Double Fine's new downloadable puzzle game Stacking is drenched in style. Think about that word: "drenched." As if a game revolving around the secret lives of Russian matryoshka dolls weren't stylized enough, project lead Lee Petty has also elected to dress the whole thing up in retro Industrial Revolution chic. The doll thing and the retro thing are both so pronounced that either one could stand on its own; when taken together they constitute a stylistic soaking. And at first glance, it's a welcome one—the silent-film aesthetic, along with Peter McConnell's spritely, Shostakovich-tinged piano score, conjures an energy that is at once familiar and pleasant. The animation team's extraordinarily inventive work lends the characters a surprising degree of humanity despite their deliberately simplistic design. It's all just so charming.
But upon closer examination, things begin to get muddled. It is often unclear
whether we are viewing a world populated entirely by dolls, or if we are being
allowed a Toy Story-esque peek at what our playthings get up to when we're not
looking. Is there symbolic value to the chosen setting and time period? Does the
size of a doll reflect its age, its financial status, or its social caché? Much of the
narrative revolves around the sort of brutal classicism and social injustice seen
during and immediately after the Industrial Revolution. Forced child labor, union
busting, the haves crushing the have-nots; and yet things rarely get past "It's fun to
stack matryoshka dolls and child labor is so wrong it's funny." Is there a forest
beyond these trees?
Further complicating matters is the fact that Stacking's puzzles are solved
by actually becoming other people. This ingenious mechanic could have
opened the door for an exploration, however understated, of the nature of
identity and social standing in modern society. Yet the identity swaps are
fleeting and casual, and puzzles' solutions are so simplistic that they barely
register at all.
After an hour or so, stylistic inconsistencies begin to pile on top of one
another. The initially charming vibe became a distraction, and by the
time I reached the end of the second level—set aboard a doll-infested
cruise ship—I had to concede that playing Stacking was an
unpleasant sensorial experience. Its visual hodgepodge had become
exhausting, its constant cut scenes were an irritation, and its loping
old-timey camera was strange and disorienting. I found myself
avoiding the game.
In a subsequent level set aboard an airship I realized
that my eyes were aching and I had begun to feel
dizzy and nauseous. What was going on here? Was it
something I ate? Was I hung over?
It was neither. In fact, Stacking was making
So I stopped playing.