10th Feb 2011 | 18:03
Ever felt under-appreciated? So little, so meaningless, that even life's bullies wouldn't waste their time on you? Don't worry. We've all been there. Meet Charlie Blackmore. You'd like him.
Little Charlie is the star of Double Fine's Stacking, available for download on XBLA and PSN this week. He's also a Russian Doll who lives in a world of silent movie hallmarks.
Yep. You're going to have to take some leaps of imagination to get on with Tim Schafer and Lee Petty's latest, but trust us: if this game can't charm you into dabbling with a little make believe, you, sir, have a heart of stone.
The youngest of a family of chimney sweeps, Charlie's existence is thrown into disarray before Stacking has even really begun.
After papa Blackmore mysteriously vanishes, Charlie's family runs into money troubles. Eventually, Charlie's siblings are forced to become indentured servants to the land's heartless Baron, whom dad may just have, kind of, taken some cash from and not reimbursed.
Charlie, being too young to be apprenticed, manages to avoid the tragic fate of his bigger brothers. He's left alone; a tiny, inconsequential speck in a world of shuffling bigwigs. But you can never keep a good chimney sweep down - and he immediately sets out to free and reunite his family.
Although ostensibly a simple tale of bravery, fortitude and family, Stacking also has some darker undertones, touching on bleak topics such as child labour and life in a class-based society. But even when it comes to these flirtations with oppression, Stacking maintains a delicacy and humour that's come to be a trademark of Double Fine's work.
The mechanics of Stacking have a simplicity that smartly reflects that of the Russian nesting dolls the game is based on. Charlie is able to stack and unstack with other dolls by positioning himself behind his targets; the only catch is that the target doll must be one size bigger than he is. Since Charlie takes control of the doll that he inhabits, he can repeat this process and stack into multiple dolls.
Each doll wandering about the world has a core ability. Charlie must inhabit and coerce other dolls for his own purposes, and use these abilities to complete puzzles and advance the story. It all works a charm, and is a clever, console-friendly replacement from more fiddly point'n'click staples of the past.
Fears of a lack of variety can also be dispelled. Each of the main puzzles in Stacking can be approached in multiple ways, allowing the player to wander around the different areas and experiment with different abilities. It very, very rarely gets boring - but a short four-hour playthrough time certainly help.
Where Stacking and its wobbly protagonists really shine, however, is in the personality stakes. Each individual doll looks like it was lovingly hand-painted and then dropped into the game world, and each brims with character.
Although they don't change their facial expressions, the dolls are still endearingly emotive, spinning and bouncing in moments of happiness, awkwardly rubbing against each other when attempting to hug and comically falling over when pushed - all the while making appropriately goofy sounds. It's a game that provides plenty of smiles.
Since the dolls are quite chatty, they're happy to give information on what weakness they might be susceptible to - and provide clues as to what types of dolls you should keep an eye out for.
For instance, gaining entry into a members only club can be achieved by taking control of an engineer and sneaking in through a vent, or by locating a nearby mother looking for a lost child and getting her to scream for help to lure the guard away. There is never a single route through each puzzle, and we found ourselves going back over challenges to wring out as much funny as we could by attempting different paths.
Though much of Stacking's charm lies in its simplicity, on occasion it can can feel like the puzzle designers held back a little. It would have been nice to see a few more elaborate puzzles - especially since the game has a pretty lenient tutorial system included.
While Stacking does allow for some degree of experimentation in the main puzzles, players get to express themselves a little more in the side-quests and hi-jinks challenges.
Each of the four areas Charlie visits on his quest offer multiple scattered characters in need, many of which aren't part of the core plot. These often require the player to venture into all corners of the environment, searching for the best suited doll. Together with hi-jinks challenges, which task the player with seeking out a particular ability (yes, these include farting), Stacking can quickly become a completionist's dream - or an obsessive's nightmare.
The railway station, zeppelin, cruiseship and multi-storey train Charlie visits all have a specific theme to them, but the thrill is often in the detail. They're all furnished with heart-warming props and decorations, such as tables made from spoons, kids' play blocks and cardboard cut outs of animals. Each place gets its own distinct, if consistently whimsical feel. The diminutive Charlie is often dwarfed by these objects, giving the game a 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids' strain of charm.
Stacking's silent movie presentation is furnished with characters acting out scenes that are punctuated with humorous text-based dialogue. This is complimented by a classic jaunty piano track that becomes suitably melodramatic, frantic and playful depending on each scene.
The overall aesthetic perfectly encapsulates the 1920s comedy film vibe, and helps set Stacking's handsome art style even further away from anything seen in games before. If Double Fine's wish was to create a unique, captivating world, they've achieved it with aplomb.
In all likelihood, you'll be too busy grinning from ear to ear to become overly frustrated by Stacking's Achilles heel - its all-too-regularly undemanding, straightforward challenges. The fact it doesn't outstay its welcome helps, of course - but perhaps the inclusion of one more area would have been welcomed.
By no means the perfect game for MENSA brain-teaser addicts or uber-patient RPG grinders, then; but Stacking never pretended to be. Double Fine has formed an elementary but elegant puzzle mechanic, beautifully wrapped in an original, beguiling presentation style. We fully recommend you climb inside.