As USgamer's resident walking simulator expert, I can fully admit this genre tends to keep its premises almost universally creepy. Most games of this stripe typically take place after some huge disaster or event, which provides a fine excuse to rid the world of everyone besides you.
I had no reason to think differently of Finish Line Games' Maize, even if co-lead developers Daniel Posner and Brandon Hicks were being slightly coy about the premise before sitting me down for a brief demo. And while Maize doesn't take very long to show you its true intentions, its first few minutes start off like your average walking simulator. After kicking things off by dropping you into a maze of—you guessed it—corn, it's never really clear whether or not something might suddenly jump out at you. Then the corn starts talking, making it more than clear Maize isn't interested in making you pee—even a little.
Maize can't help but feel somewhat Portal-like with its premise. After a brief prologue outdoors, you're soon thrust into an underground labyrinth. And instead of being a corn maze, it's a maze made by corn (though one built to look like a modern office space). As I wandered through the halls, reading the numerous Post-It-Note conversations between the bickering architects, I stumbled upon my second puzzle, one a little more complex than the lock-and-key challenges from minutes before. After collecting a handful of random computer parts, I combined them sentient, cyborg teddy bear, who proceeded to berate me in a Russian accent. Needless to say, when the demo ended shortly after my fuzzy friend came to life, I had more than a few questions.
While Maize puts its very British sense of humor up front—even if its developers are Canadian—the project started out as a much more literal interpretation of the central idea: a procedurally generated, sentient corn maze that would warp and change in subtle ways to mess with the player's mind. But the rise of games like The Stanley Parable and Gone Home inspired Posner and Hicks to come up with a more interesting way to communicate their idea. "If a walking simulator is on one end of the spectrum, and something like The Witness is on the other end," says Hicks, "we're probably in the middle of that—maybe leaning a bit more towards walking simulator."
The team originally wanted to fake players out—in the manner of Gone Home—by presenting Maize as a horror game, but eventually decided to be honest with their teaser trailer, which features a living cornstalk trying in vain to shoo away a hungry crow. And even if it got a few chuckles out of me, Maize isn't a laugh-a-minute experience; my brief demo offered plenty of moments of silent contemplation as I wondered what bizarre thing I'd see around the next corner. And this mix of comedy and suspense is entirely intentional: "We just realized corn is such an otherworldly strange thing, in and of itself, and it's always associated with horror, and suspense, and terror, because it's so imposing. It would be the perfect thing to invert, and turn on its head, and make absurd and ridiculous," says Hicks.
Maize definitely shows a lot of promise, but the very small slice I encountered couldn't possibly indicate whether or not it could sustain its premise for the full experience—or if its cheeky sense of humor could grow grating over time. Still, walking simulators could stand to take some new approaches, seeing as the only humor-focused one I can think of at the moment is The Stanley Parable. Maize gets extra points for its incredibly silly premise alone; hopefully, Finish Line Games can make its irresistible premise more than just a novelty. We'll find out when it launches for the PC this fall.