In the early courtship stages, even the smallest details become grand romantic gestures that feel larger than life. On the flipside, big red flags can look like minor issues … that is, until they pile up to form a mountain of irreconcilable differences.
Maquette is about reliving that journey with a bird’s-eye view of the situation that only comes after it’s over. Published by Annapurna Interactive, the new indie tells a familiar break-up story through mind-bending puzzle mechanics, Hollywood voice acting, and a splash of moody indie folk.
While its romantic sob story feels a bit boilerplate and it doesn’t fully commit to some of its most intriguing gameplay ideas, Maquette is a short, sincere game that captures the puzzling road to closure in the wake of a messy break-up.
Boy meets girl
Maquette’s story is a familiar relationship saga. There’s a coffee shop meet-cute, an awkward ‘I love you’ exchange, a slow stream of communication issues, and a ceremonial break-up to cap it all off. It all feels a little paint-by-numbers by the end, though I suppose most doomed relationships fall into that same routine as well.
The slight twist to the story is its framing devices. The game begins with the main character sifting through a box of trinkets, only to discover a collaborative sketchbook that he and his ex drew together. That sends him into a self-reflective spiral as he relives the beats of his relationship through their doodles. In fact, players never actually see either lover face to face; they only live their story through the imaginative set pieces they dreamed up in those moments.
Without that frame story, Maquette wouldn’t be much more compelling than an average Nicholas Sparks novel. Even Annapurna Interactive’s own Florence tells a similar story with a touch more nuance. The focus on visual metaphor to literally illustrate the emotional beats gives it the slight touch needed to make a standard experience feel more personal.
It also helps that developer Source Decay locked down some Hollywood talent to bring its lovers to life through voice-over. Bryce Dallas Howard is the project’s big name and she properly dials up her annoyance level as pet peeves morph into full on shouting matches. Fringe star Seth Gabel plays his part too as the quiet, “sensitive” guy who just can’t figure out the right way to communicate. The timeline of events is too compressed to give the characters full depth, but the voice work helps fill in some of the emotional gaps that the four-hour story rushes through.
Under the dome
The central mechanic, and most eye-catching feature, is the perspective shifting gameplay. For the first half of the game, players are placed in a recursive, circular world contained within a dome. In the center of each level, players find a scale model of the very dome they are in that contains a miniature sculpture of the buildings outside of it. Interacting with the tiny version of the location causes something to change outside the dome. See something blocking a doorway? Find it in the scale model and pick it up to move it.
As one might expect, that creates brain-bending scenarios where players have to figure out how they can use tiny items to change the landscape around them, and sometimes vice versa. One standout puzzle had me racking my brain to figure out how I could turn a gigantic golden ticket into something I could fit into a tiny slot, prompting a lovely eureka moment. It’s a mind-boggling puzzler that requires smart spatial reasoning.
Maquette is careful to make sure none of its ideas overstay their welcome, which has its pros and cons. Players will rarely repeat the same puzzle, which makes every solution feel distinct and satisfying. On the other side of the coin, it leaves a few mechanics feeling underdeveloped. I left some chapters wishing the game would iterate on a good idea just a while longer so I could see just how far the recursive setting could take it.
Some moments are held back by tricky controls, which make it difficult to move and place objects within the model dome. There are a few arbitrary puzzle rules as well, which left me scratching my head as to why I couldn’t drop certain objects, like door-opening crystals, in specific spots.
Mechanical concerns aside, Maquette is especially effective at ramping up puzzle complexity as the central relationship gets messier. Everything seems simple and effortless at first (in both story and gameplay), but becomes harder to navigate as the bickering starts. Players suddenly find themselves wandering outside of the dome within a dome where they become the miniature in an overwhelmingly large version of the world. As the big breakup happens, the world itself falls apart too, throwing the comfortable, established puzzle structure out the window. When the characters feel lost, so does the player.
The narrative and gameplay work hand-in-hand to form an emotional journey about re-centering oneself after a disorienting break-up. It’s a story about picking up the pieces and moving on where players literally must pick up pieces in order to move on.
A self-reflective world
On an aesthetic level, Maquette harkens back to the age of 2000’s indie romances like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The recursive visual trick especially brings director Michel Gondry to mind, creating trippy spaces that successfully capture the feeling of inventive sketchbook doodles.
Even the music feels like it’d be right at home in a movie like Garden State, with yearning alt-folk and a handful of indie rock jams by Jay Som. Music can be such a visceral part of a relationship, with specific songs becoming inseparable from a partner. The musical interludes help paint a wider picture of the relationship we never physically see. Each song feels like a memory re-lived through a pair of headphones.
It can admittedly feel a little overly precious at times, which might elicit some eye rolls, though that’s thematically appropriate too. The main character recalls this basic romance as if it’s a grand adventure, but in reality, his story isn’t extraordinary. Listening to it is like hearing a friend exhaustively detail their “absurd” break-up, that sounds completely normal.
The visuals, music, and unique puzzles all come together to illustrate the miniature worlds we build for ourselves over the course of a relationship. Maquette is a peek inside of one of those personal spaces that may look unremarkable from the outside, but is a wondrous world to the people at the center of it. 7/10.
Maquette comes to PC, PS4, and PS5 on March 2 and will be available for PS Plus subscribers.
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