fun, and its design breathes some simple ingenuity into the concept of puzzle solving in game design. Fans of adventure games will certainly appreciate Stacking, though it is slightly skewed to be more accessible and inviting to the young or uninitiated. It works perfectly as a downloadable title, with satisfying length and plenty of replay value for those who like unexhaustive solutions. In short, Stacking is no breakthrough, but it takes the adventure genre and gives it its own unique twist. I’d be remiss to not encourage the unique.

8/10 [?]

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- Parker Scott Mortensen

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