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[PSN Review] Stacking

Tim Schafer’s innovative studio Double Fine, which brought us titles like Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Costume Quest (which we reviewed), released the Russian doll-based action/puzzler Stacking to PSN and XBLA on February 8, 2011. In the charming world of the game, you play a Russian nesting doll who must rescue his family from an evil industrial magnate by completing various puzzles in locales like a train terminus, a luxury steamer, and swanky zeppelin. The a-historical setting of the game is an England that can’t quite decide whether it’s late Victorian or Edwardian (think Oliver Twist on the Orient Express), but it’s a compellingly-realized fantasy world populated by dolls of various sizes, with a great deal of personality in their deft detail.

The game mechanic is quite original. The protagonist, Charlie, is a rather useless chap on his own; you must nest him inside other dolls in order to navigate the challenges of the game world. Each doll has a single action that it can perform, which might be anything from throwing a newspaper in the case of a newsie, to coughing soot in the case of a chimney sweep, to flatulating in the case of… a milkman. Eww. Many of these powers are simply entertaining without being useful (and let me state for the record now that the game does have a certain puerile obsession with bodily emanations), but the challenge of the game lies in finding original ways to use these powers to overcome the obstacles that impede Charlie’s progress. For instance, if Charlie needs to talk to a doll who is inside a posh club attended by a snooty guard, Charlie might nest himself inside a seductive doll and use her sex appeal power to lure the guard from the door. But the door is still too high for tiny Charlie, so you might then jump inside a mechanic, who can use his wrench ability to open a ventilation shaft so that little Charlie can sneak inside. Or you might, instead, nest inside the milkman and fart into that ventilation shaft, thereby forcing the beleaguered diners to flood out of the club.

There are generally between three and five solutions to a puzzle, and part of the fun of the game lies in discovering different combination of powers that will allow Charlie to proceed. It isn’t too difficult to puzzle out at least one of the more obvious solutions, but some of the more creative (or stupidly esoteric) solutions can be difficult to divine. Not to fear, though: The game has a built-in hint system that reveals progressively more telling clues for each possible solution at the push of the button in the pause menu. This nicely manages the difficulty of the game for children or for adults like yours truly who may eventually tire of a problem but who still want to achieve every possible solution. For while you only need to solve a puzzle once in order to proceed, in-game rewards and PSN trophies are dependent on discovering all of the solutions, among other things.

The game is ultimately quite short. You could probably beat the game in just two or three hours if you barreled through, finding just one solution to each challenge and perhaps using the hint system to speed things along. What extends the game length are the multiple solution paths, the quest to find and nest with all of the unique dolls, and the “high jinks” system, which encourages you to use the dolls’ special abilities in unique ways in order to complete mini-challenges (like blinding five dolls with the flash of the photographer’s camera ability). These assorted goals certainly extend the life of the game, but if you’re like me, you won’t feel compelled to accomplish all of them, as completion of each goal simply means that more junk is unlocked in a sort of in-game trophy room. Think of the Lego models that unlock as you collect those canisters hidden in the Lego Star Wars levels. It’s nice that you have those models, but they aren’t actually useful for anything. I beat the game in something like six hours, and I unlocked about 75% of the stuff in the game, and I unlocked less and less as I continued to play – I just didn’t have any real incentive to keep completing the bonus goals.

The game has a cute silent film conceit, whereby cut scenes play out on a sort of vaudeville stage with inter-titles that provide character dialogue. The music is a tinkly piano refrain that evokes a Chaplinesque film score quite nicely – but that begins to grate on the nerves after a time, as it simply doesn’t vary. The characters are charmingly stiff and lack facial animation. In fact, all they do is bob along and break at the middle, where the doll halves join. It’s surprising how much emotion the developers can convey through these very simple movements. Again, Lego Star Wars might be a point of tangency in this respect, though these dolls lack the facial expressions that LucasArts employs. But all of this amounts to a slick and original aesthetic package in Stacking, perfectly suited to the downloadable title market, from which most of us expect rather less than when we fork over our 60 USD for an AAA title.

I do have some more and less serious reservations about the title. First, the game’s humorous tone causes it to make light of, and even make fun of, the problems of child labor and of organized labor action. This may not be quite the right moment to implicitly deride unions at the same time as one explicitly assaults the caricature of the robber baron. The game has, I think, stumbled into making a political statement that its designers may not have intended, but that, nevertheless, feels glib, and even irresponsible. Second, the game, rather shockingly, has an important character who is a hobo named Levi, which raises the specter of le juif errant, “The Wandering Jew.” This realization encourages one to reconsider the broader racial politics of the game. The cast is unrepentantly white, because, well, can you imagine what a black doll would look like? That’s right: Aunt Jemima. The game figures a classless and colorblind class war, in which the “problem” of child labor and indentured servitude doesn’t reside in the society that fosters or permits it, but in a scapegoat-villain who can be slain: Fagin (“The Jew” of Dickens’s Oliver Twist) or Simon Legree (the “un-Christian” plantation owner in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

My final complaint is that the game misses a real philosophical opportunity at an interesting exploration of identity and subjectivity. The game works as an allegory of the Homunculus argument as derived from the Western tradition of Cartesian dualism. Put in anime terms, there’s a “ghost in the shell” of the body that propels the carnal envelope according to transparently rational processes. What does it suggest that Charlie can inhabit the bodies of others? Is he still “Charlie” therein? More interestingly still, what does it mean that Charlie cannot “possess” certain dolls, like Levi the Wandering Jew? Why should small dolls be kids and big dolls be adults? Do dolls grow? What does it mean that babies nest inside of mommies… and mommies nest inside of daddies(!)? The game raises a host of identitarian questions that could have been pursued for a richer text, without sacrificing the game’s humor or kid-friendliness.

Perhaps you think that I ask too much of the game, but the best games can offer ontological insight and pointed social commentary. Think of the way that Assassin’s Creed handles the same sort of “possession” idea and locates it in a dystopian techno-futurism that simultaneously looks backwards to a colonialist past, and inwards to a chthonic need for the order the secret society brings to the modern agnostic mind (thanks, Dan Brown). Or consider the way that every RPG spectacularizes racial prejudice and entitlement by right of birth. Or think of Bioshock’s brilliant critique of Ayn Randian libertarianism, set in an explicitly Oedipal context of Big Daddies and little sisters. Video games can be rich and profound texts. Stacking seems to want to accomplish this despite its sunny glibness and bathroom humor, but it never comes close to achieving it.

Stacking is a fun game with an original mechanic and a charming aesthetic. These are features that we’ve come to expect of Double Fine. The game is also quite family-friendly in the sense that its content should be unobjectionable to most, and also in the sense that both kids and adults can enjoy the game. Where it stumbles is in its brevity, its attempt to encourage more play through useless collecting, and its lack of replayability. It’s well worth checking out if your curiosity is piqued, even by the screenshots, and the game is certainly worth every penny of free to PSN+ subscribers. By all means, give it a go; just prepare to be a bit disappointed by a sense of regret for what the game could have been.

[review pros=”Unique puzzle mechanic
Charming steam punk aesthetic (without the punk!)
Family-friendly” cons=”Short game with little replayability
The central mechanic begins to feel like a one-trick pony
Completionists’ rewards are useless doodads in a room that’s off the beaten path” score=60]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Stacking provided by Double Fine.