There is a quiet unease to some parts of Maquette. I don’t know if this is entirely intentional, but the fractal nature of its levels, centred around a dome, that repeat endless outwards and inwards god help but be inherently uncanny.
The premise of Graceful Decay’s puzzler is simple in practice: anything you do in the smaller or larger version of the environment is repeated in all versions of the environment. If you place a cube in the small version of the environment, it will be there in the big version, because they all exist simultaneously.
By clever placement of items, you solve a variety of puzzles that require you to navigate the various Maquettes that the central dome finds itself in, all representing different periods of the protagonist’s life, all rendered in pastel colours and arresting architecture.
You resize elements by placing them in the large version, and picking them in the central small version. It is mechanically simple – walk around, pick up objects, rotate them and place them down – But the spatial questions it asks, and the implications of multiple states existing simultaneously.
Let’s go outside
Later puzzles have you walk outside the dome itself, realising that the vast expanse outside is somewhere you can walk, surrounded by a yet even bigger environment. You can walk to the edge and look back in, to see the original layout, and a smaller one inside that, presumably going on forever.
It is an idea that takes advantage of gaming’s ability to create impossible, uncanny spaces. Dropping a block in the wrong place and here it at the same time clatter and thunder off the small domed roof that is simultaneously miniature and monolithic never fails to feel eerie.
Apart from one section of the game later on, the game never really capitalises on this unease as it is more concerned with a light touch link between its relationship narrative to its puzzles. The story is one that has been told many times before: boy meets girl, both fall in love, things go sour, they break apart, and deal with the consequences.
People, I’m trying to concentrate here
The relationship segments are delivered in conversational parts between Michael and Mackenzie, voiced by real-life partners Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard. They are, as things go, fairly inoffensive, if a little trite and their biggest crime is interrupting the flow of puzzling.
At their best, the actors lend some much-needed realism to a story that’s been told innumerable times before. One segment involving an argument felt well observed in a medium that often struggles to capture that rote but vital humanity of the bad part of a relationship.
When the game’s writing is at its worst, it is incredibly mawkish. Sentences pop up on screen detailing Michael’s inner thoughts and point of view, and at times they are bemusingly adolescent, and make you wonder if this story is really a great fit for the game.
It doesn’t help when the controls for objects can feel fussy and sluggish, with your character uncomfortably orbiting objects that you are holding. It’s not the end of the world, though, and the wonder of the central mechanic continues to be appealing and intriguing through the brief playtime. Themes of introspection, the weight of relationships, and a variety of other considerations float under the service, demanding to be teased out, but never really surfacing.
Maquette keeps its puzzling fairly simple, never descending to the truly tortuous teasers of The Witness, Superliminal, or Antichamber, and instead lets a sense of awe carry you. This is supported by its art design, and pleasant score, but it really feels like something deeper could have been intuited from synthesis of narrative and design. A Maquette is a sort of sketch of a finished sculpture, or an architectural model… is the game saying this relationship was a sketch of better times, a process to go through in order to reach some future ideal?
If so, it’s a well-worn narrative, and nothing is added by its puzzles. It ends up feeling like a clumsy mash-up of Synecdoche, New York and 500 Days of Summer, but without the introspection of either. At the very least, its puzzles and environments are captivating, but unlike its lateral thinking solutions, it never brings a new angle to its central narrative.