Double Fine’s Brutal Legend was a big game that nonetheless failed to set the world on fire – and between that and the legal wringer of former publisher Activision, it’s no wonder that the studio has been seeking success with smaller, downloadable games rather than giant magnum opuses. Last year’s Costume Quest was a bite-sized game that was well received for its quirky charm, and Double Fine is hoping to make that lightning strike twice with Stacking.

Set in a world populated entirely by Russian matryoshka stacking dolls, Stacking‘s visual aesthetic is heavily influenced by the era of silent films in the 1930s, creator Tim Schafer said while demoing the game at a THQ event. All of the game’s cutscenes – telling the story of young Charlie Blackmore, the littlest stacking doll in his family, who is out to reunite his family and save them from the evil industrialist Baron – are done in the silent film style with dialogue flashing on screen after it’s been “spoken.” They’re also done as stageplays, using props and models to represent, say, a boat traveling to a giant ocean liner.

“We were really taken with the idea of dioramas and miniature stages,” says Schafer – and it’s something you might not notice in the game unless you’re looking for it. The locales little Charlie visits are made up of common everyday objects: Early on, he rides the rails on a handcart constructed out of popsicle sticks, and the aforementioned ocean liner has cigars for its smokestacks.

Charlie might be the runt of the Blackmore family, but his small size gives him a unique power: He can hop inside a larger matryoshka doll from behind in order to take control of it (don’t think about it too much, it’s kind of creepy). Every stacking doll has its own special ability: Big angry men can harrumph and clear people out of the way, upper-class ladies can sip tea, and the illusionist can cast a spell on other dolls to cover them in a magic purple argyle pattern.

At its core, Stacking is about using these dolls – and Charlie’s ability to hop in and out of them – to solve puzzles. The first level set me down in a train station, where Charlie’s older brother was being used as a stand-in to shovel coal thanks to a coal workers’ strike. It was up to me (er, Charlie) to figure out a way to get the railway leaders down to speak with the strikers to work out a deal. Unfortunately, they were all holed up in a very exclusive club that wouldn’t give a working-class boy like Charlie the time of day, let alone admit him entrance.


The guard at the exclusive club’s entrance told Charlie just how resolute he was on the fact that he would absolutely not let his eyes wander to any pretty women. Hmm, I wonder!

In addition to the regular dolls wandering around the world, every stage is filled with “unique” dolls, which are usually crucial to solving a puzzle. There was one such unique bouncing around nearby – an attractive single woman whose unique ability was to flirt and woo. Once I was at the right size to do so (Charlie can only take control of dolls one size bigger than he is, so you’ll need to stack a few together in order to hop inside the larger matryoshkas) I was able to take control of the lovely lady, flirt with the guard, and then walk away.

The guard followed – allowing me to hop out, walk behind him, and take control. I marched in to the club, where the host, furious that common riff-raff had been allowed to enter, kicked everyone out – including the railway leaders. I hopped inside the railmen (how convenient that they’re all different sizes), brought them down to the strikers, and watched as they negotiated a deal (or something close to it).

That was just one specific solution, though – I could have, say, taken control of the maintenance worker, who could have stopped the fan in the air duct, letting me sneak inside (where the host, furious that common riff-raff … etc.) Every major puzzle in the game has multiple solutions, says Schafer – and it’s up to the player to find as many (or as few) as he or she wants.

Other than searching for additional solutions, there are plenty of silly little things to do in Stacking besides progress the plot. Not every unique doll is used in puzzles, so tracking them all down is a challenge in itself. There are also stacking “sets” – different-sized dolls meant to be grouped together. The railmen are one such group, and in the second stage on the ocean liner, the aforementioned illusionist is on the ship with his family. Stacking a group together (from the magic family’s pet dog on up) will grant you a silly little cutscene about the set in question.

Double Fine’s customary smart writing and tongue-in-cheek humor is well at home in Stacking, and there are more than a few references that gamers will appreciate (the magician’s family has a “hijinks” ability called “A Mass Effect,” for one). There’s just something bizarrely appealing about taking these little matryoshka dolls around these giant diorama sets, too – every part of the game oozes with character. There may not be a super-deep experience here, but sometimes you really don’t need one to have a good time.

Stacking is set for release in the first part of the year on both Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

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