Not getting much fanfare before release, Maquette is an intriguing take on the puzzle genre from Graceful Decay and Annapurna Interactive. Shifting the expectations of size, scale and shape in a recursive world, it’s aiming to tell a grounded Human tale using a perspective challenging mechanic. This gameplay idea has been experimented with before in the likes of Superliminal and, more noticeably, A Fisherman’s Tale, but Maquette is looking at taking it a stage further. Pulling in some Hollywood talent doesn’t hurt its chances of leaving an impression, though there’s a question on whether it can balance a melancholy tale against an imaginative take on reality. Will it be a model game for a physics puzzler, or end up only a sketched outline of what it could have been?
Maquette is interesting in that it has two distinct personalities – an audio layer that tells the story of a couple that meet and start a relationship, and a visual layer dominated by the titular maquette which contains the world it’s set in. This setup mirrors the tale being told in that there are synergies between the two where the visuals bring the audio into focus, but don’t share enough in common to remain connected. As the player you’re left exploring a strange setup with locked doors and impassable walkways that need some imagination and patience to figure out how to access and slowly reveal what’s happened in the real lives of our protagonists. In a really nice touch, there is no gender bias presented, and you’re able to interpret the actions you’re taking as belonging to either side of the relationship. It might seem like a strange point to highlight, it just struck me as a way to engage more with the audience and make this more personal for than simply wandering around differing landscapes on someone else’s nostalgia trip.
The crux of the game is first person exploration in relatively linear environments with a touch of puzzle solving. I need to stress that because it was one of the biggest surprises I had going into Maquette – there’s less of the puzzle element than you expect, especially with the layout of the areas. Each level (for want of a better term) is dominated by a hall like building in the centre with four offshoots containing buildings that are not immediately accessible. Enter the central hall and you’ll find a recreation of the layout in model form in the centre that you’re able to interact with. Change something in the model and it’s reflected in the outside world. Get the angle right when moving things around and you can see the actions taking place around you… and realise that those actions are taking place in a larger world above where you are in the maquette. It’s brain melting stuff if you try to apply logic. This serves a few purposes and derives the puzzle gameplay – you can use it to “grow and shrink” objects by plucking them out of the miniture, or placing them in; you can manipulate pathways; and you can exit the model into the larger world, effectively making yourself smaller. Combining all these elements let’s you solve the various challenges placed in your path, and though they’re not overly frequent, they need some thinking about.
Solve each building’s puzzle and some more of the story of what happened between Kenzie (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and Michael (Seth Gabel) will be revealed. It’s this that promotes the progress and pushing forward to uncover what their relationship was like. From meeting and sharing a love of drawing, though moving in together, and eventually to going their separate ways, the themes and emotions are reflected in the environments in a mostly abstract way, though with a couple of straight recreations that emphasise the highs and lows of them as a couple. It’s quite well paced in this respect and the voice acting is obviously superb with well written dialogue bringing the performances to life. Equally, there’s a vibrancy to the colour palette and visual design that makes it clear you’re operating in a hyper-real space if the geometry and maquette manipulation hadn’t done that already. It’s largely hitch free (at least on the PS5 version) and lets you get on with trying to break the laws of physics without performance penalties.
It does have a few issues though, and it brings the cardinal sin of FPS platforming in to play at a couple of points. This can be problematic in the best of games, in Maquette it’s pretty atrocious. Jumping and movement isn’t bad, it’s just that there are puzzles that need this to be completed, and when there’s been no prior experience or even an expectation that it’ll be needed, it grates. The jump is weak for a start, so even just trying it in normal play you’ll given the impression it’s not really useful for much more than climbing oversized steps, let alone leaping gaps carrying objects. I think it’s this lack of sign posting in the game design that is the main problem you’ll encounter. In most cases the puzzles aren’t horrendous to figure out, in fact you’ll probably clock most of them in a few seconds, it’s the mechanics needed to support the solution that will be the head scratcher. Traversal is one, the other is picking up objects through screens and fences… you’re just not told you can do that, and sometimes even the cursor that’s used to highlight interactions doesn’t pick it up, so it’s very easy to miss. It’s about a 4 hour game in total, though clearer mechanics guidance would have reduced that somewhat. At least it does throw in some really nice variations on the size and scale template in the later stages of the game, though some obtuse misdirection as well so be on the look out for that.
It’s well put together, very nicely written and acted, and has an interesting premise… so does Maquette feel satisfying? That’s going to be subjective. For me there’s no real story payoff, and that’s not the fault of the game, more my expectations of what happens with things like this across all media. There’s a part of my mind that was working out a perceived twist due to ingrained story telling in everything else, yet there is no unexpected revelation or twist. It’s simply an exploration of the start, middle and end of a relationship, something that the vast majority of us go through at least once in our lives. It’s worth playing to see this uniquely ordinary story and experience some clever perception mechanics, just know it won’t last forever.
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