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Stacking XBLA may be set around the time of the great depression, but this utterly charming puzzler is anything but a downer.
Silent comedies don't get much of an outing these days, but during my childhood they were a staple of the daytime TV schedules. At some point it was decided that people didn't want to see colourless footage on their big colour screens, and that the children who watched TV in those time slots couldn't handle things being in black and white. Never mind that this was pure Philistinism and crushingly dumb respectively, that was that.
Which is my roundabout way of saying that the reference points for Stacking might not be as accessible as they once were.
However, to anyone even vaguely familiar with the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, there's much to recognise in Stacking's aesthetics and story: the cinema curtains that part to reveal cut scenes, the full-screen caption cards for dialogue, moments of flickery film effect and the excitable classical score that weaves throughout the game.
There's a beautiful artifice to much of this: cut scenes are told on a bare stage, with cutout scenery, while even in-game the waves of the sea look beautifully hand-painted and two-dimensional, rocking back and forth as if held up on little sticks.
The plot also draws on the silents, especially Chaplin's depression era pictures, made even as the silents were giving way to talkies. Stacking is the melodramatic tale of young Charlie Blackmore, trying to save his family of chimney sweeps from the Baron, a monocled industrialist who cruelly employs child labour.
I probably should have mentioned: everyone in the game is a Matryoshka doll.
Luckily, Charlie has an advantage as one of the world's smallest dolls which allows him to...
Oh yes, I probably should have mentioned: everyone in the game is a Matryoshka doll, i.e. one of those Russian dolls that stack one within the other. There are varying sizes of dolls, they fit inside each other in strict order of snugness (a small doll cannot jump straight into a large doll without stacking with the intervening sizes first), and each has a special ability.
By jumping inside another doll, Charlie can take control of it to use its ability: some of these are childishly amusing (farts, belches, sneezes and seasickness are all deployed at various points in the game), some are quite general behaviours (a firm handshake, a strong uppercut) while others are very specific (unlocking a specific door, performing a magic trick).
These abilities need to be used, either individually or combined, to help Charlie rescue his family from the Baron. It's essentially an adventure game where the other characters are used as the objects and actions to solve the puzzles. Puzzles have multiple solutions, and though you only need to find the most logical solution to proceed with the story, anyone looking for 100% completion will find some solutions are lateral to the point of perversity.
It's the details and execution that make Stacking sing.
As well as the main story missions, which progress from an initial train station level to a cruise ship, a zeppelin and a train, there are side quests and tasks to complete: stacking with all unique dolls in an area, for instance, as well as completing 'hijinks', pointless but fun antics using specific dolls and their abilities.
Every bit of the game you complete contributes to a great display of your feats put together by Charlie's friend, Levi the Hobo, in a lair beneath the train station. For a downloadable game there's a lot of content here, with an expansion about the Lost Hobo King to come.
While the puzzles provide a solid core of gameplay, and the story is a straightforward frame to drape the levels over, it's the details and execution that make Stacking sing. The dolls look gorgeous, hand-painted and varnished with great, realistic detail: their physicality and the swagger of their animations means that you never really care that they're basically one (1) polygon each. They look like you could reach into the screen and pick them up - if ever a game was begging for a 3DS version, it's Stacking.
From the demented puzzle solutions to the dialogue from passers by, Stacking is filled with witty and eccentric details. Dolls jostle and argue with each other as you walk past, doll babies cry and doll pets yap. Kids play ball, play tag, and run around in a mad sugar rush. Middle aged men cough, bluster and mumble at each other.
Together they create a bustling, delightful world that's a joy to spend time in.
While each character only has a single ability, thrown together they create a bustling, delightful world that's a joy to spend time in.
After Costume Quest, this is the second consecutive perfectly formed downloadable title from Double Fine, formerly known for cultish retail releases like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. With such a hit rate, I'm willing to give any further downloadable titles from them a spin, regardless of genre or content.
Their next is Trenched, an entry in the tower defence genre I've successfully ignored for the last few years. I'm lukewarm on the genre, but I'll definitely give Trenched a shot. Games as unique and delightful as Stacking are the kind that earn my loyalty.
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