A Recursive Love Story? | Maquette Review
A recursive world gets married to a romantic story. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven.
If the classic question for songwriters is “which do you write first: music or lyrics?” Then the equivalent question for game designers must be “which do you create first: gameplay or story?” The answer, in both cases, is that it shouldn’t really matter which comes first as long as the two complement each other, and unfortunately in Maquette, the new game from Digital Decay and Annapurna Interactive, that doesn’t happen.
Maquette’s central hook is summed up perfectly in a fifteen second clip from its announcement trailer. The player picks up a small cube from the ground, then places that cube in a scale model of the world they’re in and BAM the cube now exists in the larger world in a scaled-up form.
To put that into words: this world is recursive. The small model, the maquette, reflects the larger world that surrounds it and any changes made to the maquette are also made in the larger world, which is reflected again in an even larger version of that world. Maquette turns this dynamic into a puzzle game where the player must scale up and down items in order to unlock new areas. Keys unlock doors but then become bridges, etc.
However, Maquette is not JUST a puzzle game, it is also a love story that tracks the romance of Michael and Kenzie through text that magically appears in the game world and cutscenes that mix illustration with voiceover.
Maquette’s designer Hanford Lemoore explains in an interview with Goomba Stomp that he and the game’s other creators, “wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t just skin deep, draped over an existing game. As polar opposites as the game world and the game’s story might feel at the beginning, they are actually connected in a very deep way.”
That connection was not one that I was able to make.
Maquette is beautiful. Its visual design is striking, it contains a great soundtrack and score, and the way its puzzles work is intriguing. But the love story that accompanies all of these things does feel tacked on.
I understand the rationales the game offers as connective tissue: that this world is a metaphorical manifestation of a sketchbook that’s at the story’s heart, or that the process of making small things large reflects what happens as time progresses in a relationship and — as the game contends — small quirks become large annoyances.
Those connections make sense to me on paper, but I rarely felt them while my hands were on the controller. The core process of manipulating objects in the recursive world felt totally separate from the love story, except for the rare moments where the connection was almost too obvious, like when the text discusses whether Michael and Kenzie were ever a good fit right before a puzzle that involves fitting a key into a lock.
There are some levels that reflect the story well, but those levels are also completely disconnected from Maquette’s central recursion mechanic. For instance, “the escape” was perhaps my favorite level, but in it the player isn’t scaling up and down items but simply walking a path that becomes the streets of San Francisco.
The reality of Maquette is that it is two separate ideas mixed together. The gameplay came first, when Lemoore demoed a recursive world prototype at GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop in 2011. Then, after writing stories NOT specifically for Maquette, Lemoore created a romance plot that he decided to include in the game instead of any of his earlier ideas which included narratives like a character who’s trapped in a recursive dungeon.
I hate to say it but I think one of those other ideas would’ve worked better for Maquette. This game wants to be Gone Home by way of The Witness, but it should’ve looked to a game like Portal for inspiration and, like that game does, focused on simple ways to subtly sprinkle an interesting story around the foundation of a unique core mechanic.
Videogames are absolutely capable of telling the story that Maquette wants to tell, but to make that story work, the connection between the gameplay and the story needs to really resonate with the player, and that just didn’t happen for me while playing Maquette.