Model has all the makings of my favorite type of game. It boasts a gorgeous pastel-toned aesthetic, backing from top independent publisher Annapurna, and an ingenious central mechanism that requires players to solve puzzles through nested dioramas, like a puzzle made from Russian dolls. To top it off, it’s all framed in a tender story of young love. Still, when I played the game last week, I was disappointed that it lacks the elegance of the Infinity Mirrors and FabergÃ© Eggs it conjures up. Its clockwork movement is disjointed.
Dedicated puzzle games such as Model are an ever-popular genre, while elements of puzzles often nestle in other games, such as action and role-playing titles. In a sense, a puzzle is when a game is most of itself: not imitating the story of a novel, the music of an album, or the performance of a blockbuster movie. Puzzles are games doing something only they can do, asking the player a question and letting him deduce the answer.
It is in puzzles that the ingenuity of game designers really shines. These can be brilliantly simple, like the evergreen block-stacker Tetris, or as devious as Baba it’s you, which asks players to manipulate the syntax of word blocks to change the rules governing each level. Such games include the immense pleasure we get from problem solving. They don’t feel the need for a shoehorn in a storyline, just as sudokus don’t rely on serial novels or cliffhangers to keep players coming back to the diary every day.
However, some puzzle games successfully tell stories. The influential PC game of 1993 Myst was an early success, inviting players to explore a mysterious island and uncover its secrets through a series of interrelated puzzles. Japanese titles such as Ghost ride and the Professor Layton the series define their challenges in captivating storylines with charming characters. Modern classic Portal and its sequel are a masterclass in design, with inventive puzzles (referenced in Modelthe use of abyss) and a memorable storyline that features one of video game‘s all-time greatest villains: the cunning and sarcastic robot GLaDOS.
Perhaps the video game‘s most inspired puzzle maker is author Jonathan Blow, whose 2008 title Braid explored the themes of memory by allowing the player to manipulate the flow of time, while 2016 The witness was more oblique, suggesting that the meaning is not made from an auxiliary storyline, but by uncovering the elemental puzzles that lurk in the world around us, waiting to be observed and solved.
With this impressive lineage to draw from, I had high hopes for Model. It has been in development for 10 years and follows the line of first-person puzzles (like Myst, The witness, and Call of the sea) and recursive puzzles (like Garden collector and Tale of a fisherman). The central idea is undeniably brilliant: you explore a series of fantastic castles, gardens and fairgrounds around a scarlet dome, in the center of which is a scale model of your surroundings, the titular model. As you manipulate items in the mockup, the larger world around you changes accordingly. The puzzles are solved by exploiting this mechanism – drop a marble in the model and a large boulder appears behind you. At first, the mechanical imagination of the game is positively uplifting.
ModelThe artistic style of is a sumptuous bath of soft hues and speckled light, offering the player jeweled touches, glittering crystals and golden tickets, objects that seem loaded with symbolic meaning. Meanwhile, a bold and somewhat sentimental soundtrack attempts to anchor players in the game’s story, which chronicles the slow onset and eventual breakdown of a relationship between two American hipsters. This is where the game breaks down: unlike its lyrical, bright, and skillful visual style, the writing and characterization is weighted and predictable, interpreted as a school theater production. I was shocked to learn that the lovers are played by an actual couple, actors Seth Gabel and Bryce Dallas Howard, given their complete lack of chemistry.
As the story falls flat, other parts of the game fall apart. Despite the clever vanity, the individual puzzles can be hopelessly obscure, forcing me to consult guides online for help. A good puzzle shouldn’t contain superfluous details, and it should organically teach you how to use its systems – the game fails on both counts. But above all I wanted Model to function as a poignant metaphor for a relationship, to explore how being in love changes our perspective, causing us to lose our sense of proportion, leaving us lost among the fantastic worlds we project onto the walls of our minds. Instead, it resolves itself as a shimmering backdrop to a bland love story, a puzzle whose pieces never quite fit together.