Frank Lloyd Wright, level designer? That’s what artist William Chyr was thinking, from the moment he crossed the threshold at the Robie House, not far from Chyr’s own Chicago home. "The way he was using space and guiding people through the building, I think there are a lot of really good lessons," says Chyr.
It was a rare IRL architectural excursion, as Chyr has been immersed in building the digital levels of Manifold Garden, his first-person 3D exploration game in which you defy gravity in order to walk up walls, fall through windows, and launch yourself from one side to the other of an infinite stepwell, all in the service of solving increasingly difficult puzzles. As the game’s development process draws to a close, Chyr has been taking it on the road, including an appearance at the 2016 Kill Screen Festival earlier this month in Brooklyn.
Chyr studied physics and economics as an undergraduate, while also working as a juggler and balloon artist. His dream at the time was to join Cirque du Soleil, but "no one wanted juggling," he told the Kill Screen audience. Days after he graduated from the University of Chicago in 2009, he was commissioned to do a balloon installation in Millennium Park, launching an accidental career. After four years, "I felt stuck doing that. No one is really a balloon art connoisseur. But I could show up in a space like this"—he waved around the Art Deco auditorium in which the festival was held —"with a suitcase and, in a week, fill it with art."
In 2012, inspired by his own indie gameplay, including thatgamecompany’s Journey, Chyr thought he could learn how to use Unity, the popular game-development engine, in three months and fill a digital space instead. Three-and-a-half years later, he’s still working on that project, with Manifold Garden set to launch in early 2017.
Originally inspired by M.C. Escher’s space-bending drawing Relativity (much like the creators of Monument Valley), Chyr has slowly incorporated more architectural references, stretching back through the centuries and including built works by Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando, and unbuilt works by Louis Kahn, Anne Tyng, and Arata Isozaki. At one point, Chyr even considered applying to architecture school, but balked at the application statement. Why did he want to go to architecture school? "I wanted to make cool-looking stuff," but he knew that was the wrong answer.
He has still had to learn a number of real-world architectural lessons, relying on a big book called Wayfinding and Signing Guidelines for Airport Terminals and Landside with insights like "never use a diagonal arrow." (Is it up? Or to the right?) The original conception of Manifold Garden was all interiors, puzzle room to puzzle room, and "by the sixth puzzle, people were yawning. They had puzzle fatigue," he said.
So, like many museum architects before him, he added a window. "One of the most magical moments in games is when you see a mountain in the distance and, eventually, you get there."
I met up with Chyr after his Kill Screen panel to talk about Manifold Garden, out in January 2017.
AL: I watched your most recent development video, in which you said you'd just been to the Robie House. You’ve lived in Chicago for a long time, right?
WC: Ten years. It was my birthday two weeks ago, and it became a gift to finally go. I had toured other Frank Lloyd Wright houses, but a lot of that was at the beginning of the project. I hadn't really understood how to work with space and how these are ways of guiding people through. Coming back to it, I was able to appreciate a lot of that.
"I want people to experience this game not as if they are pretending to be someone else, but as if they went to this place. You are the protagonist."
AL: Did you take notes on things that you thought, "Oh, I could use this. I could put this in?"
WC: There were a few key points that were this pathway to discovery. One way to put the entrance would be, "Hey, it's right here at the beginning." Instead, he has you going through this area that is really tight, and then it opens up again. I try to do that a lot. If your player is trying to get to this place, you can put the door right there or you can guide them through some interesting area as well.
Also the idea of room within rooms. You have this living room at the Robie House, but then you've got this curtain that you can use to segregate this area. At the beginning, when I was designing puzzles, I would start off with a room that's a box and I'd put the puzzle inside.
AL: That becomes boring.
WC: Now I’m going back and saying, This room doesn’t have to be a box. What can I do to make it more interesting? I’m adding detail not just for the sake of complexity, but because if you just have boxes everything is monotonous. Some players have a hard time. They say, Is this the same space as I was in before? Because they all look the same.
AL: You mentioned at the panel that your first architectural interest was brutalism, but that was essentially too boring for the game.
WC: Yeah. Because you're missing a lot of the things that make those spaces interesting. If it's concrete, there's still a texture to concrete, whereas in the game there's no texture. If I have a flat surface, not much appears to be changing on the screen, and the player feels like they're moving very slowly. I end up having a lot of changes in elevation and horizontal lines and staircases that bring you up and down.
AL: You said it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s details that you first incorporated into the game. How did you figure out that that those could help you?
WC: It was with the windows. Initially all the windows were a big panel of glass, but then I realized I could start putting a pattern on them It was really nice because it didn’t conflict with gameplay. In the game, because you can change gravity, everything has to be at 90-degree angles. I can’t have furniture, and I used to have these light fixtures, but everyone thought they were buttons, so I just got rid of them.
AL: Are you going to have to come up with a different pattern for each room to differentiate them?
WC: I think in all of Wright’s work the patterns in the carpet and in the windows are all representative of the building itself. They have the shape of the building embedded in the pattern. So that’s what I am trying to do. You can play through the game without paying attention to them, but I want it so if you notice it speaks to all these themes.
AL: How is the game organized?
WC: There will be about 40 puzzles eventually. They break down into sections that are more beefy, where there are six or seven of those puzzles. Others are more about making an architectural point. Like the stepwell level. There is one puzzle there, but the idea it is more about letting you experience a space where stairs repeat infinitely. And then there are some that I call transition levels. I don’t put two giant puzzle worlds right next to each other, because then you lose the impact of one and players are like, "Oh, not another one of these!"
AL: And what are you doing in the game?
WC: That’s everybody’s question. I see the game as this metaphor for the last 400 years of physics. You have Newton and Newton says, "Okay, the apple falls from the tree and this is how gravity works." And then people start building on top of that and then you get to Einstein and he says, "This is the shape of the universe."
Newton had this model of gravity that made sense for everyday, but Einstein was talking about gravity for very large objects to the point where gravity bends space-time itself. Space-time is curved. If the theory of relativity deals with things on a very large level and then quantum mechanics deals with things on a very small level, is there some kind of unified theory that will bring everything together? The game is trying to capture that.
You solve puzzles but the puzzles are not like, some guy put them there to prevent you from rescuing the princess. It is trying to recreate this sense of scientific exploration. You think from what you observe that this is what the rules of the world are, and you experiment and confirm the hypothesis or find out that it’s wrong and slowly build up a mental model of the world. Starting with gravity: you can walk on walls.
AL: You have to learn in order to get through the later puzzles.
WC: The puzzles serve as a way for me to know that you’ve gained that knowledge.
AL: Are you just eyes or is there an avatar?
WC: You can’t see yourself. I want people to experience this game not like they pretended to be someone else, but as if they went to this place. You are the protagonist.
AL: There’s a photography mode for the game. Do you feel like people are going to want to stop and take pictures?
WC: Rendering is a big part of architecture. And architecture renderings nowadays are all so realistic. The game generated these glitch effects and I had so much fun playing with them I was like, Why not let people experience these too?
I think it also has to do with my research process, which is, I go to the library, I get 20 books, I am on Pinterest and Tumblr. I just kind of flip through them, I am not even necessarily reading them. It goes on my board of about 30 others that I am going through. I have a reference folder, but I also have a Pinterest.
AL: Who was the first architect whose work you incorporated into Manifold Garden?
WC: My dad gave me a book on Tadao Ando and it is just so peaceful and serene. Ando has done a lot of churches and there is a very new interpretation of spirituality. He works a lot with light and water. He has this wonderful building, the Row House, that has two stories with a staircase going down. That used to be the opening level but it had a lot of problems. I might bring it in later.
AL: Did it start out as more of an art project and now it has to be a game? I think I and a lot of architects first saw your game because you got a Graham Foundation grant.
WC: Really it was just something tied to the contemporary art world. I was doing residencies and applying for grants. But now it is coming out on PlayStation 4.
AL: What made you decide to do some aspect of the game development in public, to be on Twitch and Twitter, and to post development videos?
WC: With indie game developers your biggest enemy is obscurity. A lot of indies still look toward that triple-A model where you develop a game in secrecy and then a month or two before you email all the press and then buy out billboard space. I see Doom on taxi sign caps. But I can’t afford that. When I worked in advertising before [at Leo Burnett], I would always say to people was advertising is really great until you think about what you are doing it for. Do I like Burger King or do I like McDonald’s? I like the one that pays me more. I didn’t like that aspect of it, there was always that level of insincerity.
Louis Kahn’s grandson pinged me on Twitter. I was looking for architecture that repeats, and he replied, "You should check out this building that my grandfather and grandmother designed."
Working on the game, I don’t want to have to worry about marketing campaigns, and I don’t want to be emailing the press. Sharing the work initially started because I was working alone and I wanted to document it, but now that in itself is marketing.
AL: Is there a publisher or are you going to do it yourself?
WC: I decided to do it myself. We’re working with Sony because we are using their platform but we’re not going through a publisher. I just could not find a game publisher that fit the image I wanted. In the indie game scene, there are two or three that are legit and know what they are doing. The most successful one is Devolver Digital, though their games are known for explosions and shooting.
AL: Do you think you were more open to sharing the process because of your art practice?
WC: Toward the end of what I was doing with the balloon installations, it started to be social practice. I stopped making the installations myself. If you work with a museum they would have a lot of volunteers and people would sign up for four-hour sessions, and I would teach them how to make these structures. Toward the end we would connect all these structures together. It was more like facilitating. Even if the game doesn’t succeed, I always thought of the making of the game can be the artwork itself. What’s fortunate is games are way more open than the art world. People will say how much they spend on a game, how much it made.
AL: Has that helped you through some difficult points?
WC: I’ve used my own development log for when I’ve forgotten stuff. How did I do that shader? Thank god I wrote that down. I’ve been working on the game for three and a half years, been keeping the development log for two and a half, you can see that I’m having this problem, and then two years later you see, Oh, I solved it. All those problems that seemed impossible I eventually solved. Open process did mean that when I had design problems, I didn’t have to describe them to people from the start. They are on the same page with you already.
AL: What about your interaction with architects?
It’s mostly been limited to Twitter! Louis Kahn’s grandson pinged me on Twitter. I was saying how I want architecture that repeats, and he replied, "You should check out this building that my grandfather and grandmother designed." And I was like, Your grandfather is Louis Kahn?!
AL: Chicago is one of few cities where there is a general respect for architecture as part of culture, not just architecture culture.
WC: Now I want to organize meetings of Chicago level designers to tour all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. I want to talk to other level designers about how we could utilize that. The key is there are phrases we can now use to describe our own ideas. People have been working on architecture for so much longer than they have been working on games.
The preceding interview has been condensed and edited.