Another day, another obnoxious PS3 system update. Seriously, since when did my PC become a more convenient system to use than a console? It wouldn’t be so bad if they downloaded and installed in the background but oh-no, merely downloading them requires the full attention of my system locking me out until they’re finished. I’ve got patience, I really have, but when you’ve got a measly 1.2mb connection and just want to sign in to the Playstation Network the last thing you want to be doing is waiting ten bloody minutes for an update that seems to make no difference whatsoever. That’s not living, that’s bullshit.
Thank the gods then that the Playstation Store front featured a demo of Double Fine’s Stacking the other day: a sweet soothing elixir for my waiting woes, and one that I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise.
Stacking is a game about Russian dolls, or more specifically ‘stacking’ into dolls to overcome challenges. The game takes place in a turn of the century Victorian world of chimney sweeps, top hats and steam trains and in it you play as Charlie Blackmore, the smallest member of a family who, barring him and his mother, have gone missing. Charlie is tiny and seemingly inconsequential but this is a story about a small doll making a big difference.
The first level featured in the demo takes place at a train station where Charlie, after receiving help from a hobo named Levi the Hobo, finds that his brother Albert has been kidnapped to mine coal while the coal miners union goes on strike at the station. It’s your job to stop the strike and get the children and your brother out of there.
In order to do this little Charlie has to sneak up behind other dolls slightly larger than himself and stack into them to control and use their abilities, these dolls in turn can be stacked into others. Abilities range from sipping tea and ‘flatulating’ to blowing bubblegum and tap dancing and while many serve as fun diversions some are vital in overcoming the various challenges Charlie will face. The first challenge is getting past a guard preventing you from entering a private bar called the Royal Lounge where the three members of the train guild are drinking. The three of them are required to break up the strike on the main platform and get the miners back to work thus letting the poor children (and Albert) go free.
In the demo you can get the members of the train guild to leave the bar in three ways, each as charming and funny as the other — this quality I’m led to believe will be prevalent throughout the game. For those of you wishing to discover all the solutions yourself you may wish to skip the next paragraph.
The most obvious way around the guard is to exploit his blatant weakness to the beautiful predatory female doll (she’s a doll in more ways than one, no less) called The Widow Chastity walking around near the information kiosk. She’s a buxom lady much taller than little Charlie so he has to stack into larger dolls to be able to stack into her. Once he has control of Chastity he can use her ‘seduce’ ability to distract the guard so that Charlie can unstack from her and then sneak behind the now awe-struck guard to stack into him and allow Charlie access to the private bar. Once inside, the members of the train guild and other patrons leave dismayed that the exclusivity of their private bar has been compromised by low-life riff-raff. Once outside the three train guild members can be stacked sequentially and whisked off to the train platform to disperse the strike.
Obviously it’s hard to tell from the demo what sort of puzzles will crop up later on but the main challenge here and the three available solutions bode very well for the rest of the game. They’re smart, funny, logical and perhaps above all fun to discover.
Wandering around the station are all sorts of dolls that respond differently to Charlie and in some cases specifically who he has stacked into, so talking to The Widow Chastity as Solicitor Barnabas (a doll of high stature, pocket watch and tobacco pipe in tow) will provoke a different reaction to Meriwether Malodor (a doll that prizes his ability to clear crowds with his bilious britches). This interplay is key to Stacking as it encourages playful exploration of the game world and its delightful core mechanic. In each area there are a few unique dolls and ‘sets’ of dolls which can be found and stacked together to gain access to quirky side stories. For instance, at the station there’s a (presumably) Austrian family who have lost each other after catching the wrong train to the Schnitzel Museum. Once they are reunited they decide to go back home.
While all this is going on Levi the Hobo finds a secret hideout which acts as a sort of mantelpiece or depository for all the unique dolls and sets you’ve collected as well as a record of which solutions you’ve found and how many remain for each challenge. Levi also pledges to do a painting of each new location you visit. Bless his tatty socks. One of the defining qualities of Stacking, as expected from a Double Fine game, is its sterling sense of humour. The attendants at the information kiosk in the main hallway happily dole out useful hints and tips and add remarks like ‘I don’t know what that means, but I’m supposed to follow the script’ and ‘I have no idea what <square> or <L1> is, but I hope you find them helpful’. Terrorising the station with Meriwether Malodor’s flatulence never ceased to lose its magic either, especially when trying to disperse the stalwart strikers after which they’d retort ‘Your odor can’t cut through the years of coal dust in my nose!’
Needless to say given the screenshots above, Stacking is also beautifully presented, so much so that if Professor Layton were to organise a cream tea and scones evening with The Triplets of Belleville and P.B. Winterbottom, Stacking would undoubtedly be invited. From the gorgeous illustrated dolls and their satin sheens to the little details peppered about the station: a long rug with ruffled bumps in it, the mosaics adorning various walls and floors, the curly clouds painted on to ceilings above, warm glowing ornate glass lamp shades hanging in the main hallway; it all looks gorgeous. The story itself is told through charming stage performances in the style of a silent movie, interspersed with snappy dialogue and accompanied by a suitably crackly soundtrack largely featuring piano and violin. It works perfectly.
All in all, I couldn’t be more surprised and impressed by Stacking. From knowing nothing about it (other than it being a Double Fine game) I’ve come away from the demo wanting a whole lot more and as far as I’m concerned that’s exactly what a demo is for. Those of you with a PS3 or an Xbox need to play this, those without can check out the trailer below. Sorry.
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