Maize is a game about sentient corn, sort of.
For a long time, I had this vague memory of watching a weird animated Christmas special that featured strange characters I hadn’t seen anywhere else. I remembered a stogie-chomping pink thing that I think was the villain and various bent-nosed forest creatures of indeterminate species. It turns out it was The Christmas Raccoons, a holiday special that was eventually turned into a full series.
Something about Maize (2016, Finish Line Games) is “off” in the same way I remember Raccoons being off, and the common denominator is that they’re both products of Canada. Maize is a comedy adventure game about a pair of idiot scientists who develop a strain of talking corn.
“Off” isn’t a pejorative here, it’s just a recognizably different sense of humor, sort of the way the running gags in Kids in the Hall were different from the concurrent ones in Saturday Night Live. The running jokes in Maize remind me a lot of a Saturday morning cartoon, and they can verge on grating.
There’s the Soviet-knockoff Teddy Ruxpin named Vladdy, who is attached to a Radio Shack Armatron toy for reasons the game doesn’t think are important enough to bother explaining. He constantly grumbles, in a perfectly cartoon Russian accent, about whatever’s happening, but his descriptive vocabulary is limited to “stupid” and “idiot.” There’s the trio of talking cornstalks who show up from time to time with a message, and there’s always some joke about how they can’t remember anything for very long and like taking naps.
But the underlying humor and charm of the game manages to make these annoyances minor. You start out with very little establishing information, other than that you’re in a corn maze (ha ha) and something has gone wrong. All you have is a fossilized English muffin. The opening moments have a kind of quantum feeling of a game that could veer into horror at any time. Instead, Maize dives deep into cartoonish goofiness, but the beautifully detailed environments (rendered in Unreal 4) maintain a certain Myst-like ominousness throughout. There’s a creepy boarded-up farmhouse, a desiccated corpse near the barn, and Hoarders-esque piles of trash filling rooms and hallways.
Mercifully, none of the puzzles in Maize are as obtuse as anything in Myst, although a few do involve some tedious tracking back and forth around the large underground research facility (related: there is an underground research facility). Ultimately, the puzzles are not so much barriers to overcome as breadcrumbs to follow, because Maize is really about reading the trail of post-it notes left by the two delusional scientists who once ran the intelligent corn project. Working opposite shifts (on purpose, it seems), the mismatched researchers’ only means of communication is passive-aggressive notes left stuck to just about every surface. One is perpetually flabbergasted by the other’s astronomical budget overruns on items like statues and redundant lobbies. While you’re piecing together this forensic story, you’ll also be periodically accosted by three stalks of (debatably) sentient corn, who give you messages from their leader before hurrying off for another round of napping.
To say more would spoil the glorious payoff of Maize’s final 45 minutes. The bizarre, macabre, and silly threads it’s spun over the course of a spare three hours come together in a twist finale that is so hilarious and utterly Canadian that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Yes, the lead-up is occasionally annoying (and poor Vladdy is a pain in the ass), but Maize sticks the landing with aplomb.