|William Chyr Studio
|William Chyr Studio
|PC, Mac, iOS, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch,
|Epic Games Store, & Apple Arcade: October 18th, 2019
Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, & Xbox One: August 18th, 2020
The debate over whether or not video games count as an art form has been going on for literally decades. If you’re reading this, it is probable that you’re on board with the idea that video games could be considered an art form. But if you’re still on the fence, Manifold Garden might just tip you over the edge, or at least, it will do its absolute best to do so. Developer William Chyr actually chose to delve into video games not because of a love of programming, but in a search to expand his previous work as a sculptor. And now, eight years after he initially began working on the project, Manifold Garden has hit the home console market.
Spiritual Content: Manifold Garden is very surreal and meditative, lending, in my opinion, a sense of spirituality to the whole experience. Nothing is explicitly stated, other than one achievement entitled “Transcended.” Each chapter consists of freeing a “God Cube” from the clutches of darkness, and each God Cube plants a tree that creates a small section of the titular Garden.
As I mentioned before, William Chyr’s inspiration for entering video game development came from a desire to expand his work as a large-scale balloon sculptor. When other mediums proved not to be cost-effective, he chose instead to make a game that incorporated infinite space. His original title for the project was Relativity, after the M. C. Escher print of the same name, before finally settling on Manifold Garden.
Chyr also wanted to create a game that he himself could complete after discovering that he’d missed an entire section of puzzles during his playthrough of The Witness. He wanted a game without explicit instructions, instead using the puzzles themselves to guide and teach the player about the infinitely looping world into which the game thrusts them.
So why am I spending all this time discussing the background of the game? Well, I think it’s important to understand the mentality of the developer when it comes to a game like Manifold Garden. Otherwise you may very well miss most of what it has to offer. I went into Manifold Garden completely blind, and while I did complete the game, looking back now, I think I missed most of its actual meaning.
On its surface, Manifold Garden is a first-person puzzle game, with obvious inspiration from the Portal franchise, as well as the previously-mentioned The Witness. The main brunt of the game involves placing colored cubes onto their matching switches. The main twist of the gameplay is the fact that you can swap gravity to any wall you can reach with the press of a button. As you do that, cubes that share your plane of gravity will activate and fall, if applicable, while other cubes will freeze in place. This means that you can place cubes on the floor, then swap gravity and use them as shelves for other cubes, using them to get cubes to higher places than you would otherwise.
The first part of Manifold Garden takes place mainly within individual chambers, each containing one puzzle, (again with the Portal flashbacks), but eventually, you come to a door that leads outside. Your path leads forward, and then stops, with the other door on the other side of an impassable gap. You can’t jump; all you can do is run right off the edge of the path. As you glance over the edge, you see a platform below jutting out of a massive tower. Your only option appears to be jumping off the cliff to said platform.
You take a running leap off the cliff edge and look down toward your goal as the air rushes around you. With a thud, you find yourself standing firmly…on the other side of the initial gap. You fell down, only to proceed forward. As you look around, you see that the platform you saw below you was actually the platform in front of you. The tower, your path, and the platform all repeat infinitely up, down, left, and right. No matter where you go, you’ll end up in the same place.
And this is where Manifold Garden begins to show its true colors as more than a puzzle game, but a game that seeks to be an experience, cut from much the same cloth as Journey. The puzzles continue, but eventually, the game begins to feel more like an unguided tour of an Escher print—living up to its initial inspiration—rather than a linear goal-oriented experience.
The “story,” if one could call it that, centers around you cultivating trees of various colors in the titular garden, as well as dispelling a dark force that appears to be taking over the garden. You do this by finding “God Cubes,” each of which containing one of the larger areas of the game, and planting them in the garden. Each God Cube leads to the next area, which, once completed, shrinks down into another God Cube that you can use to plant the next tree, and so on and so forth.
Manifold Garden consists of three main types of areas: the aforementioned small puzzle chambers, vast corridors and structures that span the space between levels, and finally, large, open areas that cap off every level, filled with moving platforms and mind-bending puzzles and still more enormous structures.
I enjoyed the smaller puzzle chambers, mostly because I could understand them. They involved some very non-linear thinking that got my brain working in a way many puzzle games fail to do. They are engaging, due just as much to Martin Kvale’s wonderful sound design and Laryssa Okada’s sweeping synth soundtrack as to the puzzles themselves. Every gravity swap, activated switch, and expansive room is accompanied by a tone or chord that kept inspiring me to continue.
The intermediary corridors, too, are a visual and audible treat. Walking into these structures is always a spectacle, usually accompanied by a swell in the music as the infinite space opens up before me. These were the moments that I think Chyr and his team wanted to capture when they moved into video games as a medium.
The outdoor areas, on the other hand, are simply confusing. Gone are the puzzle chambers, replaced instead with large areas rendered even larger by the infinitely looping space. Many times, “solving” these puzzles felt more like wandering around until I stumbled upon a switch to open a door or the correct-colored block. Ironically enough, getting lost was a major problem during playtesting, especially with the gravity swapping mechanic, and the team designed each outdoor level to appear unique. They also strategically used windows to allow players to orient themselves.
That…didn’t help me. I spent my first 20 minutes or so in each of these areas wandering from place to place, hoping I’d eventually find the solution. It also didn’t help that the game’s stylistic color palette of off-white, purple, and a strange green, left everything looking identical no matter which way I oriented myself. I eventually moved from appreciating the game’s beautiful design to being frustrated that everything looked like an architectural rendering done on cream stationery.
Something else about the game that struck me as odd is what I mentioned in the Content Guide. There’s a strange zen aspect to the game that almost gives the impression of a religious ritual throughout. Manifold Garden isn’t spiritually troubling in any way, but it’s worth noting that this game seeks to touch you on a level that’s distinct from even story-driven games like The Last of Us 2. It feels like a game that Alan Watts would enjoy, if that tells you anything at all. Whether that’s a downside or upside depends entirely on the player, I think.
But perhaps I wasn’t the only one who found the psychedelic experience a bit overwhelming, as my poor PS4 seemed to be having a hard time keeping up too. The PS4 version of the game seems to be prone to crashing fairly regularly, as I experienced at least three crashes in my 8-hour playthrough. The game’s generous autosave feature meant that I never lost more than a few minutes of progress, but still, crashes are a turnoff regardless.
I did persevere to the end of the game, only to do some reading and realize that there are ways of beating the game that involves collecting only one God Cube, as well as ways to link back to previous levels and find hidden areas, all of which net you additional achievements. I was supposed to do more exploration than I already did, and there’s more left in the game hidden just out of my reach. But will I go back to dig into all that Manifold Garden truly has to offer? I suppose that depends on whether or not I’m feeling particularly aesthetic that day, because at the end of the day, that’s the aspect that really stood out to me: the aesthetic appeal of Manifold Garden. That’s why I started out with the philosophy of William Chyr himself, because it is the undercurrent of the entire experience that is Manifold Garden.
This was a hard review to write, because it’s a hard game to classify. Did I have fun with Manifold Garden? Not particularly. In fact, I found myself bored and frustrated more often than I did actually having fun. Was I changed by my experience with it? I suppose it gave me a little thinking space amid all the craziness of this year, and it certainly offers a visual experience that I feel is worth seeing. But for that, you could just watch a playthrough of the game on YouTube with some nice headphones.
Whether or not Manifold Garden is worth the $20 asking price really comes down to whether or not you want a memorable experience with a game that truly is unlike any other I’ve played. I think Chyr accomplished his goal of creating a work of art in this game; denying that would be a difficult task indeed. But when it comes to the medium of being a video game, sure, it succeeded in being a piece of interactive media, but I’m not sure it succeeded in being fun.
However, that last statement is, perhaps, missing the point entirely. Maybe the game is meant to be more of a meditative and slow-paced experience, and I’m just impatient. In fact, I’m sure that’s the case. But, in my opinion, media like video games really live or die based on the player experience, and for my money, I’ll take a game that gives me a memorable story and lets me have a little fun with it than a game that creates a gorgeous world, but leaves me feeling a little overwhelmed and frustrated by the time I make it through. Still, I applaud the team for taking on a monumental task and for their final product, especially as it relates to video games as an art form. It’s an important step, and their efforts are by no means wasted. But for now, I think I need some Fall Guys to let my brain uncoil.
Review copy generously provided by The Indie Bros.
The Bottom Line
Manifold Garden achieves its goal of being a beautiful and unique experience, but at the cost of navigable environments and user experience.