Maquette: a game (and a review) about exploring relationships
In Maquette, the debut game from San Francisco-based studio Graceful Decay and, perhaps more importantly, the latest release on a stellar run by indie publisher extraordinaire Annapurna Interactive, you solve weird and creative recursion puzzles while discovering the story of a coffee-shop-born “perfect relationship” between protagonist Michael and his girlfriend Kenzie.
Although perfectly cute and romantic at the start, it’s clear by the narration that the relationship has ended. All that’s left for the player to discover is how it ended, why, and how’s everyone hanging after the break-up. This is the main narrative driver here.
And, if you’ll forgive me for the spoiler just as I forgive the game for having such a straightforward ending, it just so happens that this relationship ended for the same reason most relationships end: regardless of the fairytale start in which everything seemed like it would be perfect forever, Kenzie and Michael both ended up simply becoming disappointed in each other.
I, too, became disappointed in the game. And so, just as the couple explores their relationship, I’m taken to explore some relationships here as well.
The relationship between a thing and itself
The “game” part of this game revolves around a fantastic concept: recursion. In the center of every “level”, you can find an ornate dome. Inside this dome, there’s a smaller and exact replica of the same world you see outside. But’s it’s not a copy, it’s a recursion.
The very first obstacle in the game (and the star of the gameplay reveal video) is a large cube that’s blocking your entry to one part of the playing area. It’s so large that you can’t directly move it. But! If you go inside the dome, you’ll find the cube there as well, a smaller cube in a smaller world, small enough that you can pick it up and drop it anywhere else. As you do that, you hear a loud bang. Moving the smaller cube in the maquette also moved the larger cube in the larger world.
Of course, you’ll soon find out that this larger world is also under a dome itself, with an even larger replica of the world outside. Everything that happens in one level of this recursion, happens in every level. Every house, every tree, every object, and every thing (including yourself) is simultaneously minuscule and mountainous, depending only on where it is and where you are in relation to it.
This concept is so cool, in fact, that the game itself seems like it’s always playing catch-up with it, frantically trying figure out how to use it in ways that are interesting both mechanically and allegorically. Not always with great results.
The relationship between technical complexity and jankiness
The word that kept popping into my head while I was playing was “janky”.
The way you move as Michael is janky, the way you jump is janky, the way you grab, hold, and manipulate objects in the world is janky. The way the objects fall into place (or often don’t) can frequently be described, if I may be so bold, as JANKY-ASS, even.
The puzzle design is much short of excellent. Some of the puzzles are trivial, many are creative, a few are challenging, but none offer the genuine thrill, always sought out by the puzzle game aficionado, of the “a-ha!” moment.
One particular puzzle towards the end of the game was one of the jankiest things I ever played, and I posit here that the game deserved to be delayed for at full month while the team polished it, both in execution and in design. It should have been a high point — and maybe it even is in a parallel recursive reality, but not in this one.
The relationship between the relationship in the game and my own relationships
I’m not sure how to address this point and how personal I should be here, but… Michael and Kenzie’s story is just bland. It’s not only nothing I haven’t heard before — it’s nothing I haven’t lived before. And I assure you my romantic life is nothing extraordinary.
In a game that focuses on retelling a romance even more so than it does in being a video game, the romance doesn’t stray one inch from the beaten path. Boy meets girl, they fall desperately in love, they are young and think everything is perfect, but then everything is not perfect. They fight, they break up, they return each other’s things in boxes. The end.
Throughout the narrative, what I wanted most to know was the reason for the break-up. And, honestly, it was a pretty weak and boring reason. They had a completely normal fight, more like a discussion really, no one was overtly shitty or petty with each other. And bam, guy’s out the door, throws the front porch key away, immediately dives into a depression, takes on gardening, is cured of depression. Like, what?!
I can’t help but feel like this story was meant to be bigger and have more nuance, but the team couldn’t develop enough corresponding allegoric puzzles and so the story was told only in the broadest of strokes.
You know how many times sex is even hinted at? Not even close to one. It’s like it’s not even a thing in this universe. I’m not sure you can tell a really compelling and complex relationship story without even touching at sex, attraction, chemistry, and the complicity that comes with these things… I mean, I know it’s possible, I just don’t believe this particular story was successful at it. This might just be me, but I feel like sex and sex-adjacent aspects are generally what makes a relationship messy and intricate and almost always interesting. It’s the spice, and Maquette tried to cook with salt only.
Of course I’m not asking for pornography here. Even having a quote-unquote sex scene would have certainly been too much. But the game’s already rated 10+, and I can’t help but feel it was a missed opportunity to not go for a slightly higher 14+, or even a Mature 17+, and have a game that could be much more grounded as a result. Hell, it’s not like kids aged 10–17 are super interested in a game like this anyway.
The relationship between music and heightened emotion
One thing the game does 100% right in my book is the use of music. A relationship, as far as I’m concerned, is nothing without a shared sense of connection with particular songs, and memories of moments being tied to these songs, and Maquette transports this feeling to the game perfectly.
As you solve puzzles to progress, you get to hear more about how Michael and Kenzie’s relationship evolved, and at some points the game will full-on play an entire song for you, either to highlight a moment or to linger on a specific metaphor or narrative beat. Every time one of these songs would play, my emotional attachment to the story would hit the moon. It was ridiculously effective.
Since the couple met in a coffee shop in San Francisco, the soundtrack is appropriately starbucks-y, with every song in the game being licensed from local independent musicians.
It’s completely and exactly the kind of music I personally tend to imagine myself falling in love to (and with), so you can imagine how much this particular aspect of the game was a hit with me.
I don’t assume this was intended by the developers, but I’d say having been introduced to these songs was probably the best thing I got out of the whole experience, much more so than the puzzle-solving or the story-telling.
The relationship between admiration and coming to terms with imperfection
A couple of things I alluded before are actually in the core of my relationship with Maquette: the fact that it’s a puzzle game that looks a heck of a lot like my favorite puzzle game ever, and the fact that it’s published by Annapurna Interactive.
I won’t mince words: Annapurna is awesome. I haven’t played every game they published, but every game from them that I played was incredible.
They also published Outer Wilds, which skyrocketed directly to my Top 3 Best Games of All Time personal list when I played it in 2020. And Florence, a much simpler game with a much better and more nuanced love story, and gameplay equally as inventive as Maquette.
What should I expect, then, from a game that looks like my absolute favorite game of all time, presents itself as being the same genre as my favorite game of all time, and is being published by a company that has so far only touched a game if it was going to be absolute gold?
I came in with expectations as high as those that Michael and Kenzie had for each other. I thought Maquette would be perfect forever and I would grow old with it!
But it has disappointed me. It didn’t meet my expectations of being a great and inventive puzzle (expectations that, I would argue, were reinforced by every trailer), because it’s more concerned with being a love story and using puzzles only sparsely for allegoric dressing. As a playable love story, it has also disappointed me in how bland and by the book it is.
And so, now I need to break up with Maquette. I’m sorry, I don’t love you. I thought I would, but I never did.
Thanks for introducing me to those songs, though!