Stacking - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
There was a period in 2009 where the people over at Double Fine were unsure about their current game Brutal Legend; I honestly don’t know why anyone was unsure about anything with Jack Black in it... I don’t know if they were bored, or wanted to challenge themselves, so in a moment of genius Tim Schafer decided to split his team up into four groups and had each make a game. One of those games was Stacking, which is probably one of the stranger games I have played in a while.
To be honest, although this game stood out to me, the advertising was a big help in making this game stick in my mind. I’m not sure if it was the colours that most appealed to me, or the Russian stacking dolls, which for some unknown reason I have always thought were kind of fantastic. There was just something that caught my eye — even to this point I can’t think of any other single piece of advertising that grabbed me as fully as this did. Sadly, due to my lack of funding at the time I never got around to playing it until this week.
Heading into Stacking, I was thinking of the other Double Fine games that I have played such as Middle Manager of Justice and Gang Beasts. These games were incredibly fun and going into this I have a feeling it will be similar. From what I have seen it seems like a puzzle or a stealth-based game, mainly due to being able to play as different characters and use their abilities.
One Minute In
There is something that caught my attention right away: it reminded me of those old Punch and Judy plays, minus the violence and considerably more Russian. The opening cinematic takes place on a stage and is told using Russian stacking dolls. It tells the story of a father who has to leave his family to work for the Baron, who is the game’s villain. After some time the father has not sent home any payments and the Baron sends people to get the children of the house for an apprenticeship. It turns out that the Baron is using the children as slaves and you, the youngest child, must go and save them.
Five Minutes In
After five minutes I have moved my character maybe all of one hundred feet. The rest has been story or tutorial, but I am honestly OK with this. It’s like watching a well-crafted stage play that your nephew decided to put on with his toys. The story by this point is surprisingly well fleshed out. I knew coming into it that it would be a short game but I was not expecting what has so far been a well thought out story about child slavery.
The minute or so I’ve gotten to play so far was a lot better than I was expecting. The game is seven years old, but the graphical style still looks nice, especially compared to other games released later in the same year — such as Duke Nukem Forever — which has not aged as well and was in development for fifteen years. The controls remind me of the original Doom, which were really floaty in order to help you fly around the map and keep the action going. Stacking has a really similar feel to it which, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t expect from a game where you are playing as a small child.
Thirty Minutes in
At this point my biggest issue is that even though half an hour has passed I’ve played maybe fifteen minutes total; this game has so many cutscenes it feels like the story is starting to weigh against its favour. However, the play time I have had has been a really enjoyable experience. You play as a Russian stacking doll and it allows you to “stack” with other characters in the map, each of which vary in size and have different abilities. The dolls can scream to attract nearby attention, some can flirt with other dolls, and I even found one that has a ball on a paddle. At this point, I don’t know why that last one is a special ability, but the character motion is pretty enjoyable to watch.
The stacking ability is very clever, since at its core it allows you to possess other dolls. It feels like each size of doll is a different age group; the smallest dolls always seem to be dressed and modeled like children. The very logical thing about it though is that you can only stack into a doll one size up. Overall it is an insanely clever mechanic and makes fantastic use of the game’s core principle. It works so well because it is something that I feel can only be pulled off with these dolls— I don’t think it would work as well if the characters were any other type of toy.
One Hour Thirty Minutes in
Okay, I am lost and unsure what to do, but it’s not a problem. Sometimes games have issues where you can get lost and frustrated. I’ve gotten lost in some games and just given up. Stacking is different though. because each puzzle has multiple ways it can be completed and the best part is that the puzzles themselves are really fun to try and solve. You can figure them out with two to five of the stacked dolls. The thing I have noticed at this point is that the difficulty curve isn’t steep. There are games out there where after a certain point you’re essentially thrown off the deep end without any help. Stacking is different, since it’s at least nice enough to let you wade your way to the deep end all the while giving you positive reinforcement and promising you ice cream on the other side. To put it simply, the learning curve in this game is more than bearable in a world where some difficulty curves are very hard to get to grips with.
Three Hours Fifteen Minutes in
After finishing what I assume is the final puzzle, and having used each family member’s special ability, the boss ran off and led me to an actual honest to goodness boss fight, which feels very odd. Mainly because up to this point there has been no fighting whatsoever. This is very interesting though because I have to play a game of Rock Paper Scissors, which would normally seem very boring. Stacking is possibly the only game where you could fight a boss using Rock Paper Scissors and have it fit. The battle itself is fairly easy: you just have to stack into the doll that is best used against whichever doll the boss picks.
Stacking works amazingly well, the people over at Double Fine looked at these wonderful toys and thought yes — video game material. The game works because it knows it’s silly, it knows the puzzles are silly, and the aesthetic helps both of these shine. Considering how long Double Fine and in particular Schafer have been around, they still manage to keep this strange and fun sense of wonder at the forefront of all their games — and nowhere is this more apparent than in Stacking.