Stacking is a 2011 adventure puzzle game developed by Double Fine Productions. Designed by Tim Schafer (known for his work on the Monkey Island games and Grim Fandango) and Lee Petty, it is one of the most intriguing games I’ve stumbled across in a while where the player must utilize Russian matryoshka stacking dolls as a means to solve a various array of puzzles. It is an interesting idea for a game that is finely capitalized on but not one that is designed in such a way as to elicit any major excitement or glean any profound brilliance.
Stacking takes place in a fictional Victorian London setting. The player controls Charlie, the youngest and smallest doll of the Blackmore family, who sets off to rescue his four imprisoned siblings and chimney sweep father from an evil industrialist and child labor enforcer named the Baron. As Charlie, the player can stack inside dolls that are one size larger than him and so forth, gaining control of the doll’s movement and unique ability. It is not the size of the dolls themselves (most of the time), but rather the abilities in which the doll characters possess that are the player’s main tool in solving the puzzles.
The main game consists of four areas in which the player is prompted to explore in a startlingly open-world-esque fashion. Activities include tasks (which make up the true “main” game) each one containing multiple solutions, collecting “unique dolls” — simply by jumping inside them, and hi-jinks: a list of mischievous duties intended for the player to perform specific actions while operating a particular doll.
Stacking brandishes its own style of puzzles by abandoning conventionality and assumes a real-world logical thinking approach in its problems and solutions (to a cartoonish degree, at least). There is no “move-the-objects-so-that-the-pieces-fit” overarching objective, only a string of scenarios propelling your imagination to do some creative brainstorming and to make some wild assumptions.
I admire Stacking a lot for exhibiting its own brand of puzzle style, but truly warming up to its delights is a little troubling. It never really feels like the player is put to the test to do any serious critical thinking. Most of the puzzles rather feel like a tedious manhunt to find the correct doll for the job. Finding the doll isn’t the fun part of the puzzle, but it’s the thinking process behind what the doll does is.
There is one instance in the final area of the game where the player must blend two dolls’ abilities to accomplish a task. The devs should have definitely crafted more puzzles like this one and perhaps even expand it to three, four plus dolls so that there would be way more flexibility in the game’s cognitive elements. Unfortunately, this idea rarely recurs and what we’re left with is a pretty straightforward puzzle adventure.
Stacking is admittedly difficult to flat-out dislike, though, as there is still plenty of whimsy and flourishing touches in its world design to appreciate. Its enjoyment mostly stems from the side activities — collecting unique dolls and hi-jinks — in which the player is given the playful freedom to roam the opulent locations and tinker with the abilities of the diverse cast of dolls. This is where acts like farting on old people and giving a peacock a wedgie are rewarded.
Overall, Stacking is certainly a highly amusing video game with a delightfully whimsical world that meets expectations but rarely ever exceeds them. Its silent film cutscenes set a diverting tone for a brief game that doesn’t exactly have the best designed puzzles to offer. The puzzles are fine, but again, they don’t exactly require the kind of critical thinking to be considered a classic.