Video games often struggle with high-level storytelling. Even the Uncharted series, which is lauded for its characters and story, probably compares to a B movie or a mediocre action flick if you remove the gameplay.
Atmosphere, though, is something games can do extremely well. The immersion of being in control of the character the camera typically adds to the player’s empathy for what is happening in the game.
Maquette, a new puzzle game from developer Graceful Decay, evokes the same tone and emotions of an indie romance movie. It’s a first-person game with identical areas set inside of each other like a Russian nesting doll. It uses scale and perspective to play with that concept.
In the opening scene you’re dropped into a courtyard with a dark blue filter and “San Franciscan Nights” by Gabor Szabo and the California Dreamers is playing. That’s not what I was expecting, but it’s a heck of a way to set the mood.
The gameplay has its peaks and valleys, but the atmosphere and story really stand out. The story follows the relationship of Kenzie, voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard, and Michael, voiced by her real-life husband Seth Gabel. Both have notable screen acting careers, although she is probably most famous at the moment for being one of the directors for The Mandalorian.
There are never people on screen. Howard and Gabel deliver most of the story through voice only. Short text interludes fill in some gaps. Drawing was foundational in their relationship, so the closest thing Maquette has to cut scenes are drawn depictions of important moments for the couple. The gameplay scenes sometimes mimic a story moment as well.
Kenzie and Michael’s story is sweet. Some of the memories are relatively mundane, but they show the relationship in a relatable way. Everyone will be thinking “been there” at various points. It’s not just a collection of best of moments either. There are a few cuter, more subtle interactions that are the connective tissue of a relationship.
In the first half or so, seeing more of their story was a great reason to push forward through the puzzles. I wanted more of this couple. That didn’t maintain throughout, but by the end I felt like I just watched Garden State or some other similar movie. Hearing an ordinary, relatable couple go through the struggles of a relationship with the backing of an indie soundtrack is an entire genre of movies. Video games have started to explore this more in recent years, but Maquette comes closer in tone than most. It’s no surprise that Annapurna Interactive, which might still be more known for its Annapurna Pictures film division, published this because they’ve been on a roll in terms of selecting high-quality indie games.
From a gameplay standpoint, Maquette takes after its name. A small scale model features as the focal point throughout. There is an identical maquette of the world you are in. You can use the maquette to alter the size or placement of objects you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
It’s a relatively straightforward concept best explained by seeing it. The gist is you can take a cube from the world, drop it in the maquette and a massive cube will drop in the same spot in the world. That also works in reverse to make objects smaller. In addition, you can interact with areas in the maquette that are unreachable in the world.
The gameplay is reminiscent of Superliminal. Superliminal used visual tricks relating to depth perception to change the size of objects. Both games have a gameplay hook that sells well in a 90-second trailer, but can be difficult to iterate on over the course of a full game. Maquette does deviate away from its main hook a few times towards the end of the game though, which helps to keep things fresh. Depending on how much you struggle with certain puzzles, the game is likely to take between 3-5 hours.
In the beginning while I wrapped my head around how everything worked, the aha moments were very cool. Some were quick and easy to solve while a few had me stumped for a bit. Annoyingly, on two occasions I had thought of the correct solution, but the execution was finicky. My attempted solution had failed to work so many times that I moved on to something else. There were also a few minor issues with bugs. Occasionally I would have to reload the game or restart the level, but fortunately, it would only cost a minute or less to get back to where I was.
As a puzzle game, it’s good, not great. As a video game attempting to be a romantic indie film, it’s very good. If you’re into puzzle games, Maquette gets a strong recommendation. If you don’t like the frustration, but think Kenzie and Michael’s story would vibe with you, give it a shot and have a walkthrough at the ready.
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