Ah, the humble first-person indie puzzler. The genre, if you would call it one, has definitely reached something of a maturity but that isn’t stopping games like Maquette from challenging the way games as a medium use their interactive point-of-difference to tell stories. As developer Graceful Decay’s debut title (with publishing from sophisticated purveyor of fine indie experiences, Annapurna Interactive), it’s a commendable dip into the waters of video game storytelling with a bloody neat central mechanic.
Maquette doesn’t tell an emerging story so much as chronicles a period of time in the lives of a couple, Michael and Kenzie, through the narrative device of a sketchbook. With prose and pencil drawings imposed in the game’s 3D space a chance meeting blossoms into a loving relationship, and then a life settled, before an eventual conclusion. Punctuating sections of gameplay are a series of vignettes, captured moments of time with dialogue between the two played over beautifully-emerging sketches. With convincing performances from Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard as Michael and Kenzie, respectively, these glimpses into the couple’s lives add a welcome tangibility to a story otherwise told through fleeting imagery and the interpretive dance of its first-person puzzles.
Set in an abstracted world inside of the titular maquette (maquette /maˈkɛt/ noun: a sculptor’s small preliminary model or sketch), each chapter collects places and objects of significance to a particular time into a recursive diorama. Recursive meaning that the world exists inside itself, like infinite Russian nesting dolls, scaling up and down either side of where the player stands. This forms the basis of the bulk of its puzzles – should an obstructing object prove too large to move at the player’s scale, they may observe the smaller-scale version of the world at the maquette’s centre and remove the much smaller version of the object there. Likewise, a seemingly single-use object such as a key becomes a makeshift bridge when placed atop a gap in smaller iteration of the world, as it repeats in every scale above at a proportionate size.
Over six main chapters, this core puzzle mechanic builds into some wonderfully noodle-curling conundrums that force the kinds of thinking that would be considered out-of-the-box, if the box wasn’t nested inside an infinite number of other boxes. There are certainly a couple of “How in the hell would I have thought to do that?” solutions but in a game so short and sharp they’re minor blips of frustration, and even then as in all good puzzle games there is a subtle and unconscious precedent to every answer.
The feather in Maquette’s cap is the way in which the scale aspect of its level design informs its storytelling. For instance a section concurrent to good times might place most of its gameplay in the small scale, where the world and all of its possibilities are laid out in front of the player to grasp within their reach. And by contrast a darker moment in Michael and Kenzie’s relationship might see the player slowly inching through the larger-scale world, the streets and structures looming down on them in imposing lines as stairs become insurmountable cliff faces and cracks in the sidewalk open up into yawning chasms.
After four sterling acts, Maquette’s focus shifts temporarily from the rhythm it had built up into something less wondrous and with a little less agency, in a way that’s thematically appropriate but not necessarily conducive to the same cognitive thrills found at its peak. That’s not a knock on the game either, it works in service of its narrative and is followed up by a brilliant return to form at its closing chapter. Still, even with storytelling context it’s lamentable that things should change and end just as the maquette-based puzzles start to come into their own, because they’re a decent bit of fun.
On the PlayStation 5 (where the game will also be free to PlayStation Plus users for the month of March), Maquette scrubs up a treat. It’s a case of art over technical wizardry, as is typically the go with these things, but it’s got some great little details and makes good use of text and sketch overlays within its world as part of the narrative. There were some odd bouts of slowdown in areas, and the physics of placing objects in a handful of puzzles can be frustratingly unwieldy, but it’s overall a fairly slick production. A host of vocal tracks bookmark critical story moments too, with a sampling of Gábor Szabó’s San Franciscan Nights setting up a rousing opening.
Like a burgeoning romance, Maquette’s earliest moments are full of new and exciting experiences that eventually give way to a comfortable rhythm as it matures. There’s less romance in comfort and routine, and it can make the sore points feel that much more sore, but it’s never any less rewarding. More than most can claim about their relationships, Maquette also recognises its natural end and sees value in closure. Though brief, it’s punctuated by memorable moments both good and bad, each its own tiny representation of the larger picture.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Graceful Decay
- Annapurna Interactive
- PS5 / PS4 / PC
- March 2, 2021