Recursive Puzzler ‘Maquette’ Never Achieves an Emotional Awakening

A handful of evocative moments fail to elevate the game’s straightforwardly sentimental story.
A screenshot of a diorama like miniature landscape
'Maquette' screenshots courtesy of Annapurna

A monumental dome which curves like the sky and a jewel-encrusted key shrunk to a speck on the ground; these are images wrought from the high concept of first-person puzzle game Maquette. At the center of its picture-book world, I can see a microcosm of my surroundings, the maquette from which the game derives its title. Everything that appears in the regular-sized setting is replicated in the model version, but if I place an object from one into the other, it becomes either giant or tiny. This is how I solve the game’s puzzles which play out like a dance of size and space, perspective and reality. Often, Maquette, which is out now on PlayStation consoles and PC, feels like a hall of mirrors turned on its side, reflecting infinitesimally up and down, as far as my brain can imagine. 

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For San Francisco studio Graceful Decay, it’s the product of a notably long development. An early version was showcased at the Game Developers Conference in 2011; despite a drab initial aesthetic, the demo’s recursive puzzles drew outbursts of applause from the audience; even then, it represented around 100 hours of work for designer Hanford Lemoore. Now, ten years on, and presumably many thousands of hours of labor later, the result is the kind of highly polished, emotive, and seemingly artful video game that Maquette’s publisher Annapurna Interactive specializes in. Like What Remains of Edith Finch, personal drama is foregrounded alongside novel interactions, but you’ll find little of that game’s bite in this strait-laced story of a romance gone right and then wrong, voice-acted by real-life Hollywood couple Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard who play Michael and Kenzie. It starts out with a typically millennial meet-cute in a coffee shop; from there—well, you can probably guess the rest. 

Still, this in itself represents a seemingly fresh twist on what is fast-becoming a recursive video game micro-genre. Take 2019’s Manifold Garden or 2017’s underrated Echo, two titles of similar infinite-feeling environments but which emphasize the eerie, computational qualities of such spaces. Maquette steers the visual style towards something more human if not necessarily emotionally resonant, asking us to navigate a labyrinth intended to reflect the mind itself. 

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The game begins in a moonlit garden while Gabor Szabo’s jangly cover of 1967 hit “San Franicsan Nights'' plays in the background. Thoughts from Michael appear in the scenery until I arrive at Maquette’s major setting—a dome positioned in a square flanked by four buildings styled on the city’s recognizable architecture. The first few moments are straightforward enough; a gigantic cube blocks a doorway so I pick up the smaller model version and drop it outside; voila—the obstacle is gone. A few minutes later, I do the same with a bridge, but make it bigger to traverse a gap. Progress is marked by further text—a continuation of Michael’s internal dialogue—and objects such as a fairground ticket which trigger ornate illustrated memories.

However, issues surface as the puzzles ramp up in difficulty. Solutions can feel obtuse and overly specific, like positioning a staircase on its side to reach an inexplicably elevated house. I can’t walk up the steps since, at this point, I’m the size of an ant; instead I traverse a gentle diagonal at the side of it. But this only happens after an infuriating twenty minutes culminating in me consulting the guide provided to reviewers. Overcoming these obstacles, and the sheer time it takes, interrupts the flow of a story which maintains a conspicuous presence in the environment through the sentences scattered throughout. Often, they end with an ellipsis (...), but by the time I’ve figured out what to do and discovered further text, I’ve forgotten what came before. The result is a script, written by playwright Gracie Gardner, which often seems to just float without meaning; what spell the game casts vanishes in these moments.

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While Maquette’s story might initially appear to be a romance, it ends up feeling simpler, tracking the emotional arc of a man who was in a relationship and now isn’t. 

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This focus on interiority reminds me of Charlie Kaufman’s movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York. Anyone who’s seen the latter will remember the cavernous theatre sets built by its protagonist that are so large and intricate as to rival real-life. The scale of Maquette’s environments conjure a similar sense of uneasiness. So too is there an uncanny drift that accompanies shrinking and navigating the comparatively mammoth architecture; this edges towards Eternal Sunshine—the way Joel’s mind unnervingly slips away from itself. But the surreal poignancy that accompanies Kaufman’s work—its exploration of where strange and obsessive neuroses can take a person—is mostly absent. This version of the mind is built around systematic, puzzle-logic foundations rather than dreamy associative adventure. Its rules and processes might be necessary to make its conceit work as a video game, but they’re at odds with the way it attempts to map psychological terrain. Not that the terrain itself is necessarily compelling; what awakening does occur is so slight as to barely qualify at all; time passes and Michael merely becomes OK not being in a couple. 

Thankfully, the game opens up in its later chapters and in the process recovers some of the wonder that defines its opening. As the relationship breaks down, the world naturally becomes stranger and scarier, at one point resembling an abyss of near-cosmic horror. So too do the puzzles feel less arbitrary as they move beyond the confines of the maquette. 

That is, until the game’s climax, which sees both the titular miniature and saccharine mood return. What surprises me most about Maquette is not the recursive puzzles, which are impressive and evocative without ever feeling like they hit full potential. Rather, it’s the game’s curiously throwback sensibility to mid-noughties pop culture; it might visually and thematically recall a Kaufman movie but the finished article is closer to Zach Braff’s Garden State; the indie folk soundtrack conceived as an “imaginary mixtape” only drives this home further. Perhaps the style made more sense when the game’s creative director Lemoore conceived Maquette back in the early 2010s, but the world is a different place now, and the game, despite its clear technical achievements, feels like a time capsule.