Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.
Double Fine Productions’ adventure game, Stacking, has an illustrious pedigree: Double Fine founder Tim Schafer’s resume is littered with genre pillars, from Monkey Island to Grim Fandango. Born out of an internal Double Fine game jam, Stacking debuted on consoles in 2011, and has now reached the PC. How does it stack (sorry) up? Pretty well, thanks to two distinct strengths.
The first is its original premise: the residents of Stacking’s world aren’t humans, they’re Russian matryoshka dolls. Your character is the tiniest of all, but “stacking” into a small doll will allow you to jump into a medium-sized doll, which will allow you to jump into a large doll, and so on. Each doll has its own ability, which you can use while stacked into it. As such, instead of the usual “fiddling with every item in your inventory”, solving puzzles is a matter of working out which doll’s power to use – or, sometimes, which dolls’ powers, as some puzzles require the combined use of more than one. (Using multiple dolls is Stacking’s equivalent of “use every item with every other item”, but thankfully, the puzzles are more sensibly designed than that!) It’s fresh, it’s quirky, and at first, it’s a delight to stack into every doll in sight, in search of the next new ability.
The second is how neatly it avoids the traditional sin of adventure games: the ease of getting stuck. Normally, adventure game puzzles have one solution, and if you can’t guess it, tough luck (short of resorting to GameFAQs). This is especially bad when the game expects you to, say, make a moustache out of cat hair. While Stacking does offer an in-game hint system, it also addresses the root of the problem: in this game, puzzles have anywhere from three to five solutions. One or two will usually be obvious… but the challenge comes from trying to work out the rest. This is a much better way of designing an adventure game: it lets you set your own pace (do I want to blast through, or tick off every solution?) and gives a good reason to be completionist (some of the solutions are laugh-out-loud funny).
Stacking’s greatest limitation is that its characters and plot aren’t very deep – not deep enough to carry the game. Without the compelling stories of, say, The Longest Journey or Gabriel Knight, Stacking relies on novelty value. And eventually, the novelty wears off: by the time I finished, I found the game less amusing and enjoyable than when I began. (I also stopped bothering with every solution: I just wanted to wrap up!) But Stacking is short enough for this not to be a serious problem – I finished it in ~8 hours, before it outstayed its welcome.
At the end of the day, Stacking isn’t a great game, but it is a good one: the video game equivalent of a healthy snack. Cute, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious, it’s especially well suited for quick breaks – if you’re tired or short on time, you can dip in, solve a puzzle or two, and call it a day. Worth a look for genre fans.
Stacking, Double Fine’s Russian doll-themed adventure game, is a treat for the eyes as well as the funny bone. In the above screenshot, a mismatched crowd queues up for tickets at a train station; their distinct designs, and the station’s warm ambience, speak to the love and craft with which this game was made.