Dreaming the infinite: how to build an impossible space

One of the unique qualities of video games is that they allow us to create spaces shunning the rules of our world. We can build huge, impossible structures that twist off into infinity. We can walk on walls, or shift between dimensions. It’s even possible to fold the fabric of these new realities, linking far flung locations by bending the space which lies between them. This is a fresh frontier, and I looked for the stories behind some of the developers who are bravely pushing this boundary ever forward.

William Chyr- The Scale of Infinity

A forest of skyscrapers nestles on the shores of the vast Lake Michigan. The city is Chicago, and is home to former installation artist turned game dev William Chyr whose upcoming game Manifold Garden plays with his city’s rich architectural history, creating an Escheresque world of infinite spaces and wall walking.

The game’s very much a virtual installation art piece,” Chyr told me, “except that here you’re not just setting up the work in a space, you’re creating the space and the way people move through it. If every installation artist knew the amount of power you had available here then they’d do it, right?”

But Chyr is not every installation artist. Though majoring in physics at university, he’d grown tired of the subject by the time the course came to an end. He wanted to do something creative. Finding work at an advertising agency after graduation, Chyr made art installations on the side, with this side project eventually becoming a full time job.

His chosen medium– balloon-art– allowed him great freedom in creating his pieces, although he had a problem with their reception. Their medium drew the interest- people rarely being able to move beyond the initial ‘Balloons? Cool!’ phase. Eventually growing frustrated, Chyr decided to explore other mediums, finding a match for his big ideas in the world of game development.

His game started life as Relativity, a riff on the Escher piece of the same name. The original intention being to spend a few weeks- at most three months- working on it as a practice project, learning the engine. It’s now been three and a half years, and Relativity has grown into Manifold Garden, a project with an altogether larger vision.

The game places players in a world where gravity is malleable. Every flat surface can become a floor, each having their own gravity. Players are able to move between surfaces and gravity fields, stepping between them with the press of a button. Distinguishing between a wall and the floor soon becomes a meaningless task. Players are set loose in this strange world, and, through their interaction and experimentation, are able to slowly learn its mechanics. Drop a box off a ledge and it’ll wrap around to fall back down from above. The world stretches off in all directions, repeating endlessly.

The game’s soft colors and hard edges give everything a minimalist feel, albeit a minimalism encompassing the mega-structures which make up the world. This unique look didn’t emerge fully-formed; Chyr’s initial designs had a central—fatal—flaw. These spaces were huge, but they didn’t feel big. Looking to architecture for inspiration, Chyr found his muses in the architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando.

The original structures were essentially blocks pieced together, with flat coloring on each surface. The main problem with this was that the surfaces lacked any points of reference for the player, so moving across them felt extremely slow. In comparison, Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs are filled with ornamentation, patterns created from hard lines and 90 degree angles. Seeing this, Chyr realized that this would provide a means to break up the space in his designs, providing reference points and endowing his creation with a sense of scale.

His research into architecture also led to the game’s use of ‘inside-outside’ spaces. Sliding walls, for example, are a staple of Japanese architecture; by shifting them, the dynamics of a space can be easily changed, allowing indoor spaces to imitate the sensation of being outside. Applied to virtual design, this idea can become something grander, with the ‘outside’ of a building being ‘inside’ some larger super-structure. This also grants these spaces a sense of enormous scale.

Implementing these ideas into his virtual world, Chyr found the effect instant and astounding. The looping, repeating structures of Manifold Garden now stood out as spaces in which to experience infinity.

Marc Ten Bosch- Slipping Into the Fourth Dimension

We’re all able to navigate our world easily enough, having been raised on a healthy diet of three dimensions- but what would happen if we added another? Our everyday three dimensions would remain plain to see, but there’s now a fourth which lies somewhere beyond our view. What if we were then able to exchange one of our regular dimensions for this new fourth axis? How would we travel through a world like this? These are the questions developer Marc Ten Bosch aims to answer with his upcoming game, Miegakure.

The name comes from a technique of Japanese garden design; it translates literally as ‘hide and reveal’. In this style, garden features are deliberately obscured, with visitors only ever glimpsing tightly controlled views of the whole- a fitting analogue to the idea of a fourth dimension lying hidden behind that of our everyday three.

The idea is that you can kind of take everything about our world and make it 4D- it still works, there’s an equivalent,” Bosch explained. The game is purely an extension of our world, and so we are able to capture some understanding of it. Through manipulating the space- playing with it- we are able to gain some insight into its rules and solve its puzzles, even if it remains difficult to understand the machinery behind it all. Bosch describes this process as analogous to how we comprehend gravity: “Imagine giving someone a toy ball. They’ll probably throw it, see where it goes, how their aim affects it. Then– at least at some intuitive level- they understand gravity. You don’t have to have the mathematical equations to just understand what gravity does.”

The task of designing these spaces, however, requires a different approach. Bosch breaks the process down into separate steps. Each level starts out as a broad-scale layer built out of big tiles- essentially 4D Minecraft. But where in Minecraft the third dimension can be described as multiple surfaces- multiple square tiles- stacked on top of each other to form cubes, Miegakure has a fourth dimension built out of stacks of cubes of tiles.

Each level can therefore be thought of as a series of 3D spaces connected along the fourth dimension, cubes strung along a string. Bosch says we can think of these different spaces as parallel universes connected together by the extra spatial dimension. At this early stage of the design, it’s still possible to draw the level.

This first stage of design is fairly barren, sadly. Essentially the first stage builds the landscape, objects being added to it in the next step, with the design of these objects requiring a slightly different approach. For some of these, Marc starts off with 3D objects, giving them a 4D thickness and then placing them in the world. Then there are the objects legitimately produced in 4D. These are built procedurally, taking the algorithms used to produce 3D shapes and adding an extra dimension with the crystals which pepper the game’s worlds being a prime example of this.

The game essentially gives us a way to experience four dimensions, toying with a space not possible in our reality. If you’ve ever wanted to be a dimensional wizard, it looks like Miegakure might be your chance- at least until a game with five dimensions comes along.

Alexander Bruce- Wrapping the World Together

What makes me different?

This is the question game developer Alexander Bruce found himself asking time and again during the 7-year production of his philosophical puzzle game Antichamber. His dedication, coupled with the constant iteration he placed his game under, came about as a result of this question and are the key reasons his game became a hit.

Back in 2007– before Antichamber was even a flash on a synapse– Bruce was attempting to bend the rules of space in games. His initial project was an attempt at making a 3D version of Asteroids, taking the original’s idea of world wrapping- players looping round when they left the edge of the 2D space- and applying it to three dimensions. The results of this experiment were interesting enough for Bruce to further explore their ramifications and applications.

In Antichamber, the warped fabric of the world is visible in the very first puzzle of the game. Players approach a chasm with the word ‘JUMP!!’ hovering above it. If the player obliges, they will find the gap too wide, and will fall down the pit. As there’s no death, they can brush themselves off and begin to explore this other level. The beauty of Bruce’s design meant that the world could be warped, connecting two places far apart. This meant that Bruce could lead the player down a route on this bottom level, wrapping them back up to the top. This is done without the player ever physically climbing any stairs. On their return, the hovering text changes to ‘WALK?’. If players again oblige, they will find a bridge form from the void beneath their feet. In this way the game teaches you one of the techniques that can be used in navigating its strange world

Bruce aimed to make people think laterally, the impossible bridges and portals of the game a means to that end. They challenge people’s understanding of the world, forcing them to take stock of their actions, to constantly question the underlying rules. Antichamber ultimately showed that games don’t need to be constrained by reality- these virtual spaces don’t have to play by our rules. Corridors can change when we turn our backs, floors can appear out of thin air beneath our feet and disappear when we jump.

In the end it appears that what made Alexander Bruce different was a willingness to take on the risk, making a game both remarkable and marketable

It is easy to stick with what we know, but, in the virtual, we are able to manipulate gravity and loop the world. We can add new dimensions, we can create new rules. But, above all, we are able to gain some understanding of these new realities which we create. Through exploration, through tinkering with these worlds we can gain some intuitive understanding of the ways they work, even if the principles behind them remain hard to fully comprehend.

With the unknown, there is always risk. People might rather play in spaces which are easily understood, but that is to miss the point and power of these brave new realities. We need these pioneers, these explorers who venture out into the impossible and give it life. These are the people who can bring the rest of us a taste of that frontier- fuel for our impossible dreams.