“Maquette” is best described as a recursive puzzle game. The world you navigate has a smaller replica within it, and a larger one outside of it. And if you look deep into the horizon, you can see the edges of a bigger, completely identical world, conveying that this place repeats itself into infinity. It’s a difficult concept to explain, and much easier to understand in action. The concept makes for ingenious, though at times frustrating, level design and puzzles, with a love story that progresses through narration and text.
You spend the majority of the game in a single but shifting environment. Doors and paths open up to locations that mirror the story; in one instance, you enter what the protagonists describe as their “dream home.” This thematic connection gives the impression that you’re walking through memories or lived experiences, which makes the game’s intimate story all the more resonant.
Few video games are able to navigate romance with grace, but we’re slowly seeing better and more realistic portrayals. The interactive graphic novel “Florence,” also published by Annapurna Interactive, is a great example of how the mundanity of a relationship can be morphed into a compelling experience. “Maquette” is similarly poignant in how real it feels with its story of day-to-day humdrum, where even the briefest of phrases can signal a growing disconnect between two partners.
In the center of the world stands a magnificent dome with a diorama — an exact replica of the world you’re walking through. The diorama can be used to manipulate the world directly, as well as manipulate objects in your inventory. For example, a key might not open a door until you shrink it, which is accomplished by placing it down somewhere, then picking up its smaller copy that spawns within the diorama. The opposite can be done, too: Increasing the key’s size can make it the perfect length for a makeshift bridge to get across a gap. These godlike abilities are pretty cool, and I enjoyed seeing how the smallest of changes within the diorama could make for big changes within the world I inhabited.
The setup is incredibly creative — I just wish “Maquette” built upon it further. I spent the first couple hours enamored by the puzzles and the world, but they lose their luster in later stages. With little evolution to initial mechanics, the puzzles don’t exactly get easier to solve, but the format becomes more predictable.
There is no hand-holding in “Maquette,” which is great if you’re looking for a difficult experience, but it can also leave you frequently stumped. For those who want to see the story through (and “Maquette” has a great story), it may prove more cumbersome. The story can grind to a halt, interrupted by long gaps of confusion created by the puzzles.
At its best, “Maquette” gracefully weaves interactivity and storytelling into one cohesive experience. For example, you spend a good chunk of a later stage shrunk down to a tiny size. Everything around you is big, intimidating and imposing, which makes sense: Within the story, the protagonists seem to feel small during fights. An indie pop soundtrack elevates the storytelling, too, with carefully chosen songs from mostly San Franciscan musicians (this story takes place in San Francisco) that play at the right moments to set a mood. “Maquette” can feel intimate, like reading someone’s diary, and the music helps sell that sentiment. The tunes can feel as though they were jogged by memories of a place and time, which you now get to experience.
“Maquette” is an incredibly evocative game, and my favorite moments had no puzzles at all. For example, you eventually walk through a neighborhood with red glowing windows, with architecture ominously shifting and twisting the more you walk, to represent the protagonists’ realization that this relationship is going nowhere. “Maquette” is an excellent look at how these two characters grow — I just wish the puzzles could have evolved in the same way.