‘Maquette’ review: exquisite puzzler that doesn’t quite fit together

A romance in a recursive world that is as captivating as it is frustrating

Dioramas in video games are a popular aesthetic, perhaps because it reminds us of our childhood where we disappeared into our own worlds of play sets and figurines, though of course even in adulthood, our fascination with the craft and design of model sets continues.

Maquette takes this further with the concept of recursion, as the model set inside a dome structure in the middle of this first-person game isn’t just a diorama – it’s actually showing the world you’re inside. Peer beyond the edges and you’ll notice an even bigger version of the world, as if you are in fact the one inside the diorama. Think beyond that and your mind might just melt.

The idea is that there is always a bigger or smaller version of the same object in this world. You’re introduced to this when you first walk past a comically giant cube placed nearby in the square where the centrepiece dome resides. It’s only when you approach the dome model you then see a model-sized cube, pick it up then drop it somewhere else, thereby dropping the giant cube in another place at the same time.

That’s not all as you’re also able to make different sizes of objects materialise. For instance you’ll find a key and assume it’s to open a door, but it’s also just the right length for placing over a gap between two other buildings in the model set, forming a makeshift bridge you can then use to cross in your world. Conversely, you might also have to figure out how to find a smaller key to fit in a lock as the one you pick up is too big.

The results are some novel puzzles that occasionally have you thinking literally outside the box. At the same time, Maquette also requires a frustrating amount of back-and-forth between structures, which takes even longer when you move outside of your world into the gigantic version beyond it where footsteps become towering walls.

Maquette
Maquette. Credit: Graceful Decay

While recursion conjures up the idea of infinite possibilities, recursive art however is limited by what the eye can physically see or the quality of the image produced. In the same way, Maquette also quickly gives way to its limitations, as you only ever deal with three different sizes of any object.

More irritating however is that solving its puzzles frequently feels overly restrictive – not helped by the clumsy nature of switching between carrying and placing objects – so that there’s only ever one rigid solution. Yet as new paths or structures form, while a cloudy invisible barrier blocks off access to other areas to steer you on a fairly linear path, it’s still surprising how obtuse some of its puzzles can be, leaving me scratching my head far longer than reasonable, only to be annoyed with the actual solution.

Being stuck in a puzzle for a narrative-focused game risks throttling the pacing, although Maquette’s story is puzzling for other reasons. It tells the relationship between Kenzie and Michael – played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel respectively – whose story unfolds much like an indie romcom, from its opening meet cute in a cafeteria to an impeccable indie hipster soundtrack.

Maquette
Maquette. Credit: Graceful Decay

There’s no denying the quality of the production values, no doubt helped by publisher Annapurna Interactive’s Hollywood connections. The music that punctuates the gameplay is terrific (although take too long on certain puzzles and you’ll be treated to silence), while Howard and Gabel provide some of the most natural performances in a video game – no doubt because they’re married in real life – whether they’re first awkwardly articulating their feelings as more than friends or later when a seemingly mundane question at the end of the day spirals into a full-blown row.

Yet as engrossing as it all is, the storytelling often feels divorced from the game you’re actually playing. That’s not to say the dialogue feels like an afterthought – although the text narration that comes up more frequently to move you along each puzzle beat borders on triteness – but it doesn’t really gel thematically, either too abstract to resonate on one hand or overly heavy-handed with its metaphors on the other.

Indeed, given how the couple’s relationship revolves around a sketchbook, a game that leant on an illustrative aesthetic or mechanic might have made more sense. Certainly Annapurna Interactive’s back catalogue has shown more successful implementation of intriguing art styles, from the slice-of-life graphic novel romance of Florence to the act of erasing a person’s journal in If Found…

Then again, the mismatch of gameplay with narrative may also just be cluing you in on the story’s couple, although the concept of a letter looking back over a relationship should be a big enough hint. Life is messy, not everything always fits, but it doesn’t mean you need to look back on mistakes as regrets. In the same way, for all its flaws, Maquette is still an exquisite experience to appreciate if not completely enjoy.

‘Maquette’ is now available on PS4, PS5 and PC.

Our Verdict

Maquette ticks all the boxes of an Annapurna Interactive joint: an artsy boutique indie title that combines strong storytelling with playful mechanics – yet it never quite comes together with a ‘Eureka’ satisfaction. If going just by the recursive gameplay alone, those infinite possibilities also give way to frustrating repetition and restrictions.

Pros

  • Looks and sounds terrific
  • Mind-bendingly clever use of recursive puzzles
  • Some of the most natural performances in a game from its two lead actors

Cons

  • Puzzles have a lot of frustrating back-and-forth, while feeling both restrictive and obtuse to solve
  • The gameplay mechanics and narrative themes never quite gel together in a satisfying way
  • Carrying and positioning objects doesn’t feel as intuitive as it should
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