Beginning as a project from students at the NYU Center for Games, Moncage (a portmanteau of montage and cage) has existed in one form or another since 2018. And after garnering plenty of awards and honourable mentions at places like PAX and IGF, the adventure-puzzler has finally been released in full on PC.
The world of Moncage is comprised of a montage of photographs, each of which is visible within a single side of a cube-shaped cage. The images are snapshots of significant moments in one person’s life, but for some unknown reason, they never contain any actual people.
Moncage’s puzzles come from adjusting your perspective so that components in two or more of the images align, at which point they interact and affect their surroundings. Sometimes the effects are limited to the images in question; other times, they affect the entire cube, and occasionally they open a door to an entirely new image. Maybe the counterweight of a set of scales on a desk will raise the arm of a crane in a construction zone, or maybe opening a hatch in the floor of a lighthouse will carry a truck across a ravine. Chaining one puzzle after another results in something resembling a Rube-Goldberg machine that spans a lifetime, with you as the catalyst.
Unfortunately, these puzzles can sometimes be frustratingly fiddly. Several times I offered an answer I was sure was correct, to no effect. Then, after spending too long trying other solutions, I would check the game’s hints only to find I was right all along, but hadn’t aligned the images precisely enough to proceed.
More damning though, is that the whole system isn’t satisfying in the way a puzzle should be. The process of solving each one almost always comes down to searching the images for two similar-looking objects, and then lining them up. Every once in a whil, the effects of a solution are delightful, touching, or surprising enough to compensate for the straightforward puzzles. (Flipping through a calendar in one image to change the weather in another is a particular highlight). But these moments are the exceptions, and they’re too few and far between.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare Moncage to one of my favourite games of the year, but while playing I couldn’t help being reminded of another game that tells its wordless story through a relatively simple puzzle mechanic, the exceptional Unpacking. But where Unpacking uses everyday objects to render its cast in intimate detail, Moncage’s snapshots lack the kind of specificity required to understand its characters as anything other than broad archetypes.
You know the main character of Moncage is enlisted as a soldier because there are grenades, helmets, and a shooting range outside a large tent. You know they’ve been severely wounded because season after season passes in a hospital room. You even know they’ve been traumatised (if that wasn’t already obvious), because the world the war has wrought looks alien to them from their seat at the bar. But these aren’t insights that help you understand them as a living person. These are passing glances–made hastily and over a long distance–at a stranger.
On its surface, Moncage does so many things I like. Its narrative is conveyed through interaction, rather than through text or cutscenes. Its predominant mechanic is clever. It’s short. But it stands as an example of just how easily a game can be undone by only one or two critical shortcomings. There’s a world in which a few chewy brain teasers would be enough for me to overlook some one-dimensional characters–this is a puzzle game after all. One-dimensional puzzles, though, are harder to forgive.