I don’t think I’ve made any attempts to hide the fact that I find old timey, turn-of-the-century clothing to be utterly hilarious. Give me tophats, give me monocles, and make sure to throw in a bit of that classic I-am-so-serious-its-ridiculous attitude, and you’ll quickly find your way into my ridicule. Recently, Double Fine games decided to jump head first into this world of caviar and hilariously formal attire with Stacking, which is a charming and somewhat unsettling look at the life of a children labor slaves during the Great Depression, portrayed entirely in Russian stacking dolls.
You know what Russian stacking dolls are, right? They usually look like painted statues of people that can split apart in the middle to hide SECRETS. Or, more commonly, another doll. I’d look up exactly where these things came from and how people decided that hiding dolls inside more dolls would be a fantastic thing to make and produce, but my attention span is short so I won’t. As I sit here, though, typing about Russian stacking dolls, I think it’s worth a note that it never occurred to me that these are things that I’d actually want in my home, but I’m trying to fight off the urge to search on Ebay for a set.
Anyway, about this game- the one about Stacking. The world is in the throes of a somewhat large economic downturn, and things are looking grim for the Blackmore family. The Blackmores are an entire stack of dolls in their own right, descended from a long line of prestigious chimney sweeps. Our story begins as the father of the clan announces that he had finally managed to acquire a job working for the Baron, who seems like a totally upstanding chap who is quite literally rolling in high society class and monies. The excited father runs out the door, and then never comes back.
Two years pass, with the remaining Blackmores selling their worldly possessions in order to stave off their debtors. Suddenly, one of the Baron’s men busts in the door and announces that since the family is unable to keep up payments, the Blackmore children will need to work off their debt doing hard labor. The goon absconds with the family, leaving a very distraught mother and Charlie, the smallest doll ever, behind.
These scenes are done in a classic 1910 silent film style, by the way, which adds to the charm. Movement for the dolls is a bit limited. Their faces and features are painted on, after all. The way to tell how a doll is feeling at any given point can be seen in how their middle section splits open and shut again, and in how they move. In some cases, a surprised doll will split in two entirely while hovering a foot in the air, as if shouting “holy shit!” if they happen to catch sight of a young child break dancing in the middle of a train station.
Anyway, a few months pass and then Charlie and his mother get a letter from one of the other wayward Blackmore children. The Baron lied! Gasp! He had essentially enslaved the children and has been using them to fuel his opulent never ending zeppelin and steamship cruises! So off Charlie goes to save the day.
Charlie is the smallest doll you’ll encounter. As such, this gives him the ability to literally jump inside bigger dolls and steal their will if, he manages to sneak up behind them. He can then use the larger dolls to jump inside even bigger dolls, or to use their special abilities to solve problems. While I find the concept of a very tiny child JUMPING INSIDE PEOPLE AND TAKING THEM OVER to be utterly terrifying, in the world of Stacking, dolls seem to regard it as a very impolite thing to do, but not a socially unacceptable thing.
There’s no combat or any real danger, per say. In each section of the game, you’ll be presented with a variety of situations you need to resolve. You might need to disrupt the flow of caviar at a local buffet, shut down a museum exhibit, lure guards away from a door or to stop a monkey from racing against dogs in some kind of Dr. Seussian looking cart.
Each problem has numerous solutions. Need to get someone out of a room? Well, you could always use the maintenance man to take the cover off a nearby air vent and head in to find him yourself. Or, you could place a pudgy, mid life crisis man in front of it and let loose a fart of such epic proportions it clears out the offending room.
But there’s where Stacking hits its biggest snags: Repetition. You’ll be able to find at least one solution for each problem rather quickly, especially once you learn how the game thinks. Each new location adds a bit more variety to the game, but its the same formula the whole way through: use nearby dolls to complete the puzzles. Some of the puzzles will pose a problem for you, since there’s absolutely no way you’d think to use a certain combination or ability in a certain situation, but the game has a convenient hint system for these moments. The game can still be challenging for people who have played video games for years as well as people who have never picked up a controller before.
There are a few other things to do in the game. Charlie’s hobo friend Levi is quite the artist. As you beat levels, solve puzzles and stack with unique dolls, Levi will add more things into your SECRET BASE that’s actually not very secret. Also, a lot of dolls will have abilities that will be of no help to you in puzzles (a child coal worker’s black lung cough ability and the rich socialite’s ~*JAZZ HANDS*~ come to mind). These dolls can usually be used to perform HYJINKS at each location, and can include everything from giving women a manly hug, slapping people with a glove, farting on people (there’s a lot of farting in this game, okay?), flying to high locations with balloons, and much more. Completing HYJINKS will turn something on the doll you completed it with to gold, which makes things look a bit spiffier, but has no other real purpose.
Double Fine’s forte has always been in writing, but it’s a bit more subtle here. The actual cut scenes with Charlie are a bit on the “kids rock” side of things. One of his favorite things to say is “why can’t adults ever solve things for themselves?” which he says so often by the end of the game I was shouting “THAT’S WHAT CHILD LABOR IS FOR CHARLIE” at my television like a maniac. No, where the writing really shines is in listening to other dolls speak out and about in the world. Whether it’s the trio of happy coal shoveling child workers, the five ambassadors making up reasons why child labor should be illegal, with each excuse being more selfish than the last, or even in the wordless reactions of the dolls you encounter in the world, there’s plenty of humor to go around.
But Tophat, you yell at your computer screen because you too are a maniac. Is child labor something that we should be joking about?
… Yes. Yes it is.