Some Stacks Short

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Oh, Stacking. If only I could love you more. You seemed so promising, but yet …

Okay, granted. I only played the demo, available on Xbox Live Arcade. Maybe that was not enough. Maybe I should play further, so I you could reveal more of your depth. But – do you possess it?

The concept of Stacking sounds brilliant at first. You are a little russian doll, a matryoshka. You are very small, just a child, so you can’t do much else. But you can stack into other dolls. And while being in those dolls, you can control them. And, most importantly, use their specific abilities. This is the key point of the game. Every doll has a specific ability. Some drink tea. Some pass gas. Some shout. Some shake their booty. These are the tools you can use to solve puzzles.

The problem is … it feels more like searching for the right key for your front door at 4 in the morning while drunk and without any light. There is exactly one key that will work. And it is somewhere in a flurry of other keys. This is how I felt when playing Stacking. Since you only know a doll’s ability when having stacked into it, you spend most of your time stacking into other dolls, activating its ability and pondering its usefulness. The fact that you cannot just stack into any other doll, but only dolls of a specific size relative to your own does not help matters.

The designers tried to mitigate that fact by allowing several solutions for each riddle. It aspires to be like Scriblenauts, but falls short, because it is just not as free-form – the solutions are all pre-scripted. The basic idea is nice – but they’re harping on that fact so much that it becomes a game mechanic on its own to try to find all the solutions. Meaning: You don’t just look for the key in the dark once, but three or more times.

After playing the demo, this was all I could see resembling a core game mechanic. And if that is all, then the game seems rather meager to me. I am not quite sure how I am supposed to interpret the fact that Double Fine has introduced a lot of other secondary mechanics in the game: you can collect unique dolls or even doll sets, there are achievements, there is a trophy room fashioned after a stage – all very lovely, but somehow only seem to distract from the fact that the actual game is, actually, not that much fun.

Could it be that Stacking has fallen into that trap that just recently has been described on the blog of Frictional Games: That indie games seem to rely heavily on one single game mechanic that is iterated?

Quickly summed up, there is a strong design trend of making games by iterating and extending a fun core gameplay mechanic. This is then incorporated to a game with heavy emphasis on re-playability and/or ease to make levels.

This can work perfectly – World of Goo and Braid are such examples. However, if your idea just is not that fun in the first place, or does not allow for the depth of iteration, a game can fail quite miserably. I am not quite sure if that is what has happened here. It could be the beginning of an explanation, though.

There are other areas where the game is really clever – from a designer’s point of view: There was no need for voice acting, since all the text is presented in the style of a silent-era film. Animations don’t needed to be that complicated, since the dolls only have one joint at most. This all added to a lean development, I am sure – but it cannot make up for the somewhat disappointing game play.

Dear Stacking, maybe I do you wrong by judging you based solely on the demo. But should a demo not show me the potential of a game? Unfortunately, that demo did not. It showed me the limitations of an idea I thought I would like. Maybe there would be more? Anyone?