I need to tell you about Maquette.
No, really. It’s a need. I’ve played a lot of wonderful games while working at Kotaku, but none have resonated with me as much as Maquette, a first-person “recursive puzzle game” released this month for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC. Were I to review the game, the whole text would amount to, simply, “Play it.” But I wanted to know more, and to learn more, and to tell you more, so I hit up Hanford Lemoore, the game’s creator, director, and lead engineer, to get the full story.
I also wanted to know if I could squish myself.
Maquette spent about a decade in the oven. In 2011 Lemoore showed it off at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where Kotaku received a firsthand look.
Erstwhile Kotaku EIC Stephen Totilo described a “game in which the only thing you can do is pick things up and put them down” that left him “in awe.” You could freely explore a walled city, wherein one passageway was blocked by a giant red cube. Inside a central building, you’d see a small diorama—a maquette—of that exact walled city. Pick up and move the cube in the diorama, and the cube will move identically in the normal-sized world, allowing you passage.
There was also a puzzle involving a chasm and a key. Traditionally, in video games, keys unlock doors, right? But in that initial prototype, a key served as a bridge. In the normal-sized world, you’d come across a chasm, one you wouldn’t have a triple jump or a jetpack or any other video game tool of that nature to help you cross. So you’d pick up a key—one of the few objects at your disposal—and drop it over the chasm in the diorama. Look at that: a way across.
“How this game came about is, first, you build the recursion engine, the recursion simulation, and that’s not even a game at that point. It’s like the difference between having a character that can jump and having an entire level with obstacles and goals,” Lemoore told me over a Zoom call recently. “I just had this world-within-a-world simulation running. […] It’s only a fun simulation if you can pick things up.”
That’s still the primary way you interact in Maquette: Pick things up and put them down. (Okay, technically, you can also jump, but it’s barely a bunny hop.) The game’s world consists of multiple, coexistent, proportionally rendered planes of different sizes. There’s the “normal” world, a four-sided town square with a dome overhead. In the central area here sits that maquette, a miniaturized carbon copy of the normal world, complete with a dome itself. But if you look beyond the walls of the space you’re in, you can make out an even bigger world, with even bigger versions of all the stuff you see in your normal-sized world. And according to Lemoore, it just keeps going and going.
“Mathematically, there’s even a world even larger than that,” Lemoore told me. “It’s like the size of Skyrim or something.”
Anything you do on one plane will affect all of the other planes. Let’s say you need to get into a house, but it’s absent a stoop or stairs or any way up, really. Drop a tiny ramp next to the tiny version of that house in the maquette and, in the normal world, you’ll now have a regular-sized ramp to help you into the house.
You can also use this mechanic to tweak the size of objects as needed. For instance, in one early level, you need to find a golden ticket—one of those serrated, olde-timey raffle-style ones—to drop into a ticket box, which will then unlock a door to a new area. Tracking down the ticket is a breeze; the game more or less guides you right to it. The problem is that the ticket is way too big to fit into the ticket box. To scale it down, you have to place it somewhere in the normal-sized world, make your way to the maquette, pinpoint the ticket’s location there, pick up the smaller version, and carry that to the ticket box. Doors unlocked and opened, by any means at your fingertips.
So yeah, Maquette has obviously changed a lot since 2011, but the core concept has held fast. In fact, both of the quandaries shown off in the GDC prototype—the cube and the key—show up one way or another in today’s iteration of the game. If you want, you can even drop one of them right on your head.
“[If] you drop an object over the dome where it might crush you, instead, it bounces on the dome and rolls off. And that’s a live physics simulation. So if you actually back out of the world while that’s happening, you can see two objects of different scale bouncing and falling in the exact same way. And if you want, you can crush yourself there. You can drop the cube on the very, very top of the dome and then, as it’s rolling down, you can walk out of the dome and stand there and the cube will come down and hit you on the head,” Lemoore told me. “But it doesn’t really affect you. We don’t have lives in this game. We don’t have deaths.”
Maquette stands out because it’s more than just a game in which you pick things up and put them down to solve increasingly complex puzzles and sometimes drop those things on yourself. It’s also a love story. At the center are two young, art-obsessed San Francisco hipsters named Michael (voiced by Fringe’s Seth Gabel) and Kenzie (voiced by Gabel’s real-world wife of two decades, Bryce Dallas Howard, whom you may recognize from, I don’t know, pick one of these enormously popular movies). Maquette casts you as Michael, who pulls double duty as the game’s narrator, recounting his relationship with Kenzie via handwriting superimposed at various points over the dreamlike landscapes you stroll through.
“We get this entire relationship, but we get it from a single moment in time,” Lemoore said. “You can think of this game taking place across an entire relationship. But really, the game takes place in one evening of [one] person writing a letter and just remembering the entire relationship.”
Michael and Kenzie initially meet at a coffee shop. In the background, you can hear the soft murmur of a caffeinated yet hyper-focused crowd. A sharp ear will pick up on the creak of a door that hasn’t had its hinges greased in ages. You don’t need to see the place to know exactly what it looks and smells and feels like. (Maquette doesn’t feature any cutscenes or motion capture. The story is told entirely through voice acting and some expertly deployed sound design.) Kenzie asks Michael if she can sit down. Ceramic clinks. Whoops. She’s spilled her latte.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” she says.
“It-it only spilled a little,” he says.
“Gosh, is your sketchbook okay?”
“Oh, can I see it?”
Thus begins a grounded, relatable romance—a common enough occurrence in novels, rom-coms, and sappy television shows, sure, but markedly less so in video games.
Mild spoilers for Maquette in this next section.
First, the duo gets in the habit of drawing together in the parks of San Francisco. They continue hanging out more frequently, cautiously testing the waters of mutual affection. Kenzie invites Michael to a party at her house. He shows up early. She’s late. In the meantime, a friend of Kenzie’s insists Michael is one of Kenzie’s colleagues. So they have “the talk”—you know, the one about whether or not you’re friends or, well, more than friends. Turns out, they’re the latter. Eventually, they say that four-letter word to each other. They move in together.
A mid-game chapter chronicles the slow but inexorable march toward mundanity plenty of modern relationships end up on.
Kenzie returns home after a long day of school, a six-pack of beer in hand. Her and Michael talk about their days, figure out something to watch. She suggests a movie; he counters with “that trashy show we were watching last week.” (They end up watching the trash TV.)
Another day, another step. Kenzie returns home. They don’t go over their days, and Kenzie instead notes how quickly Michael closed his laptop, like he was “hiding something from her.” But hey, he picked up wine and whipped up dinner, so that wisp of irritation fades away in seconds.
Another day, another step. Kenzie returns home, beer in hand. Michael points out how late she is, how she didn’t text, and mentions that dinner’s in the fridge. Kenzie says she already ate while out with a friend. Michael asks why he wasn’t invited. She apologizes. He says it’s cool, asks if she wants to watch something. She does—but by herself, on her laptop, in bed.
Another day, an explosive fight. It’s not mean or cruel or insulting. It’s just the end result of two people who’ve gone too long without being heard by the one person they want to be heard by. It’s only natural. You get sick of it. You raise your voice. One of you storms out.
Okay, spoilers over. Carry on!
I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there, to some degree.
“It’s a universal love story, right? As far as, like, it’s not drama-filled, there’s no cheating or craziness,” Lemoore said. “Everyone on our team has had that love story happen to them. I’ve had it happen to me before—several times. It was striking that balance between, yes, we’re grounding this in a real city, but we’re making all these choices to make sure as many players can connect with it as possible.”
The biggest impediment to making Maquette relatable, though, was San Francisco itself.
I spent some time in San Francisco growing up, and still return often, which no doubt contributed to Maquette resonating with me the way it did. Play this game for a second, and you see it: This is San Francisco. It’s unmistakable—and for me, it’s a blast from the past, immediately evocative of a time when life was simpler, or at least less sober.
If you’ve spent even one day in San Francisco, you’ll recognize the city’s architectural quirks in the pastel-colored nooks and Victorian-inspired crannies of Maquette. Spires in one level bear a remarkable resemblance to Ferry Building, that iconic, postcard-perfect structure off the Embarcadero. The dome itself—the one that’s supposed to save you from undue if ultimately meaningless squishing—is directly inspired by the Palace of Fine Arts. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled a double-take at some art deco obelisk, thinking it was actually just a surreal version of Coit Tower. Maquette is as much a love letter to the Golden Gate City as it is to Michael and Kenzie.
But while the San Francisco of Maquette is very much San Francisco, it’s not a photorealistic recreation, certainly not like what you’d see in, say, Watch Dogs 2. It’s a dreamy reimagining, a warped construct that’s evocative of the city without putting up to-the-pixel depictions.
“They’re in this world that’s made up of both things imaginary and real,” Lemoore said. “Even in Chapter One, when you get to Kenzie’s House, it’s a normal San Francisco Victorian house, but it’s floating—it’s floating on a floating island. And we tried to blend that mix between real architecture, detail-perfect, and evoke something for players who have been [to San Francisco] but not alienate players who have [not].”
That San Francisco connection is rooted in more than references to buildings and neighborhoods. It’s also present in the music. Nearly every song on Maquette’s soundtrack—which is not currently available as a standalone purchase—is from a Bay Area musician. The sole exception, Gábor Szabó’s “San Francisco Nights,” which plays right at the beginning, is an homage to the city and itself serves as a way to ground the game’s setting. As Lemoore put it, most tracks are the type of songs Michael or Kenzie might have heard play in a tiny club.
One early song in particular, “Tidal Waves” by Meredith Edgar, affected me far more than I was prepared for. I am cursed with an incurable case of impatience, and generally tend to beeline through linear games. (Open-world games are another story.) But when Edgar’s buttery vocals kicked in—over soft guitar in a tranquil setting as these two characters start to put the “love” in “lovebirds”—I had to set the controller down. It was too real. (On “Tidal Waves,” Lemoore told me the song “feels like it’s the theme of Maquette.” You can hear it play in the background of Maquette’s gameplay trailer from last summer.) There are few moments in any media, let alone video games, that truly capture the feeling of stomach butterflies. Seeing as I am a sentient can of cheese whiz, I texted my partner—whom I don’t usually discuss games with—that this scene “made me really miss that time when we were falling in love with each other.”
It’s impossible to imagine Maquette as it is without the current soundtrack, but even that wasn’t set in stone, at least not from the start.
“So many people said, ‘Do you have a composer yet? Do you have a composer yet?’ As if that’s a foregone conclusion: We’re going to have a composer,” Lemoore said. “And I stopped and I thought, ‘Okay, well, no. I know that that’s my first thought, too: I’ll hire somebody to compose an original score.’ But I wanted to take a step back and think, ‘Wait a minute, how do we tell this story in the most serious, realistic way?’”
Answer: a soundtrack made up of “actual songs that the characters might have listened to while they were together.”
The result works. Not only does the soundtrack feel authentic to the story every step of the way, it also happens to be full of what the kids call “bangers.” I found myself motivated to power through Maquette simply to hear more great music. Sure, I wanted to beat each level to advance the story, and also prove to myself (and the world!) that I’m sharp enough to crack the code on a serious stumper. But I really just wanted to hear whatever song was up next.
Here’s another thing you should know about Maquette: It can be quite frustrating. Maquette is by no means perfect, but there are moments of irritation baked into the game on a foundational level.
For one thing: the reset function. Puzzle games are complex beasts, often make it possible to paint yourself into a corner, and developers can’t reasonably account for literally every imaginable way in which you can do so. Hence, they often let you reset. But in Maquette’s case, hitting reset will send you all the way back to the beginning of the level. If you find yourself stuck on level’s final puzzle, that could mean undoing half an hour of work. (To be fair, once you know the specific solutions, redoing your work shouldn’t take as long. Theoretically.)
There’s also currently no way to sprint. In the early levels, that’s fine, but when you breach the walls of the normal-sized world for the first time—when you first venture into the larger recursions—you feel the difference in your bones. Being forced to walk (walk!) massive distances conveys a staggering, humbling sense of scale. It’s like living your whole life on the eastern seaboard and seeing the Rockies for the first time. You thought you knew what a mountain was after that trip to Vermont? Ha!
On the other hand, it’s very hard not to itch for some faster movement. Fuck up the solution for a puzzle, and you’re in for a long haul back to the maquette, which, sure, isn’t so bad the first time. When you fuck up four, five, or 15 times, that trek can become arduous. Frankly, a sprint would’ve been nice.
“We had an auto-sprint, actually, that would just let you sprint through what we call the hub area, between the dome and the puzzle you want to get to,” Lemoore told me. “A big question was, ‘How do we give it to the player? How do we communicate when they can use it and when they can’t?’ The problem with turbo modes is, in any game, in any first-person game, whether it’s a puzzle game or a shooter, you want to always be turbo-ing. Why would you ever not go at max speed?”
There’s a philosophy for puzzle games—which Lemoore brought up but said he doesn’t “fully buy into”—that guides difficulty from a foundational level. Make the puzzles too hard, and players will just throw in the towel. Make them too easy, and players will simply try every possible permutation until they find the solution that clicks. You want a balance. By removing a sprint, Lemoore said, players are more likely to think through solutions before acting them out. He thinks it’s more fun that way.
Maquette is a lot like a maquette itself, really, a multi-layered denouement that nestles your feelings (or non-feelings) about Michael and Kenzie (or about actually finishing the game’s litany of puzzles) inside a recursion so big some players might miss it: Lemoore’s decade-long process on the game.
Living in a project for a decade is a lot—even more so when it’s a project with deeply personal ties, like Maquette. (Lemoore likened the time he spent working on other projects over the past decade as “cheating.”) One would not be off base to draw a direct line between the fictional relationship at the core of Maquette and the very real development process around it. But Lemoore doesn’t see things so simply.
“It hasn’t been lost on me how it connects to me directly. I don’t feel like [shipping the game is] a breakup at all. I’ve had times where I hated Maquette, but I don’t hate it right now,” Lemoore said. “It’s almost like being able to put something out in the world and say, ‘Hey, this has been my thing for 10 years, and now everyone else can enjoy it.’”