Russian nesting dolls are works of both craftsmanship and artistry. The craftsmanship is evident in their construction and the way one fits snugly inside the next. The artistry is apparent in their painted surfaces, capable of conveying so much character with appearances and expressions that never change. The same components of craftsmanship and artistry also work hand in hand to make Stacking an enchanting experience. Its well-crafted gameplay, packed with satisfying puzzles and other delights to discover, is made magical by its artful world populated by nesting dolls, a place that feels as if it has sprung into being from the imagination of a child. Stacking is a game that appeals to the child in each of us, the part that finds joy in the simple act of play.
Charlie Blackmore is the youngest member of the Blackmore family, and the smallest doll in the entire world of Stacking. An evil industrialist called the Baron exploits the less fortunate for his own gain, and when the working-class Blackmore clan falls into debt, all the children are rounded up by the Baron's lackeys and forced into labor. All except little Charlie, that is, who soon sets off to free his siblings from their oppressive circumstances. It's a sad situation, and Stacking doesn't shy away from tugging at your heartstrings a bit or from confronting the grim issue of child labor. But the game doesn't bludgeon you over the head with its weighty themes; these concerns are a melancholy undercurrent running beneath the whimsical surface.
To rescue his siblings, the plucky Charlie must resolve labor disputes, get cruise ships to return to port, and more. The world in which these adventures take place is a charming realm that looks as if it were carefully cobbled together from household items and the old toys and knickknacks that you might find gathering dust in a musty old attic. Look closely and you'll see that the suitcases are actually matchboxes and the smokestacks on that steamship are actually cigars. The dolls who populate this world look like hand-painted treasures, with such small details in their faces and their clothing that you'll want to take a moment to admire each new doll you encounter and appreciate the artist's work. The dolls are inflexible--they have no arms to swing or legs to step with--but they nonetheless move with a great deal of expressiveness. They hop along jauntily in a style that resembles stop-motion animation, shuffle impatiently while waiting in lines, and pop their tops momentarily when alarmed.
The camera makes appreciating the visuals a bit difficult at times, nestling in too close and requiring you to do a bit too much work to get a decent view of your surroundings. Such occurrences might make it difficult to read the word bubble another doll has uttered, and there are some areas in which the upper part of a doll passes right through a low overhang, shattering the illusion that this is an elaborate living diorama. But these are minor blemishes in a game whose visuals are usually enchanting. Subdued classical music provides a perfect accompaniment for the comings and goings of these sumptuous dolls, and the satisfying snap you hear when you jump into a doll and its two halves come back together adds to the inherent fun of popping into other dolls. Seeing the nesting doll populace go to and fro about their business in these gorgeous locations is one of the pleasures of Stacking.
But the real fun begins when you start to play with the world. Charlie Blackmore's diminutive size is his greatest asset; as the smallest of all dolls, he can nest inside and take control of any doll that's one size larger than he is. That doll can similarly stack into a doll that's one size larger, and so on. The game calls this process stacking, and it's both fun and useful. That's because each doll that you stack into has an ability. Many of these abilities are handy in solving the numerous puzzles you encounter on your quest to free your siblings. If you need to create chaos at a safari, for instance, taking control of a Kodiak bear and using its "growl" ability on the guests should certainly cause a panic. Each puzzle has a number of solutions, and while you need to find only one solution to a puzzle to continue the story, solving a puzzle in multiple ways enhances the decor in your secret hideout, where the friendly hobo Levi paints the walls to chronicle your travels.
The puzzles are logical and rewarding to work out, and you may often experience wonderful "Aha!" moments when you stack into a doll you hadn't previously occupied, see its ability, and immediately realize how to use it to your advantage. Some problems can be solved by a single doll, while others require you to combine dolls' abilities. For instance, Sir Sully Taintwell's infectious sneeze ability can make the bowl of soup another doll carries around rather unsavory, and we all know that an infected bowl of soup is a useful thing indeed. Talking to dolls and carefully observing your surroundings can steer you toward solutions, and should you find yourself stuck, Stacking's great hint system can get you back on track. It gives you as little or as much help as you need, initially offering subtle nudges in the right direction but eventually providing an explicit explanation of the solution if you need it.
Working out how to use a doll's ability to help you solve puzzles is engaging, but even outside of this endeavor, many of the abilities are just intrinsically fun to play around with. It's enjoyable just to take control of the Engineer Ulysses doll and use his "full steam ahead" ability to charge forward like a freight train. It's tempting to see how other dolls react if you walk up to them as a boxer doll and deliver "a proper uppercut," or if, as the doll named Meriwether Malodor, you use your "flatulate" ability in their faces. There are never any consequences for engaging in such behavior, and there are often rewards, since such actions can fulfill the requirements for what the game calls hi-jinks. Each level has a list of hi-jinks, which are actions that don't need to be completed to advance through the story but that do result in new rewards at your hideout. The only hints for how to complete hi-jinks are contained in their names, with some, like "Bathroom Chatterbox," making the solution pretty apparent and others, like "A Mass Effect," requiring more creative thinking or a combination of experimentation and dumb luck to work out. Hi-jinks are a fun incentive for creative play, but somewhat like playing with a real set of dolls or action figures that are brought to life only by your imagination, here, the fun of experimentation and play is great enough to be its own reward.
If you approach Stacking simply as an adventure to complete, you'll find it to be a very short and easy game. You can plow through the story in just a few short hours, and the built-in hint system can remove even the slightest bit of challenge from the puzzles if you choose. But to look at Stacking this way is to miss most of what the game has to offer. What you get for your $15 (or for free, if you're a PlayStation Plus member) is not just an adventure game with a number of well-designed and satisfying puzzles to solve, though it certainly is that. It's also an enchanting and imaginative world that encourages you to remember what it was like to just play around for the sheer fun of it, without being constantly focused on goals. Like the beautiful dolls who populate it, Stacking is an elegant creation, the pieces fitting together to create something that's much more magical than the sum of its parts.