My major question when first-person-puzzler Maize [official site] got announced was not “lolwut talking corn???’ but rather ‘what even is this game?’ We knew there was anthropomorphic crop but not a lot else. I like not knowing what something is when I come to play it, as it spares me from worrying ‘what if it just does this again or gets that thing wrong?’ So Maize and its weirdo plant-people has had me intrigued. Now, however, I do know what it is. Kinda preferred it when I didn’t.
I’ve been playing preview code, which cuts off at a certain point but otherwise is in good technical shape. Turns out Maize is essentially a traditional point and click game but from a first-person perspective – and by ‘traditional’ I don’t mean just the fact of inventory-based puzzles, but also the high concept comedy that characterises much of that age-old genre. Sometimes that can be sublime, sometimes it can just fail to land many gags, and other times… Well, other times it’s wacky. And Maize sure is wacky.
Wacky characters telling wacky old jokes to each other in wacky voices. Wacky unseen workers leaving wacky post-it notes to each other about their wacky disagreements. Wacky puzzles about constructing wacky sentient toys out old parts.
Do you have a wacky soul? Then you won’t be playing this through gritted teeth, as I was. I love the way Maize looks, its towering corn fields and eerie maize mazes, its run-down farmhouses and its unexpected swoops into Portal-style gonzo labs and its few but creepy characters. I like some of its puzzling, which comes through organic exploration of large and detailed environments rather than is built around copious amounts of backtracking or rinse and repeat item use.
But I can’t stand the wack. Just can’t do it. It’s psychological torture for me. Maybe the jokes would be OK if they didn’t have the funny voices too. Maybe the voices would be charming if they didn’t have to spit out so much try-hard wibble. Maybe the post-it notes depicting the ongoing passive aggression between one smart and one stupid, slobby scientists would work if we were not also asked to believe that they had somehow achieved ground-breaking experiments and raised untold millions in funding together. Suspension of disbelief, sure, but the trouble is in Maize there is only The Wack.
In fairness, most of the time in Maize you’re on your own, which only makes the sporadic, staged appearances of the funny voice gang all the more jarring. I’ll also note that the preview build doesn’t let me know who I’m supposed to be – human or vegetable. Quite possibly this is part of some later reveal, but no mystery is made of it – it comes across more like an oversight. Anyway, there I am, wandering fields and farmhouses, finding a handful objects that work with very specific other objects, primarily with the age-old intention of opening doors.
When it tries to do more than this, Maize becomes one of those games where you can see the solution before you even know what the puzzle or even purpose of it is. I’m collecting all this stuff, often it’s entirely obvious from observation that it will only do or work with one specific thing, but I have zero idea why I need to it. I’m doing it because the objects are there and they have a white glow, not because there is anything particular I’m trying to achieve.
This is particularly eregious in a puzzle towards the end of the build, which involves making a stuffed toy come to life, speak with a grumpy Russian accent and wear a backpack with robotic grabby-hand on it. During my purposeless wandering around an underground laboratory I’ve gone into only because it’s there, one particular table I amble past has the ghostly outline of three different objects I need, all combined into a bear-with-backpack-and-claw shape.
So I know I need those things: fine. I don’t know why I need a bear with a backpack and claw. I have encountered nothing that would require such a thing, and in fact don’t even have somewhere I need to be. I have no goal. I’m just making this thing because I can.
I guess I wished Maize had put as much effort into giving context for what it asks of the player as it does pummelling their ears with wack-to-max gags. I think it looks great – its artists have done some outstanding work, and its eerie b-movie music is a treat too. It also has a certain flow to it – though its puzzles might be often presented back-to-front, they neither frustrate or feel too obvious. There’s something here, sure. But if it’s going to escape feeling annoying and arbitrary, Maize needs to think more about how it conveys its objectives and whether or not something is truly funny just because it’s spoken rapidly in a funny voice.
Maize is due for release this Autumn/Fall.