Review: Maquette - Unraveling Into Place
Join Jon for his review of the wonderful puzzle game Maquette!
Developer: Graceful Decay
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Genre: Narrative Puzzle Game
Brass tacks: Maquette is an innovative, narrative-driven puzzle game that revolves around the core mechanic of shrinking or enlarging objects to solve various environmental puzzles. What it lacks in immediate replay value, it makes up for with a heartfelt, dramatic, and depending on your own relationship history, all-too-familiar story. True to its name, the aesthetics exude a handcrafted, lovingly constructed world, rich with personality. The puzzles themselves may get mind-bending, but not too frustrating. Each chapter revolves around a new mechanic, whether it’s using various keys to open interlocking doors, or constructing bridges and opening pathways leading you to your next objective. It’s short and sweet, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and delivers its story with enough punch to leave a sizable impact.
I purposely placed this at the beginning of the review as a way to say, “If that sounds fun, play it yourself before I spoil it for you.” So much of the joy of this game revolves around its narrative, and thoroughly exploring what makes this game so great without spoiling it is a challenge. A challenge I will immediately concede. Therefore, I will be spoiling the story of Maquette from here on in. Proceed at your own risk.
Maquette is a story about Michael and McKenzie falling in love. Their story is told through the perspective of Michael’s memories, each memory represented as a titular Maquette. Your reward for solving each puzzle allows you to look in at pivotal moments of Michael and McKenzie’s relationship: how they meet, when they fall in love, when they move in together, and of course, when they fight. The musings from Michael start heartfelt and lovey-dovey, each memory and reflection showing the innocence and naïveté of someone falling in love; down to in-game text explaining ‘her quirks never bothered me, I loved everything about her’ — savvy readers have no doubt clued in on the past tense used in that example.
With each passing chapter, the future of their relationship grows more uncertain and grim. As you start the game, you’re bathed in vibrant colors, and the warming golden glow from the tree atop the titular maquette. As you progress, the glow fades, and every memory becomes faded, twisted, and dark. The narration provided by actors Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel heightens the unease. The gameplay affords us the voyeuristic thrill (and eventual dismay) of Michael and McKenzie awkwardly fumbling through their emotions, private conversations, and earnest desires. We relate to their qualms, pushing ahead as they think they’re doing the right thing for one another, turning a blind eye to the cracks beginning to form with each passing memory. The performances are top-notch, faithfully delivering the heart-wrenching sensation of watching two friends feel their relationship deteriorate.
Although your mileage may vary depending on your own personal relationship history, my heart went out to these two. We’ve seen so many video games fail to tell a love story with even the slightest inkling of emotional maturity. So many relationships in role-playing games serve as little more than buying them this present, or choosing this dialogue tree, with awkwardly animated love scenes as a final reward. Maquette is grounded and real. The visceral nature of having the game world be constructed, and subsequently destroyed serves as the perfect backdrop to the elation and torment that relationships put them through is palpable. Not a single bit of its unifying aesthetic is wasted. One particular highlight is in the chapter titled “The Escape” — Using a translucent orb to reveal an invisible path out of a maze, the golden leaves of the diorama act as bread crumbs leading you out. As you navigate the maze, all of the tools you’ve used to solve puzzles and explore the world you find broken on the ground. As you reach the end, you find two glowing butterflies circling each other. Looking down, the orb reveals those same butterflies dead on the ground. Upon reaching that moment, after all of the sweetness souring into bitterness, I had to just stop and take that in.
Pulling back the curtain, as someone who is currently engaged and planning a wedding, I have to admit it’s a bit messed up that my editor decided to have me review a game about a breakup. It gave me pause as I looked back on my previous relationships. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Two people meet, they’re smitten, and start building up expectations and ideals in their minds, only to have them come crashing down under the weight of reality. It’s a pain that’s all too real.
However, if the game were to simply end there, it wouldn’t be as satiating as it is. As we continue exploring Michael’s feelings, we see him build himself back up. Re-engage with old hobbies, and rediscover what made him who he was. Again, it is something all too relatable. When you lose someone so intimately connected to you, you feel as though you lose a part of yourself. It takes time to mend those wounds and allow yourself to feel wholly like yourself again. Thankfully, we get to experience that through Michael’s thoughts. We see the world slowly return to its vibrant colors and light. We hear Michael and McKenzie receive the closure they desperately need to move forward in their lives. As we share in that moment of closure, the credits roll.
Putting my reviewer’s hat on, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the technical performance. You feel the game attempting to burst free from the limitations of the Switch. Stutters and overall shakiness permeate the experience, and the controls feel stunted. You’ll be begging for a mouse and keyboard, or at least a more powerful console to deliver a smoother experience. I only experienced a crash once, so it’s perfectly playable, although the art and story undoubtedly shine brighter on another console.
In closing, I have no doubt Annapurna Interactive is committed to becoming the A24 of video game publishers: specializing in homegrown, small, independent, but properly developed experiences. Indie darlings like Journey, Donut County, and Neon White, each title demonstrates a commitment to gameplay narrative that feels holistic; especially when set against the backdrop of what AAA studios often deliver. It’s a sentiment that can sometimes get crowded out between the bombast of AAA, and the bottom of the barrel-scraping gotcha mechanics and asset flips flooding digital storefronts.
Maquette and their ilk know that video games are an art form, and each developer is an artist. I think we need a bit more of that in this generation.
About the Author:
Jon Anderson is a gamer, illustrator, graphic designer, video and sound editor, broadcaster, photographer, videographer, voice actor, and even a 2D artist for a brief time in the gaming industry. He's brought his eclectic skillset to the Games with Jon & James Podcast!