The word that comes to my mind when I play Model, the indie-pop puzzle game from developer Graceful Decay, is recursive. It means repetition, a pattern that repeats endlessly, like the florets of Romanesco broccoli or the branches of a snowflake. The grammar can be recursive, with a single structure used over and over again in a sentence. Thinking can also be recursive – thinking about the thought itself. In Model, the world itself is recursive, turning otherwise simple environments into upside down puzzles that repeat themselves for eternity.
The story of Model talks 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 history, we ask Michael (years later) to go through a sketchbook the couple once shared. Their whimsical drawings of castles, cafes and dream homes provide a keyhole view of their time together.
The model in question is literally a model version of the world, and it is the building that the game is centered on. The player will return to it over and over again, albeit in three different sized versions of the space. It’s riddled with puzzles to solve as Michael reflects on the lifespan of the relationship that began with a meeting at a cafe, in this sketchbook.
puzzles in Model involve moving objects between recursive worlds at different scales. For example, if you pick up a small item like a ticket stub in the regular-sized world and drop it into the miniature mockup, that item will appear massively in the regular-sized world. It helps to watch the trailer:
Riddles at the start of Model are relatively simple, defining the rules of the world. A breach 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 mockup, in the correct slot, it can act as the large missing piece of the bridge in the larger version of the world you inhabit. The puzzles range from very easy to extremely difficult, but they never feel broken or unfair. There are no tricky tricks that artificially increase the difficulty or complete a level; you just need the right perspective, noticing little things that might mean a lot in another context.
Perspective makes all the difference not only in solving puzzles, but also in making sense of the story. The couple have a familiar, if not dull, romance. But if relationships live and die every day, for the couple in love (and then, not in love), the link can look like anything. In Model, we are in the head of this guy, his grandiose world and his vision alternately romanticized and idealized, constantly centered on himself.
Model, at its best, captures this man’s growth as it twists the story and puzzles, allowing the latter to double as metaphors that amplify the former. It carries themes of simultaneity, between ordinary romance and the magic of being in love, a little key that is a massive bridge and little cracks that create huge divots.
It reminds me of a relationship I had, a relationship that I thought I would never get out of. It’s these memories of mine that give ModelStorytelling carries that emotional weight, even when the writing is awkward or stilted. When I think back to that relationship, it’s just a point in my 32 years of life, something you hardly think about. It’s hard to imagine there was a time when it was so much bigger, when I lived in a fantasy world of my own creation – but I did. And Model has the right rhythms, and the recursions, to bring this feeling in me, this conflicting sense of scale.
Sometimes I would roll my eyes at Michael’s whining moments or at some of the little things the couple were arguing over. Maybe those mundane parts of the relationship, how much people fall in love and fall in love, contrast with the fantasy world of the game – the space that Michael and Kenzie built together and in which they stand. Their relationship breaks down for seemingly minor reasons, but in their intimate world, the details are far more important.
It’s refreshing to see romance like the beating heart of a video game. Titles like another game published by Annapurna Florence or that of Nina Freeman We met in May built on the importance of small moments to create emotional weight. Model questions the relationship as a whole, showing something to the contrary – that there are times when these little moments end up filling a relationship that just ended. And that’s OK.
The magical world of Model never fades, but the relationship fades. And so the world changes with him, the colorful fantasy turning gray, the model tattered and broken. (At least, for Michael.) It’s not necessarily a spoiler; it’s something that’s clear from the start, a connotation that overshadows the whole story, even in its happiest moments. The player has known from the start that the relationship – no matter how good and perfect it looks – ends up ending.
Model is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC via Steam. The game has been tested using a PS5 code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find more information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.