Video game celebri-designer Tim Schafer and his development company Double Fine are both known for putting creativity first. They're also known for overdue projects and problems with publisher relations. Lately though, they've both taken a new approach, dividing their one big team into several smaller ones and having these work on “smaller” projects. Not that that means the ideas at Double Fine are getting any smaller, but this new arrangement has so far spawned two solid games: the Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest and the company's latest offering, a stellar adventure title called Stacking.
Based on an idea by Double Fine art director Lee Petty, Stacking is about an unexpectedly heroic little munchkin named Charlie Blackmore. Charlie, along with all the rest of the characters, is a Russian stacking doll living in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and is the smallest in a family of dedicated chimney sweeps. The family's in dire financial straits and so Daddy Blackmore goes far away to find work, leaving the family vulnerable to the dastardly plans of evil child-labor-supporting industrialist, the Baron. When Charlie's family is abducted by the Baron and forced to work in the Baron's mines, it's up to little Charlie to save them from their deplorable fate.
Stacking follows the classic adventure game model of investigation, dialog and puzzle solving but it's the way all of these things are done that's unique. Unlike in other genres, adventure game heroes are rarely the thick-necked, macho type; in fact, they're usually of the ninety pound weakling variety. Being no more than an inch tall, Charlie fits that model perfectly but in his case, his humble stature is actually his secret weapon. Charlie's the size of the dolls found at the core of the stack, and this allows him to jump into and control any dolls bigger than he is. That means when stacked with another doll, he can control its actions and make use of its unique abilities. Of course, in Stacking, the idea of “abilities” must be understood in the loosest possible terms. A doll's ability could be farting, miming, seducing, paddle-balling, slapping, screaming, coughing, photo-snapping, singing, violining, nesting or levitating and you can just imagine the kinds of puzzles skills like these might be used to solve.
Dolls come in a number of different sizes and to use the bigger ones, Charlie must be stacked up to within one size (smaller) of them. Having access to so many different dolls makes for multiple solutions to every puzzle and in fact, the game doesn’t just give you options, it rewards you for finding them. If you take the time to find and stack with unique dolls, you’ll save and collect them. Also, if you take the time to find all of each puzzle's creative solutions, you'll earn more cool stuff with which to decorate your secret hideout. The hideout comes to you via the first friend you make, a hobo named Levi. In his grungy, beard-shadowed wanderings, Levi discovers a hidden room behind the walls of the train station and the two of you designate it as your two-man secret hideout. (Ignoring for the moment how creepy that whole situation is.) Of course, having a secret hideout is cool and all, but this improvised man-cave only represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the game's artistic wow factor.
Charlie's adventures take place in a number of charming 1930's settings, starting with a steam train station straight out of the early 20th century. It moves on to other awesome locations like a Hindenburg-like zeppelin, a a Titanic-like cruise ship and a tank engine carrying hapless children to their Pleasure Island-like doom. These and all the rest of the graphics in Stacking are so great, so (dare I borrow an old fashioned term?) delightful, it's really hard to say which is better—the game concept or the art direction. In addition to some killer environments and cleverly-designed characters, the game's silent film-like intro and in-game cutscenes are brilliantly conceived, adopting an approach that's not only economical production-wise since it absolves the team of implementing voice acting, but totally fits the game's concept. And while the game lacks voice acting, it still has plenty of sound. Along with a wealth of amusing sound effects, its jangly, old fashioned piano and violin music isn't like anything you've ever heard in a video game.
Despite Double Fine's uneven eleven year development history, Stacking stands as a clear indicator that today the company's on the right track. By allowing for smaller projects and smaller teams, it takes full advantage of the great number of talented people at its disposal and really lets them shine. More than any previous Double Fine title, Stacking, with its flawless art direction, unusual gameplay and affecting soundtrack is a one-of-a-kind adventure that story lovers and creative thinkers won't want to miss.