Playing through Manifold Garden, William Chyr’s M.C. Escher-inspired first-person puzzle game, I couldn’t help but find its endless exteriors and impossible geometry intimidating to explore. The game exists within a destabilized world that wraps around and back in on itself. Towering skyscrapers linger unnaturally overhead and impossible mazes stretch as far as back as your brain will take you before it begins to melt like fondue.
When you first start the game, it drops you into a series of enclosed rooms — its way of acclimatizing you to its offbeat puzzle design. Here you are introduced gradually to the core mechanics, including the ability to manipulate gravity, which lets you approach any surface you see and change the gravity of the scene to walk along it. Remember the Paris dream sequence in Inception? It’s like that, and Chyr readily admits the film served as a key inspiration for the mechanic.
Gravity manipulation provides a novel method of traversal, challenging you to think about your surroundings from numerous perspectives. The way the game forces you to constantly reorient yourself and objects in the environment in order to solve puzzles is reminiscent of first-person puzzle classic Portal. For example, early on, challenges involve positioning colored blocks on pads to unlock gates that bar the path forward. The difficulty here usually stems from the fact that these blocks will all correspond to a particular gravitational field and can only be interacted with once you yourself are subject to those same conditions. The solution, therefore, lies in familiarising yourself with your environment and discovering the ways in which gravity can be manipulated to transport these objects from A to B.
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From here, the game expands exponentially in size, offering new puzzles that go beyond simple blocks and switches. There are flowing rivers to divert, trees to grow, and beacons to light. At first, I found myself getting lost in these new exteriors, traveling along repetitious staircases in a maddening loop that only served to highlight how insignificant and trivial I was in the context of the seemingly infinite space unfolding around me. But by experimenting and changing my perspective I was able to learn the rules dictating my surroundings to move past them and beyond.
Sometimes, this meant turning the gravity of the scene on its head to fall through a level’s geometry. At other times, I had the vast expanse to search for exits that existed simultaneously above and below me. Solving these puzzles is sweet in itself, but the game also rewards you with the ability to place a block that transform the environment, letting you watch as objects transform into beautiful natural creations before your eyes.
I found exploring Manifold Garden to be a disarming and unsettling experience at first, but eventually it started to provoke a strange feeling of catharsis as I solved puzzles and transformed the world’s hostile, alien spaces into recognizable depictions of nature. The game forces its players to expose themselves to its fearful and seemingly infinite spaces, but rewards them with the prospect of change, as well as a greater understanding of how the world folds back in on itself. In doing so, Manifold Garden highlights our potential to move past stagnation and salvage the familiar from the uncanny and discomforting.