Russian dolls, or Matryoshka dolls if I’m to address them properly, are fascinating little trinkets. As a child, there was a sense of wonderment upon seeing one for the first time as the wooden figure housed multiple others of its kind, only each figure within got smaller and smaller. They make great ornaments, but who would’ve thought the dolls could be the main attraction of a puzzling adventure? Well, apparently the creative folks at Double Fine Productions, which led to the wonderfully imaginative Stacking coming to fruition back in 2011.
It took a lightbulb moment from the Art Director at Double Fine, Lee Petty, after seeing his daughter playing with a set of Matryoshka dolls, to provide the mechanical backbone during the development of Stacking. Taking on the role of Project Lead, his vision eventually resulted in a charming experience arriving on 9th February, 2011 for Xbox 360 (and a day earlier for PlayStation 3 owners). Given that Double Fine had a decent record under their belts – see Psychonauts and Brütal Legend – expectations were high, but thankfully, they were met.
The overall concept of Stacking sees you solving problems by shifting in and out of various dolls, figuring out which could be useful for each particular puzzle. These puzzles generally entail causing a ruckus for the rich and powerful by ruining their exhibitions, disrupting a luxurious banquet, and even breaking out of a brig. Every objective has multiple solutions to give you a chance of progressing, but they’re all pretty wacky to be honest. Arguably the most fun is found in halting an indoor race because there’s a monkey involved in proceedings, and so one possible way is to throw bananas towards it, while another has you distracting the primate driver using flash photography.
Obviously, what abilities you can perform depends upon who you’re stacked inside – the protagonist, a tiny doll in the form of Charlie Blackmore, isn’t much of a help on his own. Stacking in and out of different Matryoshka dolls to discover what they can do is half the fun really. The usefulness of the abilities range from being able to perform maintenance on machinery and putting out fires with a hose, to throwing up cookies and slapping people with a glove – like folks used to do when challenging someone to a bit of fisticuffs. It’d be a shame not to mention Meriwether Malodor, a true hero able to clear a room with an innate ability to flatulate on demand. If you don’t go around farting on everyone for a good few minutes, then what is even the point of gaming?
Nevertheless, Stacking is undoubtedly an adventure full of crafty conundrums and whimsical humour, but there’s also a slightly dark undertone to the narrative. That’s one thing I had forgotten until recently delving back in again, witnessing the majority of the Blackmore children being forcefully taken out of their family home in order to work for the evil Baron. You’re left to follow the runt of the kids, the aforementioned Charlie, who begins a crusade to free his brothers and sisters from the perils of child labour.
To be fair, the story makes sense for the Victorian style setting in place here and it all comes together to create an intriguing blast from the past. The cutscenes really hammer home that feeling too as they play out very similar to what you’d expect in a silent film. Ultimately, the underdog tale, in tandem with the comical and often slapstick moments, ensure plenty of joy is garnered in Stacking.
Due to being so well received, Double Fine actually produced a very limited set of Matryoshka dolls for purchase and released a DLC expansion titled “The Lost Hobo King”. It has Charlie embarking on a new adventure with his hobo friend Levi to the mysterious kingdom of Camelfoot, which is where the mythical resting place of the lost hobo king and his crown supposedly are. For £3.39, it certainly gives those already enamoured by Stacking a decent extra helping to satisfy their appetites.
Since then though, there’s been no talk of a sequel or spin-off using similar puzzling mechanics. But while Stacking 2 doesn’t seem to be on the cards, the Double Fine team have continued to thrive and develop games that are often unconventional, including The Cave, Broken Age and a follow-up to Costume Quest. In 2019 they were actually acquired by Microsoft as part of the ever-growing Xbox Game Studios, with the highly anticipated Psychonauts 2 set to be the first game to be published under this label.
For a game that released back in 2011, Stacking is still an excellent puzzler and if you haven’t played it yet, it’s not too late as you can still enjoy the wooden doll antics through backward compatibility with both Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. If you do remember Stacking though, share your memories of it via the comments section below as it would be great to know what you think!