Format: PS3, 360 Release: Out now Publisher: THQ Developer: Double Fine
Of all the many great puzzles posed by point-and-click adventure games over the years, the toughest have been those set by the genre itself. For example, how can a type of game that rose to prominence in a flat world work in three dimensions? Or, how can a style of design that deliberately obfuscates solutions in order to provide challenge find favour when the prevailing fashion is for games to promote to their players the path of least resistance? Many have tried, but for well over a decade now, these are riddles that no developer has managed to crack with any degree of elegance.
Unsurprising perhaps that a stylish solution – albeit an idiosyncratic, nigh on impossible-to-imitate one – should come from protégées to one of the genre’s founding fathers. Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine have, in Stacking, delivered an ingenious narrative-led puzzle game in which each brainteaser not only has multiple solutions – ensuring its player is less likely to become stuck – but which actively encourages you to seek them all out, injecting replay value into a style of game that has traditionally struggled to provide worth after resolution.
The key to its success is found in its choice of theme. Stacking’s world is filled with matryoshka dolls of various sizes, who wander about their existence in lavish, 1930s-esque European stages. Each doll in the game has a single unique ability. For example, one is able to throw a sucker punch, another can belch dramatically, while yet another will sip a cup of tea when prompted.
You play as the smallest, Charlie Blackmore, who is able to jump inside any doll he can get behind and in doing so assume use of its ability. In Monkey Island parlance, the various dolls represent the items in your inventory; locating and selecting the appropriate doll for a specific problem is the key to progress. So, for example, when asked to break up a group of bystanders you might need to find and assume control of a wild animal doll and, having brought it to the scene, trigger its growl ability to scatter the crowd. Complexity is added to this basic concept as dolls can be stacked inside one another, allowing the developer to create puzzles that require multiple dolls to be used in sequence. Initially you can just stack four sizes of doll together, but as you progress through the handful of sizeable stages that make up the game, the number of dolls you can stack increases, and the complexity of puzzles with it.
Each puzzle in the game has multiple solutions, with bonuses for uncovering each variation and, while none is particularly difficult, challenge and weight is derived from finding them all. Meanwhile, flexibility has been introduced to the template, as it's possible to approach conundrums in a non-linear order, removing much of bottlenecking that plagued the genre in the 1990s. And even if you do become stuck, a timed hint system offers clues for each of the various solutions to a puzzle, a smart concession to accessibility.
The mechanics are wrapped up in a delightful narrative, with a whimsical setting which is fresh and unusual. The game is unvoiced: cutscenes instead play out with text plates as in a silent movie, but the painted dolls are characterful and expressive, and their written dialogue is witty and tightly scripted. Likewise, the overarching plot, which has you working to reunite with Charlie’s siblings and put an end to child labour, provides a neat thread to link the varied dioramas that make up the game’s levels.
Stacking’s best qualities are its eccentricity and ingenuity. The puzzles lack the tortured bite of Double Fine’s early work, but in broadening the narrative-led puzzle game’s scope and carefully choosing which elements of tradition to keep and which to discard, Stacking is a bold and charming reinvention.