Creating A Gestalt Experience: An Interview With Maquette Creative Director Hanford Lemoore

by Nicholas Straub

Maquette Developer Interview

Even the best, most artistic of games often use gameplay as simply a means to drive the narrative and entertain the player. Shooting down crazed lunatics in Bioshock makes sense in the world and story, but what value does it have to the player other than to entertain? Once in a while, a game will come along that manages to bridge gameplay and theme. It’s a truly rare feat – and it’s one that was recently accomplished by Maquette, developed by Graceful Decay and published by Annapurna Interactive.

As we described in our review, Maquette is a game of harmony where gameplay and story enhance one-another. Players take on the role of an individual as they look back on a previous relationship. As the person combs through ephemera, the player lives out the memories from an abstract perspective – solving puzzles in a recursive world where any changes to an object are copied in larger and smaller environments that are exact replicas of the player’s immediate reality. Strange but poignant, this gameplay mirrors the wounded psyche of the protagonist and offers a window into their psychological journey. In other words, Maquette is a game of immense insight and an uncommon, gestalt experience.

Out of admiration, and profound curiosity for how such design came to be, I talked with Hanford Lemoore, Maquette’s creative director. Over a lengthy conversation, Lemoore detailed the long history behind Maquette’s creation: from gameplay to narrative to music to visuals, every part of Maquette was crafted with the other parts in mind.

Maquette Cutscene

“There was something magical about seeing the physics of one object moving twice.”

Lemoore does not remember what sparked the initial idea of creating a recursive puzzle game, but it’s something that had been with him for a long time. “I can’t remember when I came up with the idea for a world within a world,” he says. “But I remember thinking about it and thinking that it could make really cool puzzles and that there could be some really neat ideas.”

Lemoore decided to act upon his long-gestating idea once the 2011 Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) announced the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, an event where developers can show off their ideas. Lemoore spent two weeks developing his prototype and became transfixed.

“I started playing around with physics and I started to see that I could copy physics from one object to another,” Lemoore recalls. “I liked the idea of copying that unpredictable motion onto another object …. There was something magical about seeing the physics of one object moving twice. And I knew that if I could get it scaling that I could make this world within a world.”

When Lemoore finally unveiled his simple demo, compromised of only a few puzzles, the response moved and inspired him. People came up to him and told him, “You have to finish; do not let this just be an experiment. Make this something more.” Many individuals also encouraged him to extend not just the game but its context as well, telling him, “do not make [the game] a collection of 20 puzzles that you sell for 2.99 on the app store.” Lemoore took the encouragement to heart and decided he would make a fully-featured game with a world and story.

Initially, Lemoore came up with a rudimentary tale that explained why the player is trapped inside a world within a world; he didn’t find it satisfying. Simply explaining the context of the game through the use of magic or a nuclear explosion felt reductive and lacked any significance. So, Lemoore got writing, and, after some time, he wrote something special.

“I happened upon this love story that I wrote and I really liked it,” Lemoore says. “Originally, I thought there was no way I could actually connect it to the game mechanic. But then I started looking at it a little closer and I started to see these connections … and that was the real ‘aha’ moment for me, when I realized that this is what will make Maquette special and give it a soul.”

“Each team member found something; a connection that I hadn’t thought about before … and made it stronger”

Lemoore considers the five-year period spent coming up with the story and tweaking his idea as “pre-production” since it was something he did only in his spare time, geared towards refining the concept rather than actually coding or designing anything. Then in 2016, everything changed when he got contacted by Annapurna Interactive.

“It actually turned out that one of the co-founders of Annapurna Interactive, Nathan Gary, had been in the audience at GDC in 2011 and seen the game, and he remembered it from four years before,” Lemoore says. “He sought me out … and we had a meeting. I was one of the first games signed.”

From the love story’s inception, Lemoore felt that the narrative had powerful ties to the game mechanic but that they were not as clear as he wanted them to be. When Annapurna got involved and Lemoore’s team expanded, the connections expanded too, and the synergy between game and story began to unfold.

“As we ramped up production with artists, sound designers, and our writer – each team member found something; a connection that I hadn’t thought about before, or didn’t think to emphasize, and made it stronger,” Lemoore says. “They really brought it out.”

Lemoore told me about how the team expanded an idea he had and made it into a central part of the game.

“In The Gateways, there are these crystals you use to open and close gates. It got incorporated into the script, but originally in a very insignificant way.  But then the art team started riffing on them as a motif. Playing with the idea of crystals having imperfections, and shattering, and whatnot. And those are really strong metaphors, and so I brought it back in the script where finding a crystal they bought together is the triggering moment when the player-character realizes what they’ve lost. And that, in turn, makes the visuals you’re seeing even stronger because you have more context now.”

As Lemoore describes it, nothing was forced into the game to fit the story or mechanic. Rather, it was “an iterative process where a gameplay component influences story, which influences the visuals and sound, and it can come full circle.”

“The world just keeps getting bigger and bigger and I keep getting more insignificant.”

A potent example of the creative process behind Maquette, and one of Lemoore’s proudest achievements, involves the level known as The Escape. In this level, players relive the couple, Kenzie and Michael, breaking up. Unable to handle the loss, the protagonist tries to hide from their feelings, a despair players experience as an attempt to escape the recursive world. However, instead of ending up somewhere new, players just end up in a large-scale version of the world they have always been in, the big, big world.

“Even before I had the love story, when I had my old story, I always wanted this idea of exploring not just the big world but the big, big world,” says Lemoore. “You definitely notice when you start to play with the big world, you’re having to do these long walks back to the small world in order to change something. And the big, big world is even bigger and takes forever to walk across it.”

Lemoore always envisioned this sense of scale as being a means to disempower the player, but with the love story, a whole new dimension was added. The gameplay sequence became more than just a change of pace; it became thematic.

“In my old story, it was literally about the player trying to escape the world. So they leave the small world, they go into the normal size world, they go into the big world, and then they go into the big, big world. And in the old story, that was more like, the farther I go the less effective I become; the world just keeps getting bigger and bigger and I keep getting more insignificant. And in the love story that connection is more about running away from your problems …You try to escape them, you try to move away from them but in a lot of ways you start to become more and more ineffective against that: you cannot run away from your problems forever.”

The shift in structure brought on by The Escape adds nuance to the gameplay that both precedes and succeeds it. During the beginning levels, the player, experiencing the happy years of the relationship, moves through the world with a sense of control – manipulating and rearranging the environment to their own ends. But, after the breakup, the illusion of control is shattered, says Lemoore.

“When the character’s world gets shaken up and broken we do the same thing with the puzzles and now you have these puzzles where you thought you understood how the world worked, in this very orderly, [this is] small, maybe I’m large, type of way. And now you have this world where it’s still kind of like that but it is in complete disarray. There is one line in that chapter [‘We had made our own world together and had lived there so long. that without you here with me I didn’t know who I was anymore.’] and that is literally the puzzles that we throw at you in that level.”

“You can have something that does not go right and doesn’t last forever but still come out of it with good memories.”

Lemoore hopes that the ending of the game will feel relatable and speak to players since it does not offer any easy answer to the emotional pain felt by the protagonist. Rather, it’s about finding acceptance and meaning in the reality of what happened.

Maquette Church Bell

“A huge takeaway that I want players to have is that you can have something that does not go right and doesn’t last forever but still come out of it with good memories. And so, some of the things we do in the final chapter is to recall some of the objects that you have been seeing throughout the previous chapters. We come back to the church bell, which would be a painful memory since they never got married. But we wanted to include something there that was like, ‘Hey this was from a painful time.’ The player shouldn’t think that they are trying to recall only the happy memories and suppress the bad ones. It really is kind of about being able to process everything that has happened and be able to come away with a sense of finality … that is basically moving on.”

A beautiful aspect of Maquette’s finale is that its themes are expressed in the gameplay itself. Up until the ending of the game, players try to exert control over the environment by altering minute details, but in the end, they take ownership of themselves. They cannot change what happened, but they can control how they see it. This plays out with the player being able to manipulate the entirety of the world, not its contents but the angle and orientation: its perspective.

“Gameplay-wise you start with a unique world that you start to understand over the course of four levels, but then as the story turns, so do the puzzle mechanics,” Lemoore explains. “And that was an intentional connection between the puzzles and the relationship.  At the end, you’re given this power you’ve never had in the previous chapters. And it’s far from God-like. There are still a lot of limitations.  But you’re in control of your world like you never have been before.  And that is in synchronicity with the story.”

“You are playing the same location changing over time.”

Ultimately, at the heart of Maquette is this idea of reality being an isolated experience – no matter how close we get to another person, we are always alone in our own minds. That is why, according to Lemoore, the game world never actually changes – you cannot ever leave yourself.

“One take away that I definitely want players to have is that you are not playing levels, you are playing the same location changing over time. That is why the dome is always the same and the layout is always the same. But the memories inside them change as we follow this relationship. So, you can think of them all as living in one infinite space rather than multiple infinite spaces.”

From the start of the game there are echoes of this solipsism in how the world is presented. Looking out at the horizon the player does not see new, vast environments, only larger and larger versions of the place they are already inhabit. Lemoore says they even coded the game to reflect this lonely truth: “On a simulation level, mathematically, we simulated infinitely … there is no escape.”

This is why the new world players enter into at the end of The Escape is actually no new world at all; it’s just a crack in a pillar. “The later chapters take place inside of the crack that you go into at the end of The Escape,” says Lemoore. “You can think of those later chapters as being not levels, but you can think of them as having a physical location inside this crack that’s actually inside one of the pillars in the dome, the giant dome structure.”

It’s even possible to see the crack at the beginning of the level before the player enters the big, big world. The crack exists in the same pillar at every part of the infinite world so it’s plainly visible in the normal-sized world as well as the miniature world housed in the model. The player and the protagonist may think they have escaped into some new reality since the puzzles there are certainly jumbled and chaotic, but all they have done is become obsessed with a tiny part of their world – an apt metaphor for a tormented mind.

“We didn’t want this to be a story where there’s a good guy or a bad guy.”

Maquette, in its existential observations and depiction of a failed relationship, is supposed to be a relatable experience where players can see themselves in the journey. So, Lemoore and his team decided to neither tell players who they are controlling nor give them much information about Michael and Kenzie – inviting players to take an active part in envisioning the characters.

“I didn’t feel like I needed to have an answer there that made people say, ‘Oh, I’m playing as this person or I am playing as that person,’” says Lemoore. “We’ve gotten emails and tweets, stuff like that, where players are saying they were playing as Kenzie and that’s who they envisioned. For them, that is the right answer. Other people have said, ‘Oh, I was playing as Michael.’ And that’s the right answer. Even if you don’t ever resonate with one of them, or maybe at times you connect with one and at other times you connect with the other, that’s kind of the right answer too because we didn’t want this to be a story where there’s a good guy or a bad guy … I wanted it to be played from any of those points of view.”

Maquette The Spiral

Having vague characters may invite audience participation but it also runs the risk of having the player not care. To ensure player attachment, Lemoore required authentic acting and dialogue. For a long time, Lemoore hoped to workshop the characters and scenes with actors to create a natural, improvisational feel. This never happened due to time restraints, but thanks to some clever casting, Lemoore and his team found a way to bring Kenzie and Michael’s relationship to life.

Since Lemoore could not create characters from scratch in a workshop, he and the team discussed the idea of finding a real-life couple to play the parts. Annapurna Interactive made this dream a reality when they found Hollywood couple Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. The duo brought their experience as professionals, and as a couple, to the proceedings and enriched the game.

“When Annapurna came back with Bryce and Seth, I could not believe it …. We ended up workshopping on the spot,” Lemoore says. “There were definitely scenes where Bryce or Seth would read through a line and say, ‘this doesn’t quite sound right.’ Then I would say, ‘Yeah, well let’s talk it through.’ And, you know, Bryce and Seth would just kind of workshop it together, and I could lean back and watch them do that. And those moments made it into the game and are much better for it. They were really incredible to work with.”

“How do I tell this love story without making it be about palaces or castles or whatever it would be?”

Graphics and art are always an integral part of a game’s appeal, but with Maquette, the visuals needed to be more than pleasing as the success of the recursive mechanic depended on them.

“It dawned on me really early on that our architecture needs to be really, really unique,” recalls Lemoore. “You really need these statement pieces that let you say, ‘Oh this big palace here is the same as this that palace there – those are the same thing.’ And so, the question was, how do I tell this love story without making it be about palaces or castles or whatever it would be?”

Lemoore eventually found his answer: a sketchbook. This sketchbook, shared by Michael and Kenzie, drives the entirety of Maquette’s story. Not only is finding the sketchbook the catalyst that prompts the protagonist to reminisce about the relationship, it serves as an artistic rendition of everything that transpired since Michael and Kenzie drew in it together. Using the sketchbook, Lemoore and his team could create any crazy architecture they wanted and still ground it in the lives of two normal people while also imbuing the world with symbolism. The sketchbook, in some ways, is where the whole game takes place: the lens through which the protagonist’s insular world comes to life.

“The opening of the game actually takes place inside of the painting they paint together on the 4th of July, at the end of The Gateways,” Lemoore states. “It used to be referenced, but as the script changed, it got dropped. If you think about the beginning of the game – the location on the title screen, then the gardens, and then the sketchbook at the end of the first chapter that leads directly into the coffee shop cutscene, you can start to piece together some of the deeper narrative about what led up to the letter being written in the first place.”

“I came up early on with the idea to curate songs that could pair with the various ups and downs of this relationship.”

The music may not be instrumental to Maquette’s mechanics in the same way the visuals are, but for Lemoore and his team, it quickly became just as important.

“Once the love story was in place, and once we set it in San Francisco, we could draw off of that in so many ways,” Lemoore says. “And I came up early on with the idea to curate songs that could pair with the various ups and downs of this relationship, and it could kind of serve as a playlist these characters listened to together.  I added that extra element of making it all music connected to the SF bay area in some way, again, just to anchor it in the character’s reality.  I feel like in a way, had I not done that, we would have just been licensing music in a very general way. But by connecting it to San Francisco, it made me research it and vet it more, and it’s led to a more curated experience.”  

The vetting paid off as Maquette’s soundtrack is one of the most lauded elements of the game. Eclectic and haunting, the songs chime in at the perfect moments to set the tone. Consider the song “Tidal Waves” by Meredith Edgar, which plays when Kenzie and Michael first start to get together. The track pulses with the passion of a new relationship while the lyrics underscore the looming dread. This deep connection of theme, story, and song was no accident and as the production went along, Lemoore and the team found themselves altering elements of the game to better suit their curated soundtrack.

“During a point late in the project, we thought a song wasn’t working, and we talked about breaking the SF rule and licensing a piece that was more fitting,” Lemoore states. “But I thought a lot about it, and it just felt so evasive to do that. It was odd, because these are invented characters, and the majority of people who play Maquette will never know the Bay Area connection all the songs have.  But it was a point where I noticed consciously how big a difference there was between the songs we had tracked down for these very specific moments, versus just picking music out of a catalog. In the end, we realized the mismatch had more to do with the storytelling than it did with the song.  And we reworked that part of the game around the song, and it came out so great.”

Aside from the soundtrack, Maquette also contains a subtle score, and it too contains a thematic purpose. The early sketchbook cutscenes that depict the budding relationship contain some original piano music written by Cody Predum, Maquette’s Audio Director. Lemoore describes the music as feeling reminiscent “to a fairy tale relationship, but in later levels [it] fades away as the characters return to reality.”

“We wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t just skin deep, draped over an existing game.”

It took over 10 years, but Lemoore’s vision has finally come to players: a vision that is more than the sum of its parts, something harmonious and impactful. “We put a lot of work into [Maquette] and we 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.”

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