At the time, it didn't seem like anything good could come out of Activision's mid-2008 decision to delay and eventually drop the publishing of Brutal Legend -- you remember, the heavy metal action/real-time strategy game that featured the vocal talents of Jack Black.
Turns out we just had to wait a few years. Electronic Arts picked up the rights to Brutal Legend, developed by Double Fine Productions, and published it in 2009. Double Fine creative director Tim Schafer, meanwhile, seized the months of downtime to split his developers into four teams, directing each of them to create the offbeat types of games they'd never be able to do while working on major commercial projects. The first fruit of that exercise was last fall's hilarious Costume Quest. Number two is Stacking, a wonderfully imaginative puzzle-adventure game based on...Russian stacking dolls.
Yes, you read that correctly: Russian stacking dolls.
It's so much more fun (and funny) than it sounds. You play as Charlie, a doll whose siblings have been captured by an evil baron and sold into child labor. To rescue them -- from train stations, ocean liners and zeppelins, oh my -- Charlie must jump inside and control a doll that's exactly one size bigger than whatever he's currently controlling.
Each doll has a special, um, ability that may be key to solving a puzzle and advancing the plot. Abilities run the gamut from purely practical (intimidate or seduce others into doing your bidding) to stupidly scatological (clear out the room with a fart or a rancid belch). Just unleashing abilities on other dolls to see the effects -- startling them with a "YAR!" from the pirate doll, dispensing gavel justice as a judge doll or blinding them with the flash powder from the photographer doll -- is as much fun as solving the puzzles.
Presentation is nine-tenths of the law in Stacking; the game's set up to look like a Victorian-era silent film, right down to the dramatic piano score and the placards that fill the screen after the dolls pantomime the dialogue. The game shoehorns unusual settings into the mix to amp the style points, including a safari/carnival and an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts (hello, mummy doll). The way the dolls -- and the camera -- waddle back and forth as they move around is as amusing as the game's snappy dialogue.
Frustration's often front and center in puzzle games like this, where finding the single, obscure solution can take hours of trial and error (and multiple keyboard smashes to the forehead). Not so in Stacking, where the developers have smartly given players the option of how much effort they want to expend playing sleuth.
There's generally an easy solution sitting right in plain sight -- hey, how about using that hazard suit over there to walk through the poisonous gas, turn off the valve and save the ambassador? -- but each puzzle also has between two to five additional solutions, most of which aren't nearly so obvious. Sticking around an area to solve them is rewarded with bonus unlockables and missions, as well as some extra shine on the interactive murals that Levi, the stacking-doll hobo Charlie meets in the early going, creates after every story chapter.
Even if you're the sort who gave up playing with dolls several decades ago, Stacking's a great reason to revert.