Let’s get it out of the way at the top that, yes, Maize is a game about sentient corn, and yes, that’s an absurd premise for a game. Can we also agree that it’s something that we very much need right now? In a world filled with realistic games and rich RPGs, sometimes it’s nice to just suspend some disbelief and have fun with a silly premise for a while. Maize is one such game, and it was a refreshing break from the serious—and an important one at that.
The game kicks off in typical Myst fashion with the player waking up an in otherwise alien environment and with no explanation as to whom they are, or why they’re there. Unlike many other first-person adventure games, however, Maize is at least somewhat familiar in that it’s set on a plot of farmland amid a maze of cornfields. Does anyone else need a shower after that one, or is it just me? Anywho, the player soon discovers that all is not what it appears to be in this quaint, horror-movie-in-the-waiting corner of rural wherever. It doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the ridiculous in a way that I fondly remember from 90s RARE titles.
After solving the game’s first few introductory puzzles, the player is introduced to the first bit of insight into the plot of the game: the area is overrun by a gang of sentient corn stalks! Also, they’re a bit dim – of the Clockwork Orange variety if you catch my drift. In typical Saturday morning cartoon fashion, their bickering allows you to pass forth into the super-secret research facility hidden below the farm, where, once inside, things start to make themselves clear. As it happens, the facility was used by brothers Ted and Bob. Through the stories told by combination of puzzles and passive-aggressive sticky notes scattered around the facility, it’s immediately apparent that Ted is an understated scientific genius, and Bob is a bit of a special snowflake. In true comedy-duo fashion, Ted is forced to play Bob’s game while trying to conduct work on top-secret military programs. Between Bob’s clearly insistent nature and the scribblings depicting corn-people found on his desk, sentient corn actually presents itself as one of the more sensical plot points.
Vlad, on the other hand… Vlad is what happens when a Russian companion bear (because: reasons), a backpack, a servo arm, and a keyboard with RAM wedged into it are stuck together. Need I say more? He’s the cynical, hard-talking, insult-hurling comic relief, and I actually kinda like him, if only because, in context, he’s one of the less silly parts of the story. I mean, once you spoof the recognition software for a door using a coat rack, a jumpsuit, a sweaty headband, and an Etch-a-Sketch depiction Bob’s face, you can start to appreciate the game for what it is: honest, silly storytelling.
What I really appreciate most of all about Maize, though, is not its puzzles, its characters, or even its written story, but instead its implied story. The details in the world are wonderful, in a very over-the-top sort of way, and the accompanying background music is perfectly fitting for the them. It really does feel like playing through a kid’s cartoon. Dialogue points are simple enough for younglings to appreciate, yet there’s enough going on that even at thirty years old, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kids will see a silly picture of Ted as a horse, being triumphantly ridden by Bob; adults will appreciate the significance of it being the Napoleonic painting Crossing The Alps. There’s even a transition from one part of the facility to the next that has no purpose to its layout—unless you remember the original Deus Ex and can place it from the free clinic in Hell’s Kitchen, all punctuated by similar cyperpunkian music. It’s one of the most subtle and well-executed homages I’ve ever seen in a game. Fantastic.
I’ll admit that Maize is a game that started out a bit slow for me; I mistakenly thought that it was silly for the sake of being silly. Happily, though, I took a step back to appreciate its finer points, and the bigger picture started to come together very quickly. It’s not a statement of criticism towards game design; it’s an attempt to lead by example. Where a game like Spec Ops: The Line throws the problems of modern videogame storytelling in the player’s face and comes off a bit preachy, Maize instead decides to treat its players as intelligent human beings, allowing for subtle discovery. Its puzzles may not be obtuse and ridiculous in the way that many 90s adventure games were, but that leaves the game perfectly accessible to a younger audience.
Critically, though, it shows that we can still have a game with cross-generational appeal without simply pandering. I can’t think of many (if any) games that do that as well as Maize. Most importantly, though, it reminds us that “fun” and “rewarding” can still coexist, even in a game that I would share with my young nephew.