Life is what you Maquette
Maquette is a tremendously moving portrayal of a new relationship from the mundane to the heart-breaking that moved me several times. Unfortunately, it’s trapped in a clumsy puzzle game where ideas are routinely let down by its execution.
Micheal (Seth Gabel) and Kenzie (Bryce Dallas Howard) fall for each other during a chance encounter at a coffee shop, their bond ignited by a love of sketching, a motif that permeates Maquette’s world.
Through abstract representations of their relationship milestones, the player must solve puzzles in a recursive diorama of their lives. For example, if you pick up a key, you can place it in the diorama, thus making it appear larger to the player. You’re essentially interacting with a dollhouse, only the dollhouse is actually the world the player occupies. This is not unlike Superliminal from Pillow Castle, although the latter achieves far more from a gameplay perspective with its concrete than the former.
This sets up an interesting ruleset for challenge, but unfortunately, controlling Maquette is a completely unenjoyable experience. Manipulating objects is clunky, moving around the world is too fast for precision and when exploring the world in Borrower mode, far too slow. Picking up and putting down objects is terribly inconsistent and weirdly punishing in how precise one must be to trigger the completion of the puzzle.
The gameplay really does a disservice to the fantastic story. It reminds me a lot of What Remains Of Edith Finch, but crucially, that narrative was never interrupted because you were stuck on a puzzle for an hour. It would be like if Edith Finch wouldn’t let you conclude a storyline because you weren’t good enough at chopping off fish heads.
Both Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard give exceptional performances and truly portray the maturity of a couple from that first spark, to meeting friends to settling down and the trials therein. It’s a brutally honest game at times. It captures the lethargy that comes with long term relationships and the creeping self-doubt even in the most solid of bonds.
The writing is natural and never obvious. The player is left to sketch the fine details about these characters. I had very clear pictures of who these people were from their first interaction and I very much look forward to the next project from this team, from a writing perspective.
Walking simulators get a bad rap, but at least if Maquette fully committed to that genre instead of anchoring itself to the tedious, lackluster puzzles the story wouldn’t have lost the momentum it does when a puzzle breaks or a moveable world object won’t line up properly.
Visually, the game excels with a bright, colourful palette that lends the entire narrative a very dream-like quality, like reminiscing over how you first met someone you love. There’s certainly a twee-ness to the overall presentation, I could have done with one or two less licensed tracks, but it never strays into the sickeningly saccharin. While beautiful in motion, poor performance on the PS5 means several framerate drops interrupt the very well realised atmosphere.
My feelings for Maquette are incredibly conflicted. On the one hand, Howard and Gabel have crafted a performance that’s instantly believable, a relationship that I was invested in and whose highs and lows moved me numerous times. The story isn’t revolutionary, but it’s in its mundanity and realism that it shines, cast against a fantastical world.
However, the actual gameplay of Maquette is a bitter disappointment that commits the cardinal sin of stopping the player from progressing the incredibly strong story. This would be a far better game with less gameplay. Its concrete is clever and initially well executed, but the longer the game goes the more incomprehensible it becomes and it’s made worse by some truly terrible controls.
If you’re reading a good book, don’t you think your enjoyment would be lessened somewhat if you had to complete a Rubix cube between chapters? What about completing a Rubix cube while on horse tranquilisers so you had barely any motor function? That’s what it’s like battling past a puzzle in Maquette to reach the promised land of its wonderful, moving story.
Just wait until someone has uploaded just the story parts on YouTube, you’ll have seen the best parts of the game and had a better time than just about anyone playing it.