Nested Design in ‘Stacking’

Stacking is a lighthearted, approachable game, but it takes one thing very seriously: layers. Rather than aim to please a certain type of player, Stacking‘s rule systems and challenges are structured to allow players to burrow down into their preferred level of engagement. In addition to being a fresh and innovative take on the adventure genre, the game’s storytelling occupies a rare niche. It’s a game whose story and humor appeal to a wide variety of audiences. Like the Muppets, Stacking’s storytelling, and especially its humor, is crafted in such a way to please youngsters (along with the juvenile impulses in adults) while also containing jokes that older folks can appreciate. Buried amongst Stacking‘s satire and cultural allusions is an even more specific layer that winks at folks who closely follow the medium. Any game about Russian nesting dolls solving mysteries and thwarting evil capitalists in a Gilded Age environment is automatically unique, but Stacking turns a creative concept into a coherent mechanical and thematic ideology.

Money and time being limited resources, it’s difficult for developers to strike a balance between a game that can accommodate people who want to invest dozens of hours into a game to truly explore every crevice of a virtual world and those who are just as happy with a tight, three hour experience. Stacking solves the problem of actively trying to please one or more groups of people by simply leaving the option up to the player, since the multitude of puzzle solutions and large amount of optional material allows players to engage with the game on a variety of levels.

Stacking adds a number of layers to the traditional adventure game structure and in doing so accommodates players looking for a variety of experiences. For those looking to simply experience the game’s story with a minimal number of tangents, the game can probably be finished in several hours. Playing in this way would still allow the player to enjoy the game’s quirky world as well as experiment with the wide variety of individual dolls and their specific stacking abilities.

What makes Stacking special is that that the path of least resistance will not necessarily be identical for all people. Most of the game’s mandatory puzzles have multiple solutions, which serves to address some of the adventure game genre’s traditional limitations. Rather than have to reverse engineer a single solution, players are encouraged to experiment and choose which clues to follow. Obsessive completionists are free to tackle a single puzzle multiple times in a row using a variety of tools each time, while folks who prefer faster progression are always free to come back. It is rare to find an adventure game that can yield new solutions to a puzzle upon multiple playthroughs.

Stacking‘s environments also reflect the game’s focus on layers. Instead of static screens with a set number of interactive points, Stacking allows the player to hop around 3D environments and mingle with the world’s quirky inhabitants. Part Monkey Island and part Red Dead Redemption, Stacking integrates structured puzzles into environments teeming with scripted and emergent experiences. Players can take a break from the main story to follow optional quests to collect rare dolls or slap strangers with a dueling glove. Players are also free to simply experiment with different dolls’ abilities and revel in the outcomes; I’m only somewhat embarrassed to admit the delight I took in luring a group of dolls into a corner in which lurked a particularly flatulent doll.

Stacking‘s story, especially its humor, also contains a number of strata. In addition to its focus on problem solving rather than manual dexterity, its story makes it an appealing family game. Like a Pixar movie, Stacking mixes slapstick and satire, thereby creating a story that can appeal to a wide ranging audience. Sight gags, gross-out humor, and lively characters appeal to folks of all ages without being condescending. They exist alongside more conceptual humor aimed at older folks. The biography for the sultry “Widow Chastity” mentions that she has had multiple elderly, well-to-do husbands. Anti-child labor advocates make impassioned pleas to end the practice on the grounds that the children complain too much, perform shoddy work, and get cookie crumbs everywhere. The game dutifully adheres to its silent film aesthetic, which is itself a set up for a cinematic gag towards the end of the game.

Delving even further, one finds a layer meant to entertain folks knowledgeable about the medium. Jokes about game design and the industry in general are sprinkled throughout the world. One wealthy capitalist boasts that he’s been able to “monetize bathroom breaks,” while asserting that “It’s all about micro-transactions.” As this past week’s Game Developers Conference demonstrated, tensions about how to best balance players, business, and design philosophies permeate the industry. In the midst of the turf war between social and traditional gaming, it’s nice to see some moments of levity.

The same character also admonishes the player that “Innovation is a fallback for those without business acumen,” which struck me as an example of Double Fine teasing itself. The company isn’t exactly a financial powerhouse, and it would probably be a lot easier to afford voice actors and resources for patches if they were to churn out a cookie-cutter FPS, a shovelware licensed game, or a Farmville clone. What Double Fine lacks in cutthroat business ethics, it makes up for in innovation and audacity: What other studio would make a third-person adventure/RTS (Brutal Legend), a modern tribute to 16-bit era JRPGs (Costume Quest), an adventure game about babushka dolls (Stacking), and follow it up by announcing a mech combat game (Trenched)? Double Fine might not have the massive clout of a company like Ubisoft, but it’s difficult to find a more productive, creative studio. Double Fine’s piece of the game industry pie might not be massive, but games like Stacking prove that it is a tasty slice with a unique flavor.

Or perhaps cake would be a better metaphor to describe the ethos behind Stacking’s creative gameplay systems and charming world? Both are multi-layered treats.