Stacking preview: Matryoshka mix-and-match

At first glance, Stacking may seem like something you've never played before. Its core concept of possessing Russian nesting dolls (matryoshka) is something we've never seen in a game but make no mistake: this game is unequivocally a Double Fine joint. The characters are all fun (and quite funny) and, during a recent demonstration of the game at the Double Fine offices with studio head Tim Schafer and Stacking project lead, Lee Perry, I discovered that at its heart Stacking most resembles an adventure game.

Stacking tells the story of little Charlie Blackmore, a young chimney sweep and member of an unlucky family during the latter years of the Victorian era. Mr. Blackmore, Charlie's pop, ends up getting a job as a chimney sweep for a wealthy baron one day and that's the last the family sees of him. Soon after, the baron's men come and collect the rest of the family, save for tiny Charlie. Throughout the course of the game, Blackmore must aid his family members by tackling a variety of challenges, some more jovial than others. The game's story is told entirely in silent film-style vignettes which are, like a lot of the game, just so darn charming.

And that's the single word I keep coming back to when I think about Stacking: charming. The world itself has that Double Fine stamp on it -- the NPCs offer humorous banter and some of the challenges themselves are a bit ... weird. Following the convention "adventure game" formula, you need to do this one thing and you've got to figure out how to do it. Unlike a lot of adventure games, however, there isn't just one way to solve any puzzle or challenge.
%Gallery-111931% Charlie, being so small, can jump into any doll that's one size larger than him (and then one size larger than that host, and so on) which performs the titular core mechanic of stacking. You can only hop into dolls that are facing away from you -- eligible "hosts" will be highlighted in blue when aiming the camera at them and that's pretty much it. Once inside another doll, an on-screen prompt will you what their special ability is -- these range from the more mundane, such as a baby who can cry at will, to more bizarre abilities, like a bear suit with a terrifying growl ability, or the unsettling child coal miners, whose black lung ability allows them to cough up black smoke and bits of coal. You can hop in and out of dolls at will, but outside of that mechanic the game feels very much like an adventure game.

In most adventure games, puzzles can only be solved in one way -- a "winning formula" that's the right combination of items to progress past that one obstacle. It can become a frustrating exercise in trial and error and though the same can be said here in Stacking, puzzles and challenges thankfully have more than one solution. There's no one character ability that will get you through every situation. In fact, there's no one anything that will get you through any situation.

The trophy room is a living catalog of the player's progress, which is pretty standard fare nowadays, but for some reason having a dapper hobo as a quasi-butler (and engaging him in conversation) was a lot more whimsical than I thought it'd be.

In the game's first area, a giant train station, Charlie is tasked with breaking up a coal miner union strike down on the platform. Charlie can't get past the strikers and needs to reach his brother, who's being forced to shovel coal. It's here that I was given my first significant look at how a challenge could be solved.

So, in order to disperse the strikers, Charlie needs to figure out how. First, Tim tried a pretty straightforward approach: stack into a boisterous gentleman with a "Move it!" ability (basically, he shouts and people move). The strikers have too much resolve to respond, so Tim shows me the challenge hint system. Throughout each challenge, players will be able to reveal three clues to help them solve it.

At this point, Lee starts to talk about how to really solve the challenge: clearing out a nearby private club of the train engineers, who we can then stack into and go back to the platform to negotiate with the strikers -- but the club is guarded by a rather dutiful, uh, guard. Trying a variety of different doll abilities, the guard will not budge. That's when Tim hops into the Widow Chastity doll, whose special ability allows her to seduce. The guard's resolve isn't that strong and he succumbs to her womanly wiles. Then Tim stacks inside of him and enters the club and gets everyone out of there. But that's just one way to solve the puzzle.

Lee talks about a second way (this particular challenge has three different solutions) and has Tim stack into a flatulent doll who's been cropdusting the entire train station with his vile green fumes. This solution circumnavigated the guard entirely -- walking up to a nearby exhaust fan, Tim "lets loose" and watches the putrid stench fill the private club, which then causes all in attendance to flee in horror. After everybody comes out of the club, it's as simple as finding the right doll (the train conductor doll, who has a "Full Steam Ahead" ability that lets him run through and disperse crowds), stacking into it and going back to the strikers. As it turns out, they just wanted some nutmeg with their breakfast.

The variety to the challenges is paramount to the game's success. If you're the type of player who just wants to experience the story, you can plow through the game and call it a day. If you want to find all of the challenge solutions and get the rewards that come with that (which range from the cosmetic to more substantial extras which Tim and Lee couldn't go into depth about), there's room for you to do that. If you just want to walk around and fart on people (as fun as it sounds), then knock yourself out. And there isn't that one specific combination to each challenge so common in classic adventure games which cuts out the frustration of having to divine that one magical recipe for success.

Charlie isn't alone through all of this, as a chance meeting with a rather dapper hobo early on yields a game-long friendship. Levi is his name and he tends to Charlie's trophy room, a place where players can look at all of the challenges they've completed and the unique dolls they've stacked into. It's a living catalog of the player's progress, which is pretty standard fare nowadays, but for some reason having a dapper hobo as a quasi-butler (and engaging him in conversation) was a lot more whimsical than I thought it'd be. Levi's nowhere near as depressed as the real dapper hobos I've known over the years.

Tim and Lee went on to show me a second area, a massive steamship. With a new space comes new dolls -- my favorite was the gentleman walking around with a white glove. Upon stacking into him, he has an ability to slap NPCs with his glove, which (again) is as fun as it sounds. Obviously, nobody agrees to your challenge to duel (who knew these hollow dolls didn't have backbones?) but some of the reactions are really fun.

On this ship is another pivotal challenge area, a safari. It's run by a big game hunter and monitored by a safety inspector -- if there's any chaos or danger, the safety worker will shut the whole thing down. Charlie's looking to stir up a mutiny on the ship, so he obviously wants to shut this down. Bored travelers are unhappy travelers, after all. I won't go into too much detail on how to solve this particular challenge (it has four different solutions; I've seen two), but suffice to say the methods of success are as varied as in the previous encounter with the guard, the club and the strikers.

Stacking is a game unlike any other -- its use of Russian nesting dolls and silent film vignettes, along with Double Fine's ability to create memorable, fun characters, come together to create something truly original. Some may be bothered by the lack of action in the game (there is no combat or giant robot mech boss battles), but its charming story, bevy of fun characters and its core "host" mechanic is more than enough to attract gamers. And the fact that all of those work so well together is what will keep them coming back.

Stacking is slated to launch on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in early 2011.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.