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GamingOnLinux Reviews - Stacking

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Game Information:
Name: Stacking
Released: February 8, 2011
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Rating: 8/10

Hardware Specifications:
Processor: AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE 3.2 Ghz
Video Card: Diamond AMD Radeon HD 4670
Memory: 4 Gigabytes DDR3 PC10666, 1333 MHz
Hard Drive: 500 GB Western Digital Caviar Black

System Specifications:
Distribution: Arch Linux
Kernel: Linux 3.14.1
Graphics Driver: R600 Gallium3D Driver
Desktop Environment: Xfce with composting


After two previous forays into mainstream console gaming that left Double Fine Productions out of cash and almost out of options, following the release of Brütal Legend (2009) Double Fine had to take a double take and chart out a new course for the then mostly auteur focused developer. The final result was that Double Fine would in in the end become less Tim Schafer's company and instead a more collaborative and diverse studio, focused on releasing smaller less ambitious titles for the independent market. The first two games created under this new regimen were Costume Quest (2010) and Stacking, both of which represent an intermediate point for the company, as both of these titles continued to be publisher funded and were still originally released only for consoles. The result was yet more trouble for Double Fine, and while they were eventually able to regain both the publishing and porting rights to the games, the obvious need for future self-financing would eventually lead to Double Fine helping kick off the video game crowdfunding revolution with Broken Age (2014).

With the rights to the games finally secured, Double Fine did what all great independent developers do and started porting their old games to a variety of different platforms, with the Linux release of Stacking first becoming available as part of the Humble Double Fine Bundle (2013). On the surface, Stacking is a very typical puzzle game in the adventure game mould, featuring a variety of scripted challenges that require a combination of various different puzzle objects in order to solve. Where the game does manage to break new ground is in the novel way that these combinations are handled. Players take on the role of a tiny matryoshka doll that has the power to stack into larger dolls, allowing the smaller doll to then use the unique abilities of the larger dolls in order to solve puzzles. Set in a mashed up world that features both Victorian and early twentieth century elements and designs, the dolls live out their lives just like regular humans or animals would do, resulting in an uncanny society that can both attract and repel at the same time.

The protagonist of the game is Charlie Blackmore, the youngest and smallest member of the Blackmore family, whose unemployed chimney sweep father leaves home to work for The Baron, a sinister and evil industrialist with a fondness for child labour. The father subsequently fails to return home from work, leading the family even further into debt and forcing Charlie's brothers and sisters into the malevolent hands of The Baron. Charlie must then go out after his siblings, find out what has happened to his father, and ultimately put a stop to The Baron's nefarious plans. Along the way Charlie meets a hobo named Levi, who offers to help Charlie and takes him to a train station from which he can gain easy access to a variety of different vehicles including trains, ships, and zeppelins. The station acts as a form of hub, granting Charlie access new areas as well as allowing him to return to and further explore past levels.

Due to this open structure, there are of course multiple ways to approach the game, and how one can be said to have won Stacking is more than up for debate. If one chooses to just focus on the main story campaign, and accepts only the first and most immediate solutions to the game's various challenges, the amount of time that the player would likely spend on the game would be surprisingly minimal. Similar to Brütal Legend, the game also takes into account the number of side quests and alternative paths that the player has endeavoured to take, and calculates a total percentage score based on how much of the game world has actually been truly explored. Players who doggedly pursued only the main story objectives might very well find themselves rewarded with a grade score of less than fifty percent, which in any true academic sense would be considered a testing failure. Luckily for us, there are no harsh penalties attached to this, and the game world itself is still left open for further exploration and experimentation even after the successful completion of the main story campaign.

Contributing to this score are the amount of different puzzle solutions you have managed to complete, with each individual challenge usually offering at the very least three unique methods. Also included in the score are the amount of unique dolls you have managed to stack yourself into, the amount of matched doll sets you have manged to reunite, and the amount of specific hijinks you have manged to perpetrate. Each respective area has its own specific variation of these elements to play with, with the total added up from all these various areas making up the final percentage. In addition to this, your hobo friend Levi also imagines himself to be something of an artist, and as such labours to create both painted and sculptural renditions of Charlie's adventures. These can be viewed by returning to your secret hideout in the train station; the paintings and sculptures themselves will not be finished until all of the unique dolls and puzzle challenges in a given area are found, providing a little extra incentive to seek out alternative paths or to look out for even more unique dolls.

As has been mentioned before, every doll in the game possesses a special ability, and it is only through the use of these disparate powers that progress can be made. Most of the dolls that Charlie will encounter will not be unique however, and instead will be only one representative from a much larger template. These dolls are usually provided with at least one generic ability between them, and while these can often prove to be useful, they do not possess the same amount of variance that the truly unique dolls do. Often quite eccentric, the unique dolls are the ones to seek after not just for the credit of finding them but also for their often strange and off the wall abilities. Each unique doll is given a name and persona of its own, all of which is catalogued in a special collection section available in the game menu. These dolls can either come individually or as part of a matched set, with each area typically having one matched set that is related to the main plot and another matched set included merely as a side-goal, as every matched set reunited further contributes to your final score.

For those that run into trouble there is also a detailed in-game hint system that can be accessed through the game menu in order to help solve any particularly difficult puzzles; it offers three hints of increasing directness which are only separated by a slight time delay between them. Also included in the menu is an archive of speech that the player has heard, as well as all of the cutscenes that the player has previously unlocked, in any given area. There is also an objectives screen which displays the player's current objectives as well as a screen which shows all of the possible hijinks that are possible in a given area. In addition to the hints system there is also a navigation trail that can be activated by a key press that highlights the way to the nearest challenge or objective. Certain types of dolls can also be used in order to better see what unique dolls might also be in a given area, information that is needed in order to get a full percentage score.

The final element included in the completion score that I have only briefly touched on before are hijinks, specific rewards given by the game if a certain action is undertaken by the player a certain number of times. As the name implies these actions are mostly of a mischievous nature, and usually involve Charlie taking advantage of the powers of one or more larger dolls in order to perpetrate often playfully cruel acts on any random passersby, although for some hijinks the victims do need to be targeted. In addition to this, some hijinks require the use of certain dolls that can only be accessed after the completion of certain challenges, an additional aspect of the game that further encourages the player to return to past areas and see what new possibilities have been unlocked since they last investigated the area. Stacking certainly gives the player enough to do, despite the fact it actually has a relatively short story campaign.

The game world itself is filled with detailed artwork and well thought out set-pieces, and the variety of dialogue and the amount of handcrafted setups scattered throughout the levels is actually quite astonishing given the limits placed on the game during its production. This attention to detail is repeated throughout almost all areas of the game's production, as the polished graphics are accompanied with plenty of suitable ambient sounds, a generally subdued but still effective music track, and a wide variety of general effects to accompany the wide assortment of actions that are made open to the player. The general character designs of the dolls themselves also do well to demonstrate that a lot of care was put into their appearance as well as their powers and personalities. The same can definitely also be said about the game's various environments, which are both graphically elaborate and very conducive to expansive exploration.
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Speedster 30 April 2014 at 3:49 am UTC
Excellent review, Hamish. Can't really find a single bit to quibble over ;)
Hamish 30 April 2014 at 3:52 am UTC
SpeedsterExcellent review, Hamish. Can't really find a single bit to quibble over ;)

Ah, I'm disappointed.
pb 30 April 2014 at 7:02 am UTC
Thanks for the review! The game has been sitting on my Steam account since the Humble Double Fine Bundle and I couldn't get around to play it thus far. It's time to change it. :-)
anewson 30 April 2014 at 7:11 am UTC
yea great stuff; was a nice read.
Anonymous 30 April 2014 at 9:16 am UTC
For a more succinct idea of what the game is via the wiki entry....

Stacking is an adventure/puzzle video game developed by Double Fine Productions and published by THQ; like Double Fine's previous Costume Quest, it is a smaller title created during the development period of Brütal Legend, and was released in February 2011 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 video game consoles. A Windows version was released on March 6, 2012. A Linux version was released in May 2013.

The game is based on the Russian stacking matryoshka dolls, an idea coined by Double Fine's art director, Lee Petty, who saw the dolls as a means to replace the standard player interface used in graphical adventure games. The player controls the smallest doll, Charlie Blackmore, who has the ability to stack and unstack into larger dolls and use their abilities to solve puzzles to allow Charlie to free his older siblings and put an end to child labor enforced by the antagonist, the Baron. Puzzles within the game have multiple solutions, and include additional puzzles and challenges that allow the player to explore the game's world outside of the main story.

Stacking was well received by critics and praised for its alluring appearance, humorous story, and accessible gameplay for casual players.

Sorry Hamish, just a bit pedantic for my taste. No offense intended.
fedso 30 April 2014 at 11:22 am UTC
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Thank you for another great review! Even without pictures (they would help breaking the length of the text) these are outstanding articles!

p.s. I think there is a typo at the end, "sold Linux release" should be "solid Linux release"
tuxisagamer 30 April 2014 at 12:15 pm UTC
My sons love this game.
Hamish 30 April 2014 at 2:47 pm UTC
AnonymousSorry Hamish, just a bit pedantic for my taste. No offense intended.

Fair enough, but I think people can find the Wikipedia article on their own. ;)

fedsoThank you for another great review! Even without pictures (they would help breaking the length of the text) these are outstanding articles!

Not quite sure what you mean about not having pictures... I spent quite a bit of time getting the ten screenshots for the review.

fedsop.s. I think there is a typo at the end, "sold Linux release" should be "solid Linux release"

There is always going to be one.
Speedster 30 April 2014 at 3:08 pm UTC
fedsoThank you for another great review! Even without pictures (they would help breaking the length of the text) these are outstanding articles!
Not quite sure what you mean about not having pictures... I spent quite a bit of time getting the ten screenshots for the review.

It sounds like the preference would be to intersperse them in the text, maybe the screenshots even got overlooked being grouped up high like a banner...
fedso 30 April 2014 at 3:10 pm UTC
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fedsoThank you for another great review! Even without pictures (they would help breaking the length of the text) these are outstanding articles!
Not quite sure what you mean about not having pictures... I spent quite a bit of time getting the ten screenshots for the review.

I mean pictures between the text instead of at the top of the article so I can read and look at the pictures at the same time... just a wish, not a complaint
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