Games have the thrilling ability to trick our eyes into lying. Superliminal tinkers with perspective, Fez plays with 2D planes, Portal has us rewiring our brains to connect up physical spaces that shouldn’t be connected at all. Maquette is in that same category. Reality is distorted through something that the developers, Grateful Decay, call ‘recursive puzzle design’.
Imagine that, in your hands, is a tiny version of the room you’re in right now. That pocket-sized room is a perfect 1:1 representation. Now, what if that room was the room you’re in? Everything you do to the model and its contents happen to your room, and the things inside of it too. Shake the model, and your room shakes too. Flick the tiny you in the face, and a giant finger would lower into the room and flick you, too. The ‘you’ inside the model would flick an even smaller version of you, and so the human centipede would repeat ad infinitum.
Aside from being a huge technical headache – if we were its coder, we’d have run away at speed – it is genius wrapped in other layers of genius. Just thinking about it gets our design synapses firing: what happens if you tilt the mini-room to one side? What happens if you move something out of the ‘maquette’ and into the bigger world?
Grateful Decay and its creative firebrand Hanford Lemoore have clearly had fun, plotting out the many ways to capitalise on the idea. The opening levels had us using a key to open a door, and then placing the same key in the smaller maquette, so that it becomes big enough to traverse as a bridge in the larger maquette. As the levels progress, you get to explore larger versions of the space at mouse-height, and the final level gets thoroughly mind-bending in a manner that we refuse to reveal.
You have to learn to think in maquettes, and that’s not as easy as it might sound. For some reason, we could initially get our heads around placing items in the larger world so they are smaller in the maquette. But placing items in the smaller world so that they expanded and could be explored in the larger world? That triggered some kind of mental block. We soon learned to think in its language, but – if you’re like us – it might take time.
When Maquette gets these moments right, it positively sings. An early act has you using crystals as keys to open doors, but the crystals have to be held in your hands. When you can only hold one crystal at a time, but puzzles require several in sequence, it becomes a juggling act. Equally, the last act is something very special indeed, as it takes the game’s concept to its furthest extreme. That’s if it doesn’t make you seasick first.
Sadly, these moments don’t happen as often as we would have liked. Maquette stumbles over its own feet on occasion, when it would have paid to get out of the way.
The controls are a problem. Maquette opts for a counter-intuitive scheme where X is to carry an item but not use it, and B is to hold an item out, ready for use. Two buttons for interacting with a single item is already befuddling, and we kept confusing one for the other. But the problems really hit when you’re manipulating an item in a small space. Maquette, particularly in the opening sections, keeps putting you in tight, cosy areas where you need to carefully place a staircase, block or ball, and the controls can’t handle it. The item will get stuck, lock into place, or refuse to come out to play at all. It’s a bit like trying to wrestle a dog in the bath, as the items simply refuse to obey.
A lot of the time guidance in Maquette isn’t a problem. It does a good job of plastering text on the location you need to explore next. But the rest of the time, it is a problem. Maquette makes logical leaps that are hard to justify: you were meant to spot that a ramp had a small indent that a tiny version of yourself could climb. An incidental rock isn’t the decoration that you think it is. You were meant to guess that ringing a bell was your goal. It’s lucky that Maquette has had a couple of years on PC, as walkthroughs are freely available, and you will almost certainly be using them.
Maquette isn’t only a puzzle game, however, as it punctuates the puzzling with some story. As you turn corners and complete solutions, you get to hear about the rise and fall of a romantic relationship. It’s the tale of Michael and Kenzie who have a chance meeting, fall in love, move in together, and eventually experience some faultlines. These are naturalistic little fragments that build up a sense of the relationship like a collage, and they’re neatly written, as well as being superbly performed by Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. The two actors are married in real life, and they bring a natural ease to the mismatched couple.
While this story helps to give a bit of forward momentum to Maquette, it does feel irrelevant. A last act tries to tie the puzzling and story closer together, but it’s too little, far too late. The narrative and puzzle halves of Maquette feel grafted on to each other rather than natural bedfellows, which was a real surprise. We were expecting a revelation that never came, that the Maquette was some kind of manifestation of the relationship, but the only thing that really connects the two is a sad, bittersweet tone.
We loved so much of Maquette. Its many-layered puzzles are sensational. They are so good, in fact, that they carry a game that fails to get the other stuff right. The story sputters, and the controls and guidance buckle under the game’s weight. There is so much thought put into Maquette, but we wish that thought was spread evenly over everything else that it contains.