Since its transformation from a big boxed game developer to a download-centric house with multiple projects going at once, San Francisco-headed independent developer Double Fine has released two games: Costume Quest, late last year, and now Stacking, which puts the player in the persona of a Russian matryoshka nesting doll on an adventure to rescue his siblings.
The game was originally devised in Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight -- a two week game jam in which the developers at the studio broke into teams and worked on small projects, which became the genesis of the studio's new download game focus. It combines the sense of humor of a classic adventure game with new-style gameplay.
In this extensive interview, Lee Petty, the Double Fine art director who lead the Stacking project, and the studio's creative director Tim Schafer discuss the creative process that lead to Stacking.
They also touch upon how download games fit into the current gaming landscape, working with publishers and marketers, and where the title of this article came from.
The whole Russian doll thing is quite… I don't know what the right word is. Like, unprecedented? Unexpected? Sort of surprising, thematically?
Lee Petty: I don't know what you mean by that. The market's flooded with Russian dolls!
Tim Schafer: I actually -- this sounds like a joke -- but I feel that I've seen a lot of Russian doll stuff lately. Like just in terms of [some decorations] I saw the other day, and I was like, "I think they're in the zeitgeist; they're on the tip of society's tongue."
And Lee, who is always on the tips of tongues of things, was quick to see that and realized that that's what people want -- especially in the downloadable space. They said, "Russian dolls. We need Russian dolls... but could you add child labor jokes and spice it up?"
Okay, so the magic mix is Russian dolls and child labor.
TS: Those are like the outside of the Oreo with a filling of fart jokes that hold it all together. And classical music.
LP: Well, we don't want to go entirely mass market, so we put farting in there.
TS: Yeah. And Russian dolls are so simple but versatile. There's only one character model in the whole game, which is great.
From a production standpoint.
TS: Yeah, but there's over 100 dolls. I mean, we haven't had made a game I think that had that many [characters]. I mean, Brütal Legend had that kind of number of characters in it.
And it was just such a great idea, such a clever way of giving a lot, without being bogged down in the production of it -- unless you do things like dolls, that have the stop motion look, where we're not animating all their fingers wrapping around objects and stuff. They're just expressing themselves in this more stylized way, which I think has even more charm than usual. There you go!
It fits with the direction the company's going. You have to think about clever ways to be able to make games quickly, right?
TS: Well, it was a choice. You're either making really big expensive games that take no risks or make less expensive games that are creative and original.
LP: And I think for us, when we talked about making small games, one of the things that we really felt passionate about was trying to make games that -- we didn't want them to feel or look cheap. We still wanted them to feel like a high fidelity and fresh experience.
And it's an exciting space to be in, I think, with downloadable games. And we're seeing the quality in many ways -- or at least the attention people are putting into them -- like raising and raising.
We really wanted to feel like new territory that we could be a part of, and try and offer a little something different, but still had it be kind of a polished, or attractive, or seductive experience on some level. Not purely just a Flash game on the Xbox which -- I love Flash games, but I feel like people expect more on a console.
TS: And we can do more! At the company we know how to do that kind of stuff, so we don't want to lose that.
On the one hand you're saying it's not exactly the most typical theme for a game, but it does fit in, actually. It makes me think about, I don't know, like Etsy or other things that you see online -- if you step away from games for a second and just take a tiny look around. It seems culturally aware.
TS: You mean if you take one step outside of the game industry you see creative stuff? Is that what you're saying?
TS: But it's true! I mean less and less so with all the indie games that are getting made. But it seems to be that there are very few looks that are allowed in games, and trying new stuff is not exactly rewarded all the time. So that's definitely what we want to do.
And I think this game's also is kind of old school, in a way, in that it's an adventure game, you know? It has all the humor and dialogue and the story aspect of an adventure game, but it's not the same old gameplay. It's a different, completely fresh way of interacting with people.
Instead of walking around talking to people, you're actually walking around being different people. And all those people are toys that you can pick up and play with and just see what they do.
What happens if you… I don't want to say, "What happens if you fart on the baby?" That was like my first example I could think of. The way things go these days in games journalism, that will be the headline: "Schafer admits fantasy of flatulence on youth."
You made it even worse when you restated it!
TS: Yeah. [laughs] I tried to class it up a little bit.
No, but you made it worse!
TS: I meant to say "Petty..."
LP: "...commanded by Schafer to flatulate on youth."
LP: He's delegated his arm of flatulation on small things to me -- not just children.
TS: I rest my case.
LP: Dogs, cats...