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Stacking: Tim Schafer's best yet?

Hands-on: We hop into Double Fine's Russian Doll adventure...

Back when Gina G ruled the airwaves and Pop Tarts were inexplicably accepted as wholesome breakfast fare, I was invited to hear some of the UK's brightest literary talent speak in Big London.

I say "invited". In truth, it was a school trip enforced upon me by a Beatnik English teacher - about as Beatnik as you got in Suffolk, 1995, anyway, what with wearing a few beads and smelling faintly of lavender - and I was far too preoccupied with Tiffany Amber Thiessen and giant fizzy cola bottles to pay it much mind.

Yet one brief moment, even a full decade-and-a-half later, still stands out.

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A strident, (self-proclaimed) feminist scholar confidently stomped onto the stage and clutched the mic. She was due to discuss the idea that much of the English language had been created by men to deliberately reinforce a sociological structure in which they could unjustly thrive. Jurassic Park, this was not.

She took a deep breath. "Penetration."

Never before or since have I witnessed such a bold opening gambit. It whipped through the room, physically knocking necks half an inch backwards and stabbing furtive conversations about who-fancied-who stone dead.

The girls gasped. The boys sniggered. The Beatnik looked flustered. Everyone was unsure if this was okay.

The clamorous host continued: "It's definitely a word that only a man could have invented to describe a sexual act. If a woman had named it, it would surely be called something softer, more descriptive - like 'envelopment'."

Alas, I was but a recently pubic pup, and perhaps didn't give the shock-value quandary the consideration it deserved. Besides, a buzz-cutted ally, clad almost exclusively in Hi-Tec, quickly shattered the tension by shouting out "nobbing". I still consider him very much a hero.

I hadn't consciously thought about this entire incident again until last week, when I was first confronted with Tim Schafer's latest creation, Stacking; a game which pits you as tiny Russian / Matryoshka Doll Charlie Blackmore, and gives you the ability to hop inside a huge array of characters.

Does a Russian Doll, I considered, actually "stack" at all? Surely it "nests"? Or, indeed... "envelops"?

A peculiar line of thought, yes. But in all honesty, I expect a Double Fine game to inspire nothing less. That's what they're supposed to do.

Following my playthrough of Stacking, Tim Schafer and co-creator Lee Petty would explain that Double Fine never wants to make software that is even occasionally predictable, or at least which inspires predictable responses.

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They admitted that they are almost mechanically obsessed with the notion of "the humour of surprise" - something which Stacking wears proudly on its teak sleeve.

From its pleasingly consonantal title to its diorama-Python tableau; its dome-faced heroes and heroines to its ragtime-piano-meets-instrumental-baroque score, Stacking is stuffed with unorthodox aesthetic and gameplay touches. But unlike some of Schafer's more easily criticisable material, none of it seems at all out-of-place in the world Double Fine has constructed.

My hands-on begins with an introduction to little Charlie, a teeny chimney sweep struggling to make his mark on a Dickensian world that consistently ignores him. His family are finding it tough to scrape together whichever currency best befits Russian Dolls, before good news arrives: dad has found employment with a wealthy baron, promising to eradicate his clan's battle with poverty.

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