Stacking First Look

Double Fine's upcoming downloadable game reveals the secret life of Russian nesting dolls.

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Stacking is the upcoming game from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions that continues the San Francisco-based developer's experimentation with creating smaller games for digital distribution. Like Double Fine's first downloadable game, Costume Quest, Stacking is being helmed by another rising star in the company, Lee Petty, who last served as art director on Brutal Legend. Schafer and Petty recently dropped by our offices to show off the unique game inspired by Russian nesting dolls. Although the dolls from the late 1800s may sound like an unlikely muse that isn't necessarily a great fit for a game, Stacking will surprise you.

Stacking was born out of a creative exercise at Double Fine, where the company splits into four small teams that quickly prototype ideas into playable demos that could become full-fledged games. In the case of Stacking, Petty found himself inspired as he watched his daughter play with a set of nesting dolls. The notion of each doll fitting into another sparked an idea for a gameplay mechanic that wound up being prototyped by the team Petty headed up. Once the concept was green-lit, Petty began researching both the history of stacking dolls and the era they emerged from for story and gameplay ideas. Given the artistic streak of Petty and his team, Stacking has morphed into a Victorian-era art-flavored hybrid of adventure game and puzzle game that revolves around a young nesting doll named Charlie, who's out to rescue his family.

Stacking's story will unfold via silent-film-style cinematics--which will add up to more than two hours of narrative--that flicker dramatically as text cards pop up. The story finds Charlie's happy home broken up by an evil baron who sends the whole brood into the lively indentured service industry. Charlie, left behind because of his small size, sets out to find and rescue his family using his wits and unique ability to possess other dolls by jumping into them.

The game was demoed for us as both Petty and Schafer talked us through the mechanics and systems on display. The work-in-progress demo we were checking out on the Xbox 360 kicked off with the setup of Charlie's family being split by the evil baron and the tiny doll setting out to save the day. As any first-time hero will tell you, heading out to save the day is a little tricky your first time out of the gate, but Charlie lucks into a meeting with Levi the hobo, a young drifter who's hanging around the train station where the adventure begins.

Our demo showed off two areas: the train station that serves as a hub, since you'll be traveling to different locations to collect your family members, and a cruise ship, which is one of the locations you'll explore. Each area will feature different missions for you that will consist of puzzles to solve. Stacking's puzzle-solving mechanic is an interesting spin on old-school adventure games. Charlie's primary ability is to hop into any doll that's one size larger and that has its back turned to him. Once Charlie is in the doll, he'll have access to its unique action or ability. Figuring out which abilities to use and what order to use them in on either the environment or the other characters you encounter offers a good mental workout. For example, we saw that Charlie needed to board a train to get to where one of his family members was being held. Unfortunately, a train strike had sent three striking workers to go grouse about their situation at an exclusive lounge Charlie couldn't access. To complete the mission, Charlie needed to get the workers out of the lounge and basically create a stacked set of all three of the workers.

While many of the traditional adventure games that Stacking owes a tip of the hat to would have only a single solution, this game features several different solutions to a given problem. There are actually three solutions to the lounge problem, ranging from traditional to unorthodox. The key to all the solutions is in finding the different ways in which Charlie can use the other dolls around him. For example, if you use one doll, you can flirt with a guard who shifts his position and allows Charlie to possess him. Another option lets Charlie possess a doll that can fart into the lounge's ventilation system and flush everyone out, while the last option lets Charlie use a doll's mechanical prowess to open the covering into the lounge ventilation system. When you complete a mission, you'll see a counter showing you how many other options exist to solve it, so you can try to discover them all.

While the train lounge was a pretty simple mission to tend to, the cruise ship offered a much larger environment to interact with and a broader array of puzzles to contend with. While the core mechanics didn't appear to offer any new functionality, the puzzles and options for solving them grew in complexity. The cruise ship challenges were more complex than the initial missions in the game and required smart navigation of the ship and use of possessed dolls. In this particular mission, Charlie's main task was to help a mutiny along, but a number of side quests were available as well. Managing which quest you take on first and trying to figure out how to effectively use all the unique doll abilities kept things interesting in our demo and left us excited to see later levels.

One point to definitely call out about our demo was the strategic use of doll possessing. Besides offering you unique abilities to try to solve a quest, possessing other dolls lets you build up a personal collection you can review in the game's pause menu. Collecting whole sets yields bonuses to encourage you to keep your eyes peeled. The mechanic looks interesting, and we expect it will be challenging when dealing with dolls of varying sizes above Charlie.

The game's presentation makes some unique choices that give the game a fresh sense of style. The art direction is a sly, adventurous mix of old-timey black-and-white presentation with more colorful Victorian flourishes. The objects in the world also have a distinct look to them because the team has drawn inspiration from tilt-shift photography. Charlie and the residents of his world fit the scale of their surroundings without beating you over the head with it. While this may sound a little odd on paper, once you see the game in motion, it all makes sense. The color palette offers a muted, almost sepia tinge to the environments we've seen so far that gives the game a unique look that fits everything nicely. The audio takes a minimalist approach, using sound effects but no voice. However, this doesn't mean Stacking is lacking in the sound department. The game draws on a nice mix of classical pieces of music from Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, as well as original material from Peter McConnell, which all suit the unique world.

Based on what we've seen so far, Stacking is looking like a smart, fun, fresh spin on the traditional adventure game experience. The gameplay appears to offer a flexible toolkit for problem solving that puts most of the pressure on your brain rather than twitch reflexes. The art and story are creative and whimsical, which play to Double Fine's strengths, so we're eager to see more of the game. Stacking is slated to be released early next year for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Look for more soon.

Discussion

69 comments
M3SS3NG3R
M3SS3NG3R

I like how they keep misspelling the guy's name from Perry to Petty in the article.

VintAge68
VintAge68

It's really an unorthodox, creative game that does appeal also to the player's creativity in trying to resolve the challenges in different ways beyond one single linear scheme... - Worth to being known & played!

Amnesiac23
Amnesiac23 moderator

I'm in love with the concept and the potential it has. Nice to see creative games like this.

rigzzsy
rigzzsy

definitely gona give this a go, i reckon 800mp should do the trick

LubiBaby
LubiBaby

looks like a fun game, i wonder how much it's gonna sell for

Cloud-Zehro
Cloud-Zehro

@altjay88 Shouldn't you be playing CoD right now, or possibly Madden?

Reltec
Reltec

This looks different, but coming from Double Fine it has to be at least an 8.0. I love Tim and his team, they are so creative.

altjay88
altjay88

this looks like garbage. but i get a feeling it has potential. its one of those games, to me. i'm just going to have to try the demo and go from there. this 'review' did not help it, got boring wayyyyy to fast. but the concept is interesting and i'm always up for trying something new. i'll be keeping an eye out for it, but in no way jumping to buy it asap just yet.

zack012
zack012

Ironic that half the people are saying this game is very creative and are sick of sequels while the other half are asking for sequels to psychonauts and brutal legend. Anyways, I do like the originality of this game and im hoping that more games this creative start coming out instead of a new sequel each year. I personaly I enjoyed the art style it fits well with the game itself. Although I noticed some parts in the video had different amounts of colour and am wondering if thats going to be changed or if there will be different art styles as you progress to fit the mood or scene. Either way it looks like a great game and hoping it ends up that way.

kabalzer0
kabalzer0

looks good but im still wanin a Sequel to psychonauts!

xboxgameman
xboxgameman

This looks...uhh...well it looks like...yeh...I'm not really sure what it looks like...

Pawfalcon
Pawfalcon

The first thing that pop'd into my head when i saw the game in action was the Canadians from South Park, second was "weeeird", third was "cooool", and finally "blame Canada"

mattman127
mattman127

A sequel to Phsychonauts and Brutal Legend.... mmmm tasty lol This looks really awesome too =)

Pumpkinhead3
Pumpkinhead3

Hmm, interesting. I like the silent film aspect (cards with words for dialogue, that familiar Charlie Chaplin-esque music, etc.)

Tevi
Tevi

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

kazumashadow
kazumashadow

hope it doesnt come out like the overly boring costume quest

Kiltman99
Kiltman99

Stacking dolls always skeeved me out a little bit when I was a kid, but this game actually looks alright. Hopefully it'll turn out to be decent

tehepicpwnzor
tehepicpwnzor

Looks like it could be promising... If it's good, I'll buy it. If it's a let down, I won't buy it. End of story.

CageFury
CageFury

Looks pretty cool, very unique. The art style, however, looks like it was lifted straight out of little big planet.

MasterDalton
MasterDalton

this is verryy weird. But weird is a good thing these days :) sick of a lot of the fiction being taken out of games. Games are supposed to help you escape from reality, whilst being fun!

groowagon
groowagon

looks very good. i hope the gameplay is fun too.

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

This is very original, this is one game you DONT want to miss, especially since its NOT a shooter

jumalan75
jumalan75

Love the graphics! The atmosphere totally fits the stacking dolls!??

Timper
Timper

Yay! This game is so outta the box. I like it! Another game to help break free from FPS.

TheVGamer
TheVGamer

This guy is so weird, yet I love his games...

tupac-makaveli
tupac-makaveli

looks like doublefine has another hit on their hands. oh, and don't forget to make psychonauts 2!

score89
score89

Maybe gameplay has yet to be polished or perhaps i have to try it myself, but no one can deny the originality of the game not only in the concept but in the artistic visuals as well

EzekyleAbadon
EzekyleAbadon

Costume quest was pretty good, Stacking looks amazing. Can't wait to see what the other two xbla games are. Schafer and Gilbert are two of the greatest people in the gaming industry and now that they are back together I can't imagine what they will come up with. No wait... I can. Monkey Island 3 please.

Albenuova
Albenuova

@Gabriex wtf are you talking about??? How many games like Stacking have you seen come out in the last 10 years?

Pacman_Toad
Pacman_Toad

Looks awful..what im just not into playing with dolls!

Skargamer
Skargamer

@Bob194 Wow, that's the most number of thumb downs I've ever seen on a single comment. BTW, you need to open your eyes to the creative aspect of games and not just dwell on the monotonous run and gun mechanic that is getting overused in this generation. These 'little downloadable games' are making a name for themselves and showing us that thinking outside the box is definitely worth the risk. I'm glad Double Fine is thinking of fresh new concepts every time like they did with Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. Though I would personally like Psychonauts 2 (which was ignored even though the original game was amazing), this is definitely gonna be on my owned game list. :)

Skargamer
Skargamer

This game sounds very intriguing. A fresh concept and I am certainly looking forward to this! :)

Gabriex
Gabriex

Meh, I'm sick of this kinda games...it's going to be a failure...

focus0894
focus0894

@Bob194 Damn, that's the most thumbs down I've ever seen anyone get on this site. >3>

firehawk998
firehawk998

We need more people like Tim Schaefer in the industry. Also a big thanks to EA for supporting double fine.

marcopolo426
marcopolo426

That looks so cool and original. Finally something to look forward to other than sequels, FPSs, Sequels, FPSs and some more Sequels.

8smokes
8smokes

Whew, looks really unique!

buster898685
buster898685

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

nickythenewt21
nickythenewt21

This game looks like it's going to be... DOUBLE FINE.

DepressionMoon
DepressionMoon

This looks unique and interesting. I'll keep my eye on it.

Cwagmire21
Cwagmire21

Nice to see something other than generic FPS games one after another.