'Stacking': A Commitment to Simplicity

More or less, this is a puzzler that requires its child protagonist to put in a lot of work in order to abolish child labor.


Publisher: THQ
Players: 1
Price: $15.00
Platform: XBLA (reviewed), PSN
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: 2011-01-25

Set in some sort of turn of the century European region, Stacking follows the efforts of young Charlie Blackmore to put an end to child labor. Charlie is the smallest (and, thus, youngest) of a tribe of matryoshka dolls, and he is more immediately spurred into this political action by the kidnapping of his older siblings (for the purposes, of course, of employing them as child laborers) by an evil industrialist called The Baron. Deemed too small to be useful himself as a laborer, Charlie sets out to show -- in a kind of familiar theme for fare aimed at children -- that “little people can do big things too”. More or less, this is a puzzler that requires its child protagonist to put in a lot of work in order to abolish child labor.

Which, since this is a product of Tim Schafer's development team at Double Fine, is played entirely for laughs and, as is usual with Schafer directed products, is also oozing with charm.

Since the game adopts the aesthetics of silent film, delivering dialogue on printed cue cards between the action, much of the humor here is of a physical sort dominated by a good bit of slapstick and a mild sprinkling of potty humor (in the latter instance, largely jokes concerning belching and flatulence).

Most of the physical comedy springs from the fundamental mechanics that underlie the game itself. Charlie, as the smallest of a matryoshka family, does indeed lack any obvious “skills”, unlike larger dolls that, in this world, each possess a single ability. Small (but slightly larger than Charlie) child laborer dolls for instance have the ability to produce a “black lung cough”. In other words with the press of the A button, they hack and sputter. Larger, well dressed, and refined looking lady dolls can “sip tea”, again, at just the press of the A button.

These amusing and seemingly benign skills become the central means of Charlie accomplishing the tasks necessary to rescue various members of his family. By “stacking in” to larger dolls, Charlie is able to possess these dolls and thereby utilize their skills to resolve problems and clear away obstacles that might need to be overcome on the road to freedom.

This “possession” of older and adult matryoshkas comprises most of the pleasure of the game, as every time a new doll appears, the player becomes immediately curious what sort of absurd or useful or absurdly useful ability that new doll might possess. As a result, stacking and unstacking to test out abilities that will ultimately be used in resolving the game's many puzzles is a constant activity and constant source of pleasure throughout the game.

Having a knowledge of what dolls in a given area do what is useful when confronted with various problems that Charlie must resolve in order to advance in areas like a train station, a zeppelin, and a triple-decker train, since figuring out how to use “glove slaps” and “tooting” to do things like “create chaos on a cruise ship” is really the central puzzle solving mechanism in the game. Each puzzle has between three to five solutions that can be arrived at in order to solve them (thereby, using the wide variety of matryoshka abilities to frequent effect). While simply solving them one way will advance the plot, the player is encouraged to try to solve them in multiple ways through the additional unlocked collectibles that doing so provides.

As Kris Ligman noted in an essay on the interest of boxes and other containers in gaming culture and in Stacking in particular notes though, while Charlie's ability to possess other matryoshkas is useful it does have its limitations: “Containers may convey identity in Stacking, but they don't accrue one atop the other” (“Game Boxes and 'Stacking': Our Fetishization of Context and Containment”, PopMatters, 15 February 2011). While Ligman writes of the limited identities that the game allows Charlie at any given time. The idea of accruing both more than one identity and more than one ability at any given time in the game is one of its major design disappointments as well.

The pleasure of Stacking is derived from its ability to constantly allow the player to take on new, wacky identities and use their complementary abilities to useful effect. Unfortunately, too often a single ability is all that is really required to resolve a problem, which makes the whole notion of “stacking” multiple identities and abilities together (in order to “store” useful actions in case they are needed for a more complex puzzle) largely unnecessary. In other words, far too often in the game, it is one simple action (or one simple button press) that is required to solve a whole puzzle. The idea of “combo-ing” abilities with one another by stacking and unstacking several dolls at once for appropriate effects is only introduced in the final quarter of the game and even then is rarely used.

Much of Stacking then is spent as a kind of exploration of identities, aloowing one to see what sort of funny things a persona allows Charlie to do, but then the actual challenges simply require approaching and then resolving puzzles altogether too rapidly and too easily. In this sense, the game is highly recommended for younger players and casual ones, but gamers interested in more complex puzzles and challenges may find themselves disappointed in the all too often far less than challenging puzzles. The idea of limiting each type of doll to one simple action seems like a good one in a game where complexity can be achieved by combining identities. However, too often the game defaults to altogether too elegant a simplicity by requiring little thought and little more than a button press to move forward.

That being said, the game's final boss battle with The Baron's smallest form (which I will not spoil for those interested in playing, as it is really rather clever and worth seeing for yourself) works precisely because of its simplicity. Basically, the game reduces conflict to one of its simplest and most recognizable game forms. It is rare indeed that game mechanics themselves produce a chuckle, but Double Fine achieves that here in the final moments of the game. Kudos to whoever came up with the central idea of the “final solution” to the game. It almost makes up for the limited challenge of earlier puzzles, since this simplicity is so much in keeping with that mentality. Again, though, this is a battle worth experiencing for yourself and will make so much more sense if you do.

More casual gamers and those that simply enjoy Schafer's unique ability to produce comedy within the media of games will likely find a lot to like about Stacking. This is by no means Schafer's funniest material, but there are some good sight gags and bits that gamers of all ages are going to get a laugh from. But once again, Stacking's commitment to simplicity is likely not going to draw many accolades for those looking for a more challenging experience to go along with some charming visuals and what seem to me to be some innovative, but not fully realized mechanics.


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