Oyun

‘Maquette’ is a sweet story about love and loss, but too often a frustrating video game

'Maquette' is a sweet story about love and loss, but too often a frustrating video game

Maquette is a story about a relationship that didn’t work out, and the process of finding closure in an exploration of the memories left behind. Maquette is also a puzzle game that doesn’t always work so well.

These two layers are in constant contention as you work your way through what Annapurna Interactive, gaming’s premiere arthouse publisher, describes as a “first-person recursive puzzle game.” What that really means is you’re constantly tinkering with scale as you manipulate the world itself, the world-within-the-world, and the world-within-the-world-within-the-world.

The framework for this fantastical concept is a goodbye letter. While hunting for his lost keys one day, Michael (Seth Gabel) comes across an old sketchbook he shared with his former love, Kenzie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Inside, he finds the whole arc of their relationship laid out across pages of sketches the two made together.

(Fun fact: Howard and Gabel are married IRL.)

Maquette is about a relationship that didn’t work out, and the process of finding closure.

Michael’s journey into these forgotten memories forms the backbone of his letter, which paints a picture of the ups and downs he and Kenzie lived through together before their parting. As you solve Maquette’s shifting series of puzzles, blocks of text are scrawled into view that add some narrative texture to each one.

The whole thing is broken into seven chapters of themed puzzles, with each set tied to a specific memory. As you move from The Gardens all the way through to The Exchange, the memories you uncover lay out an arc that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever loved and lost.

The warm and fuzzy feelings of that first encounter, a perfect and incorruptible moment in time when everything seemed to line up. The creeping sense of dread and looming loss as the tiniest cracks start to form. And the inevitable chaos and uncertainty that follows as those minuscule breaks widen into yawning chasms.

It’s all there, even the post-relationship rite of passage of exchanging personal items left behind in one another’s homes. Each completed chapter and puzzle series gives us a peek into Michael and Kenzie’s shared existence, with the two voice actors breathing life into each character as they laugh, love, bicker, and, ultimately, break.

'Maquette' is a sweet story about love and loss, but too often a frustrating video game

Image: graceful decay

It’s a lovely conceit, if a familiar one that’s been explored in countless other formats before. What makes it sizzle here is the lush presentation. Maquette’s artfully designed world is modeled after the sketches in Michael’s memory book. In the same way that each chapter digs into a memory, so too does the art for that chapter echo the drawings Michael and Kenzie made together, and by extension the turning pages of their lives.

Music by a lineup of local San Francisco artists further sets the mood, popping up in emotionally resonant moments as each memory is revealed in full. These musical moments appear at the start of a new chapter and they have the effect of creating space for you to both wander and ponder. There’s a slow pace to Maquette. You’re meant to sit back at times and soak things in.

I haven’t said much yet about the gameplay and that’s because it’s where I struggled the most. Not because the puzzles themselves are particularly challenging — some are, some aren’t, c’est la video game — but rather because I so frequently found myself fighting against the controls. The slow pace of the unfolding story is a creative choice, but the slow movements of your unseen self become increasingly bothersome as later chapters give way to larger spaces and more puzzles that force you to backtrack across vast, empty stretches. 

That also says nothing of the first-person controls, which have a floaty feel that often makes targeting and object manipulation more of a chore than it needs to be. Many of Maquette’s puzzles have you picking things up and moving them around in some fashion. But those objects take up physical space in the world, which means they can get stuck on walls and other obstacles. The game handles these moments by halting your ability to move, or manipulate whatever you’re carrying, completely.

I lost count of the number of times I dropped my controller in frustration.

I lost count of the number of times I dropped my controller in frustration because I’d inadvertently maneuvered some puzzle piece into an impossible location. Even at times when I clearly saw what needed to be done to solve a particular puzzle, the uncooperative controls made crossing the puzzle’s proverbial finish line challenging in a way that probably wasn’t intended and definitely isn’t enjoyable.

It’s a disappointing drawback because the puzzle gameplay itself is so inventive. Almost all of Maquette’s play spaces revolve around an ornate dome. Inside the dome is a miniaturized version of the world outside. Changes you make in one are always reflected in the other. This “recursive” world design forces you to really examine the surrounding world from multiple angles and perspectives. 

Early on, solutions are as easy as finding a toy version of a bridge in the “big” world, bringing it into the dome, and plopping it down between the two platforms where a bridge is clearly meant to sit. The toy bridge is still right there; you can pick it back up and take it outside into the bigger world. But if you drop it in the spot that connects two platforms and then go back outside, you’ll see a full-sized bridge in the larger version of that same location.

As Maquette winds on into tougher puzzles, you’ll often find yourself going back and forth between differently scaled versions of the world. Some objects need to be enlarged, like the bridge. Others need to be carried out of the dome and used in their shrunken down form outside. It’s not a direct correlation between progress and challenge, though. I struggled the most with a midpoint chapter, where the puzzles involved a series of colored force fields. The very next stretch of game was more a test of scale and I breezed through it.

'Maquette' is a sweet story about love and loss, but too often a frustrating video game

Image: graceful decay

That’s just my experience of course, but it gave a game that already moved a bit too slow for me an added sense of unevenness. It’s thrilling to solve these puzzles, with the best of them really challenging you to think across multiple layers of this reality. But your sense of progression is marked more by the story of Michael and Kenzie than is by the challenges placed in front of you. Maybe that’s the whole idea, but it didn’t really work for me.

That said, I’m also not sure I’d change a thing here? So much of Maquette’s emotional impact hinges on the memories you’re piecing together through each set of puzzles, and the shifting sense of scale feels metaphorically in tune with the intent here. If you’re paying close enough attention outside the normal-sized dome, you’ll see that the world around you is in fact a miniaturized version of the same space, sitting inside a much larger dome of its own.

Our most powerful memories are like that, right? Echoes of our past selves just reverberating endlessly. You can live in a past moment by just closing your eyes and reminiscing. But it’s forever an increasingly smaller reflection of the real thing, as life carries you further and further away from what happened.

There I go again, getting lost in the meaning. I think that’s why I’ve struggled to reckon with the frustrations I ran into playing Maquette. So much of what it’s doing is pleasingly artful and thought-provoking, yes, but more than that it’s doing all of those things with a clear purpose. 

I can see why developer Graceful Decay — which, let’s be real, is a perfect moniker for the developer of this game — made many of these choices, and I even like a lot of them. I just wish I felt more of a connection to how the whole thing plays. Too many times I found myself struggling not to understand what was going on or how to solve the next puzzle, but rather just to stay interested in the midst of a rising set of frustrations.

I can’t say I enjoyed my time with Maquette. It’s not a perfect game by any stretch. But I do appreciate what it’s trying to do here and I’m glad I was able to see its story through.

Maquette comes to PC (via Steam) and PlayStation consoles on March 2.

Comments
To Top