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A pink-domed building set in front of an ornate castle with flags on its peaks

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Maquette is a romance game about little details causing big problems — literally

The latest game from indie publisher Annapurna Interactive

Image: Graceful Decay/Annapurna Interactive
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The word that comes to mind when I play Maquette, the indie-pop puzzle game from developer Graceful Decay, is recursive. It means repetition, a pattern that repeats itself into infinity, like the florets of broccoli romanesco or the branches of a snowflake. Grammar can be recursive, with a single structure used over and over in a sentence. Thinking can be recursive, too — thinking about thought itself. In Maquette, the world itself is recursive, transforming otherwise simple environments into topsy-turvy puzzles that repeat themselves for eternity.

The story of Maquette is about the beginning and the end of a relationship between the narrator, Michael, and Kenzie. Memories are abstract, so instead of a literal retelling of the couple’s story, we get Michael (years later) looking through a sketchbook the pair once shared. Their whimsical drawings of castles, coffees, and dream homes provide a keyhole view into their time together.

The maquette in question is literally a model version of the world, and it’s the building that the game is centered on. The player will return there time after time, albeit in three differently sized versions of the space. It’s riddled with puzzles to be solved as Michael reflects on the life span of the relationship that began with a meeting at a coffee shop, over that sketchbook.

Puzzles in Maquette involve moving items between the differently scaled recursive worlds. For instance, if you pick up a small item like a ticket stub in the regularly sized world and drop it into the miniature maquette, that item will show up massive in the regularly sized world. It helps to watch the trailer:

Puzzles at the start of Maquette are relatively simple, defining the rules of the world. A gap in a bridge appears, with no apparent way to cross. But a key found on the ground earlier is actually the solution — once the small key is dropped into the smaller maquette, in the right slot, it can act as the large missing piece of the bridge in the bigger version of the world that you inhabit. Puzzles range from very easy to shockingly hard, but they never feel broken or unfair. There aren’t evil tricks that artificially inflate the difficulty or pad out a level; you just need the right perspective, noticing small things that might have big meaning in another context.

Perspective makes all the difference not just in solving the puzzles, but in making sense of the story. The couple has a familiar, if not dull romance. But though relationships live and die every day, to the couple in love (and then, not in love), the bond can feel like everything. In Maquette, we’re in this guy’s head, his grand world and vision, alternatingly romanticized and idealized, constantly centered on himself.

A bright tree with yellow leaves behind a little cart. Only part of the image is lit up in the brilliant yellow, the rest is colored in muted, darker hues Image: Graceful Decay/Annapurna Interactive

Maquette, at its best, captures the growth of this man by twisting together the story and puzzles, allowing the latter to double as metaphors that amplify the former. It carries themes of simultaneity, between an ordinary romance and the magic of being in love, a small key that’s a massive bridge, and little cracks that create huge divots.

It reminds me of a relationship I had, one that I thought I would never see myself out of. It’s these memories of mine that give Maquette’s narrative that emotional weight, even when the writing is clumsy or stilted. When I look back at that relationship, it’s only just a speck in my 32 years of life, something that hardly gets a thought. It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when it was so much bigger, where I lived in a fantasy world of my own creation — but I did. And Maquette has the right beats, and recursions, to bring up that feeling in me, that conflicting sense of scale.

At times, I rolled my eyes at Michael’s whiny moments, or about some of the small things the couple fought about. Perhaps these mundane parts of the relationship, how unevenly people fall in and out of love, provide contrast for the fantastical game world — the space Michael and Kenzie built together and in which they hold themselves up. Their relationship shatters for seemingly small reasons, but in their intimate world, the details loom so much larger.

A wide view of the pink-domed building surrounded by other colorful hoses and castles, with rich blues, greens, and purples Image: Graceful Decay/Annapurna Interactive

It is refreshing to see romance as the beating heart of a video game. Titles like fellow Annapurna-published game Florence or Nina Freeman’s We Met in May built on the importance of small moments to create emotional weight. Maquette interrogates the relationship as a whole, showing something opposite — that there are times where these smaller moments end up as filler for a relationship that just ends. And that’s OK.

The magical world of Maquette never wears off, but the relationship fades. And so the world does shift with it, the colorful fantasy turning gray, the maquette tattered and broken. (At least, for Michael.) This isn’t necessarily a spoiler; it’s something that’s clear from the beginning, an overtone that shades the whole story, even in its happiest moments. The player knows from the beginning that the relationship — no matter how good and perfect it seems — eventually ends.

Maquette is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC via Steam. The game was reviewed using a PS5 code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.