THE MAKING OF... MANIFOLD GARDEN
How an artist’s Escher-inspired practice project became a seven-year odyssey
Format iOS, PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox Series, Xbox One Developer/publisher William Chyr Studio Origin US Release 2019
Falling in Manifold Garden is a disarmingly meditative experience. As the wind whistles by, you see the very same roof you leapt from rushing back upwards to meet you. Look left, look right: see the level repeat itself infinitely, a dizzying vision of eternity floating in a starless void. You’re safe here, free to continue your descent in a smooth, continuous loop. It’s an astonishing effect, one that never fails to delight for the entirety of this firstperson puzzler, and it’s all the more impressive when you consider that it is game director William Chyr’s first videogame. However, the moment was a long time coming – seven years, to be exact.
After graduating from the University Of Chicago in 2009, Chyr started making balloon animals as a street performer to get through the summer. Following an internship with advertising agency Leo Burnett, during which time Chyr created an award-winning ad for feminine hygiene products, he moved to his teenage hometown, Toronto, and got a job making science museum exhibits, alongside creating balloon-sculpture installations.
He moved back to Chicago in 2012 and wanted to try something new – considering glassblowing, metalworking and even studying architecture. Then a friend reintroduced him to videogames. It had been over a decade since he’d previously played games properly, and the likes of Flower, Braid and Journey convinced him that this was the medium he’d been looking for.
His initial idea was to create a time-travelling MMORPG based in Chicago, but he worried this might be too ambitious. Instead, he decided to work on a smaller project, inspired by Portal, to learn game development. “So my first challenge was: how do I find a mechanic that messes with physics?” Chyr says. For inspiration he looked to the work of MC Escher and the Christopher Nolan film Inception, in which characters can defy gravity by walking on impossible dream architecture. “I thought, ‘Hey, that could be a cool mechanic’,” Chyr explains. “In that early version, it wasn’t the player changing gravity and walking up the wall: you rotated the entire level.”
A prototype, originally named Relativity after Escher’s 1953 work, was developed over Thanksgiving weekend in 2012. However, Chyr quickly realised this central mechanic wasn’t working. It was in 2013, while he was living as an artist-in-residence in Shanghai, that he decided to start over and landed on the game’s gravityshifting
mechanic, where players can alter their centre of gravity to walk on walls and explore impossible architecture. The residency lasted for six months and gave him the chance to playtest his builds with other artists. They were engaged, but started to flag around the fifth puzzle room.
Chyr knew he had something interesting when showing the game to an Austrian artist. At a certain point, they subconsciously switched from speaking aloud in English to German. “That’s when I knew: OK, this is actually an interesting mechanic that’s making people think,” Chyr says. “But the issue was, besides puzzles, there was nothing else. It was just one room after another.”
What had started out as a practice project kept growing, though it took time for its scope to dawn on Chyr. “For the first two, three years of development, I was constantly telling everyone I was two months away from shipping and telling myself that as well. I don’t think it was until I was five years into development that I realised that I was in it for the long haul,” he laughs.
Chyr started taking his game to conferences such as GDC, where he’d watch people play the game and make note of any problems, before returning home to refine his work. Then he’d take it to another event and do it all over again. “Between 2014 and 2016, I went to about 30 conventions, festivals, conferences,” he explains. “I was basically going once a month.”
This iterative development process brought about many of Manifold Garden’s distinctive features. The game originally took place entirely indoors; when players said they wanted shadows on puzzle cubes, Chyr added windows as a light source. This inadvertently allowed players to see the unusual architecture outside, which they wanted to explore. This presented a new problem: what happens if you fall off a ledge? Chyr disliked invisible walls, instead smoothly resetting players to the level’s apex when they fell. However, this meant that Chyr couldn’t implement a skybox, leaving his levels floating in voids. The solution, suggested by a mathematician friend, was a looping world. Chyr wrapped duplicates of a level around its central instance in a grid, creating the illusion of infinitely repeating geometry, and voilà: 3D world wrapping. “None of [these moments] by themselves were massive revelations that changed the game,” Chyr says, “but over time all of them added up.”
Chyr initially focused on designing ‘exam puzzles’, where multiple concepts would be introduced individually before being combined together, but these simply weren’t enough fun. Additionally, a lack of pacing between puzzle rooms led to players getting ‘puzzle fatigue’. Chyr didn’t want to add voiceover as a solution, concerned that his game would be unfavourably compared to Portal, and instead designed interesting architectural spaces as palate cleansers. “At this time, it was a puzzle game with architectural elements,” he says. “It wasn’t until 2016 that I realised it was an architectural game with puzzle elements.”
“I DON’T THINK IT WAS UNTIL I WAS FIVE YEARS INTO DEVELOPMENT THAT I REALISED I WAS IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL”
Chyr received Indie Fund investment in 2015, enabling him to bring in other developers and focus on design. However, having worked as a solo artist since 2010, collaboration proved challenging. “It was tough,” he admits. “The first two years of working with people, it was like a revolving door. I had to learn to work with people, I had to learn to communicate. We didn’t use Slack or anything, we just talked on Skype – it was such a disaster.” Funding was also an issue. “We never really had enough money to guarantee people work,” Chyr explains.
In early 2017, he went back to working alone. He had been “90 per cent” hands-off from programming for 18 months and had to dive
into a messy codebase. Not having much confidence in his programming skills, he found this to be one of the scariest periods of development. However, everything changed when graphics programmer Arthur Brussee joined the project. Brussee, who had previously worked on Ori And The Blind Forest, was hired to fix an issue with the game’s portal system, supposedly for just a week’s work, but his involvement expanded quickly.
“To do that properly, my general impression was: ‘If I can be so bold here, let’s apply some more tech direction here and see where the thing is actually going’. That was, in hindsight, quite the power move,” Brussee laughs. “I didn’t quite intend it like that but Will was extremely nice about it. He was happy and like, ‘Yeah, sure, do your thing’.” The 3D world wrapping was a challenge for Brussee, who was misled by the game’s minimalistic art style; shouldn’t this be fast to render, particularly if it’s shipping on iPhone? “I don’t think I quite internalised that if the whole world is filled with these wraps, you’re not just rendering a bit more geometry, you’re rendering a ton more geometry,” Brussee says.
This required the creation of an automated system which crunched down spaces into lower levels of detail depending on their distance from the player – replacing animated objects with static objects, for example, or simplifying geometry. Brussee built a custom rendering system in Unity for the game’s portals, and was also responsible for the smooth black outlines around objects and structures, a crucial part of the game’s aesthetic. “It took me a while, but knowing that I could rely on Arthur, that he was going to do good work and he was going to be there for me, made me start trusting other people again,” Chyr says. The team eventually expanded to a core of eight developers, including composer Laryssa Okada. Music is a huge part of the game’s emotional core and Okada hoped to evoke a feeling of scale and grandiosity. However, she also wanted to keep things calm. “As I played the game, I was sometimes really frustrated because I’m not good at puzzles, so I just wanted to calm myself down and other players like me,” Okada says.
Okada’s score, inspired by musicians such as Pauline Oliveros, William Basinski, Brian Eno and Jóhann Jóhannsson, is highly responsive. Tracks evolve dynamically as you explore and interact with objects, with transitions fading slowly and seamlessly to ensure a smooth experience for the player. For a fairly structured level, Okada could
write a more traditional track to match before distilling it into loopable chunks. However, more freeform levels required a different solution.
“It’s almost programmatic in the approach. If you listen to a Brian Eno song, you can start it at the start or you can cut to 30 minutes in, or 15 minutes in. If you fade it in, it’ll still feel like the start of a song,” Okada explains. “I studied [Eno and Basinski’s music] a lot to understand their processes because it’s really challenging to create a subtle entrance to a layer to promote player progression.”
Okada had worked as a music editor on titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Origins, but this score was her debut as a game composer. Did she feel nervous? “I mean, yeah – I wanted it to be cool!” she laughs. “Because I was doing so much sound design, I was like: ‘I don’t know if this is going to make me look like a composer when it releases’, but I had to just shut off that doubt and insecurity and be like: I don’t care. I think it matches the game.”
Chyr’s living costs were low during development, but he’s open about having to occasionally borrow money from friends, family and roommates to get by. Late in development, he secured a bridge loan from SMG Studio. Some of the team worked for revenue share and the funding gave Chyr breathing room to pay stipends. Additionally, QA testers were brought on and Chyr estimates that up to 40 people worked on the game at its peak. SMG also helped to coordinate the game’s release on Apple Arcade, while one of Chyr’s Indie Fund contacts helped to set up his partnership with Epic for the PC release.
Seven years is a long time to work on a project, and the journey wasn’t always smooth sailing. Early in development, Chyr felt a strong desire to prove himself, particularly as he neared his 30s. He remembers occasionally waking up at 4pm and working until 10am the following day. Although Chyr believed in the project, he attributes part of this unhealthy schedule to the sunk cost fallacy. He remembers thinking: “I’ve got to finish this game so that I can live my life, and every minute this game is in development is a minute that I’m not being able to have a life.” However, his mindset changed in 2015, shifting his focus from productivity to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. He downloaded Tinder, got a gym membership and started relearning French. “If I showed up, I streamed for two, three hours,” Chyr recalls. “Even if I got nothing done, to me, that was a victory. I realised half of it is just about being present, just showing up, keeping that routine and then making it consistent and being persistent. Eventually it will get done. Just take it one step at a time, really.”
The game finally launched in October 2019. Celebrating the occasion on Twitter, Chyr wrote: “I’m so proud of the incredible team that made this happen.” Reflecting now, he feels that shipping the game at all was a relief and a miracle. “If you had asked the 25-year-old me, ‘Would you do a project that’s going to take seven years?’, he would have said, ‘Hell, no’,” Chyr says. “Just the idea of committing to something for seven years was inconceivable to me back then. I’ve become a very different person in making this game.”