Version tested: Xbox 360
If you enjoy Stacking, you probably have amnesia to thank for it. It's a condition games have been exploiting for years, but with Double Fine's latest, the connections are a little more imaginative than usual. In most games, memory loss simply means that your grunty protagonist has woken up in a motel room and forgotten how to double jump. This time, however, the roots lie a lot deeper.
Actually, they lie with something called Amnesia Fortnights, an idea Double Fine boss Tim Schafer came up with to motivate his team during the endless slog of long projects. The concept's simple (and you can try it at home, if you're peculiarly motivated and have access to your own game engine and pipeline): put aside what you're working on right now, split into creative little groups, and spend two weeks building a prototype for a brand new game.
It can be whatever you would like it to be, the odder the better: just clear your mind and make that one thing you most want to make. Oh yes, and try to forget everything you know about how games should work.
Two games in, and it's apparent that most of Double Fine's energy has been spent on forgetting how games should look rather than how they actually play, but it's a process that's still given the team the space to create some distinct and charming experiences. Costume Quest may have been a fairly traditional turn-based RPG when you pulled it apart, but it arrived dressed up as a Charlie Brown holiday special, and wove its sweet adventure around the wonky eaves and sodium glare of an adorable suburban neighbourhood.
Now Stacking offers players a recognisable blend of puzzle and adventure game, but not before pitching them head-first into a world of fretful Russian dolls and 1930s immigrant pluck. Look at a screenshot for this one and you're not going to mistake it for many other games. How often can you say that these days? "Is it Mass Effect which features a bunch of anthropomorphic matryoshkas titting about on a Borrowers-style ocean liner? Or is it Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions?"
With Stacking, the story and the bizarre, charming visual approach work together, with the former tucked snugly inside the latter. Playing as Charlie Blackmore, the littlest doll in the whole world, you explore a silent-movie landscape of chittering projector screens, filigreed title cards and warm sepia tones. The soundtrack is oozing violin and tinkling piano, while the story is one of poverty, child labour, and gentle rebellion.
Charlie's the runt of the Blackmore clan, which means he's left behind when the larger members of his family are kidnapped by an evil industrialist known as the Baron. It also makes him perfectly suited to rescue them, however, as he can stack himself inside any other dolls he encounters and inherit their special powers. With this simple agenda, the path is set for an adventure built from comic set-pieces and light mischief – and Stacking rarely disappoints.
The puzzles tend to be fairly simple. Often you'll find you've solved one by accident when you thought you were just exploring the options available to you, but a predictable range of locked-door and kidnapped-ally brainteasers are enlivened by the story, which dresses the scenarios up in everything from monkey-powered jalopy races to strike-breaking and jokes about the Hindenburg (too soon?).
For the most part, the key to any solution is finding the right doll – or combination of dolls – and using their powers in sequence. A magician might be able to vanish away a valuable object, while a guard can be lured from his post by a sexy lady – even when that sexy lady's made out of wood. Dolls come in various sizes, adding a gentle tactical element to your attempts to possess them, and half the fun comes from simply jumping around and trying out their specific skills, which include everything from mummifying enemies to vomiting up cookies, flying, and clearing out chimneys.
Meanwhile, the world they inhabit is a wonderfully crafted place, delivering the echoing grandeur of 1930s architecture and sooty technology with the home-made ingenuity of LittleBigPlanet. This is a game that rewards looking closely at things; if you do, you'll discover that balustrades are made from wobbly lines of matches, boats come with lolly-stick decks, and the battered edges of reinforced doors reveal that they're cut from cardboard rather than steel.
Factor in a detailed, optional hint system and Stacking's never a particularly difficult game to work through, but the emphasis isn't on solving the series of gentle problems you're faced with so much as trying to find all of the possible solutions available – a design that actively encourages a second play-through and an addled imagination. It makes for a short but wide adventure, with each of the handful of rambling environments packed with optional extras, including secondary challenges, special dolls to track down, sets to collect and Hi-Jinks, which are cryptic little tasks that reward unusual use of certain abilities.
As downloads go, this is generous and imaginative, then, and the richness of the world is more than enough to make up for an occasionally tricksy camera, a fair amount of backtracking and a tendency to pad things out as it heads towards the final act. Stacking's sweet, thoughtful, and perfect to play if you're bored of the usual videogame destinations. When it comes to games, then, what you forget can be as important as the things you remember.
8 / 10