developed by Double Fine (San Francisco, CA)
designed and written by Lee Petty
Third of the three new games I bought in the “Humble Double Fine Bundle” on May 7, 2013.
Almost all 3D games have elaborate menus for adjusting the graphics, but I generally ignore them. At restaurants when asked how I want meat done, I tend to say “however the chef recommends,” and that’s how I feel about graphics options. I come to an artwork to see what someone else has to say, so it seems wrong that I should make any of the aesthetic decisions. The only times I’ve tinkered with graphics options have been when my low-end computer can’t handle the defaults, so I have to dial it all down. If need be, I can make do without high resolution, or fancy reflections, or fog, or being able to see far into the distance. That’s the price I pay for not constantly buying new and expensive computers, and it’s a very fair price. I still get to play the games, right?
Maybe that’s not a rhetorical question. I’m expressing a pretty contradictory attitude here. On one hand, I don’t dare touch my pinky finger to the options because I only want to receive official, canonical aesthetic experiences, straight from the chef. On the other hand I take proletarian pride in being so unpicky as to accept whatever degraded version of the game my crummy old hardware can manage. This despite the fact that graphical degradation has an enormous impact on the “feel” of a game, which, as I’ve said many times before, is the game.
I think the hypocrisy arises from my completely polarized attitudes towards “art” and “life,” attitudes that I would probably do better to reconcile. My instinct has always told me that “art,” being constructed and artificial, can be held to ideals, whereas “life,” in all its slippery irrationality, cannot. The fact that sometimes I have to turn down the graphics quality because I have an old computer seems like a necessity of life, to be accepted with grace; whereas the question of whether I might tamper with the default settings merely to suit my personal taste seems like an issue of art, to be determined by high principle.
Not the healthiest way to go through life or art, I think. Having come to believe that everything in the world is subjective, nothing is objective, I probably could stand to change settings whenever it strikes my fancy; or rather, I could probably could stand to allow myself some fancy in the matter. In this as in anything else.
How this relates to Stacking.
I played Stacking through to the end, and felt a kind of subtle visual uneasiness throughout. The game is populated by matryoshka dolls and takes place in diorama-like sets, with detailing that suggests bits of cardboard, playing cards, crayons, etc. etc. In keeping with this dollhouse aesthetic, the graphics are subjected to a gentle shallow-focus blur effect, to give a miniature impression. While playing, I thought this effect was aesthetically cohesive, admirable in principle, but also a bit alienating or disorienting at some level. Somehow I never felt quite as comfortable in the space as I wanted, and I felt certain it was because of the shallow focus.
Then when I was done with the main story, I went online to browse through discussions about the game, and came across the comment that the PC version, which had been converted from a console original, hadn’t had its default field of view (“FOV“) properly updated. What this means, briefly, is that too narrow a wedge of the world is visible on the screen: the effect is somewhat like looking out through a porthole rather than standing in a field with full peripheral vision.
(The reason this needs to differ between consoles and PCs is because console games are generally played on a TV while sitting across the room on a couch, and thus take up significantly less of the player’s visual field than a computer screen does when one is seated only a couple feet away. Looking out at the game world “through” a TV across the room, it seems spatially correct to be able to see only what’s directly in front of you, whereas looking out “through” a computer screen close at hand, one intuitively expects to be able to take in a lot more of the surrounding world.)
So it turned out that my spatially alienated feeling, which I had attributed to the the “miniature effect,” was actually a settings problem. Sure enough, when I went into the graphics options and widened the field of view, suddenly everything about the space felt friendlier, easier to wrap my head around. But now it’s too late! I already had my experience with this game and developed a feeling about it.
The fact that that feeling turns out to have been based on “settings” rather than “the thing itself” is something I’m uncomfortable with. If I complain about that queasy feeling that was such an important part of my game experience, who is my audience? What kind of communication is that, if it’s about a completely unshared phenomenon? Just me checking in with myself.
But that’s what we all do. That’s certainly what I’m doing here, as always. Am I right folks? (You know you are!) Yeah! Thanks!
Stacking is nice.
(In middle school or thereabouts, I was inculcated with the opinion that the word “nice” ought never to be used because it’s too weak to convey anything. This was, I believe, part of general encouragement toward striving for mots justes when writing, rather than settling for reflexive patterns and cliches. “Nice” was given as a universal counterexample, le mot injuste no matter the occasion. But like so much of my education, this received wisdom is something I’d now love to be rid of. My writerly tastes need to be my own, developed through my long personal sojourn in the kingdom of words. I’ll decide what I think of “nice,” thank you very much. And I’ve decided it has an opportunity to make a real contribution, here and now.)
Stacking is nice. It feels like playing with toys, which is surely the intention. The dolls make the proper clacking sound as they toddle around. The low level of investment demanded and the very mild-mannered puzzles — each of which has many possible solutions — keeps alive a sense that one is just goofing around, lying on the floor. The basic gameplay conceit, that the smallest doll can temporarily possess the shells of the larger dolls so as to benefit from their particular traits, comes immediately and intuitively, and the storytelling is silly enough that one doesn’t need to ask any of the questions about how this world works (i.e. why am I the only one who has this ability). It’s just so.
Playing with toys always had the Buzz Lightyear existential threat hanging over it: what if these little guys notice that they’re on a living room rug and over there is a mind-bogglingly enormous wall? Why in fact wouldn’t they notice immediately? To play with toys one had to be comfortable with the uncertainty. This game, despite taking up 6 hours of your attention, remains cheerfully vague about what any of this could possibly be or mean. It’s very simple: you’re that little doll and these are the other dolls you can jump inside. You’re trying to save your family. Done.
Part of what I mean when I say the game is like playing with toys is, specifically, that it offers that hovering existential uncertainty, which for me brings back warm memories of spending many floating childhood hours on the wobbly shore where imagination laps against reality.
When you’re, say, “on a boat” in this game — a real full-fledged 3D game space, with a sky and waves and stairs and rooms and different decks that you spend a while bopping around in — there is, for me, a heady, humming feeling of impossibility. Where does this boat full of dolls possibly come from or go? Where the hell am I really? My gut knows something is very wrong here. But it’s also fine and friendly. That’s a basic and desirable kind of disorientation, the disorientation of dreams.
1. Hyperemphasis on meta-play: collecting, completing, doing everything all five different ways, exhausting each area, and building up a meaningless trophy case. Though I suppose it’s less meta- than it might be, since the main storyline doesn’t carry as much weight and priority as in most adventures. These are simply some other suggested forms of play, with this toy. But still.
2. Less than professional writing. There’s a flippancy to it all that at times feels like actual flippancy rather than artful lightheartedness. For example, there is, rather conspicuously, an awful lot of stinky farting in this game. Far from seeming like pandering to children, it seems like the designers sincerely amusing themselves, at a primitive level that to them feels “mischievous,” which doesn’t match the inherent sophistication of the toybox world as a whole. Similarly, the “old-timey” dialogue is written with too amateurish and superficial a grasp of the idiom.
3. The interstitial scenes all run about four times longer than the player wants.
4. Etc. Perhaps this is all best summed up by noting that this is a game designed and written by an art director. It plays and reads and feels that way. Visual artists have their characteristic strong suits and blind spots, and the product here is more or less in keeping with my stereotype.
It’s nice though. The shining painted wood and the clacking noise are really at the heart of what’s being offered, and they are spot on. The rest hangs off of that.
(Yes, and I also played the DLC. It too was nice. Better than the last level of the real game, in fact.)
Charm can’t be achieved by force; it must simply happen to be so. This game obviously intends to be charming and that does tend to weaken its charm. But perhaps that’s for the best, since actually being a child and playing with one’s toys isn’t at all like being “charmed” by them. How effete and adult the whole concept is. “Playing” means honestly taking part in whatever is there in front of you. There’s no judgment involved, no “appreciation.”
Video games have that going for them: you’re forced to get your hands dirty and actually play with them.
Engaging with the world is far preferable to evaluating it, and in a way they’re mutually exclusive — one has to do deliberate mental work to generate “opinions” about things that one has actually done. It takes a certain bending of the mind. I think I’m attracted to talking about video games because I’m still attracted to trickiness, the particular hardness of the work involved in generating words from such a fundamentally wordless place.
But I know better than that now, and god knows I’m tired from constantly over-bending my mind. So maybe I’ll stop and just play my games in honest wordlessness. It’s been a year of these entries and I don’t feel I’ve particularly carved anything out for myself, by repeatedly taking on this tricky work. I just accrue more pointless collectibles for my pointless trophy case. Whereas actually playing the games has been rewarding in odd inner ways that my entries here can’t remotely capture. So maybe enough.
Maybe. I’ll think about it.