The stuff you missed

It happens all the time. Something new and cool is released, but you have no idea. Or you simply ignore the whooshing sound it makes as it passes by just slightly outside your area of interest. By definition it’s impossible to know how many cool things you miss out on, but for me there’s probably a great deal.

And sometimes that’s just great, because you can find or rediscover it on a rainy weekend day and realize that it’s pretty damn good. Having lost that new-car smell, any exaggerated expectations have left your body like that tiresome cold you no longer remember.

Last weekend was a weekend like that, rediscovering both a game and a movie. I bought Stacking from Double Fine (oh, and don’t forget to donate to their Kickstarter page), and my girlfriend brought the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Strangely enough they share a theme I didn’t realize until just now as I write this post. They’re both about dolls.

I’m a handful of hours into Stacking, and it’s been a nice experience so far. The art direction is full of charm and is perfectly married to the gameplay. It’s a puzzle game, where each puzzle is solved by the unique abilities of the matryoshka dolls you control. Yes, you play as traditional Russian wooden dolls, and just like a real matryoshka you can stack the smaller dolls in the bigger ones. You often walk around with 5-6 dolls, each encapsulated by the next.

The challenge is finding what doll can solve the problem at hand, and occasionally it requires you to be the right size. Sometimes you must be tiny, controlling only the original little doll on his quest to save his family, and sometimes you need to be huge, pushing around someone enormous like the female opera singer. And yes, the fat lady sings, and when she does her high pitched voice shatters all nearby glass. The different abilities of the dolls (and each only has one) are not always there for gameplay purposes. Quite often they’re just funny, quirky or part of revealing the doll’s character.

The biggest criticism I can give Stacking is that the presentation of the puzzles quickly becomes formulaic. The game would have gained a lot from greater variation in how the player progresses between areas and challenges.

Next to my desk I have a Star Wars matryoshka doll, bought in Moscow during my time at Funcom. Funcom’s geek culture had a certain love for stuff like that.

Lars and the Real Girl was a movie I had barely heard the name of. I had fairly low expectations as we hit play, but I was pleasantly surprised as a sweet drama unfolded. Despite a bizarre premise it never felt forced. Lars, a lonely man with a social phobia so intense he doesn’t function around women, completely loses the plot and gets a Real Doll as his girlfriend. His issues run so deep that he manages to convince himself it’s a real woman, and builds his life around their relationship. Solid writing and good acting (Ryan Gosling as Lars) makes it believable.

Lars deep commitment and very real love to the doll suggests that perhaps love is not something that happens between two people – perhaps love is always one-way streets that sometimes happen to lead to the same place. Maybe we’re just projecting love unto others, hoping that they will project back in return. Maybe every man is an island, but an island with a lighthouse. I’m sure that’s not the message the director intended, but it’s not an idea I find distressing despite its bleakness.

Oh well. Not bad for a dull weekend.

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