Nothing gets me to look at a walkthrough in a game faster than a puzzle. While I’ll happily throw myself at the same set of ridiculous jumps in a hard Mario level for days, if I’m not feeling a sense of progression in a puzzle, frustration sets in quickly.
As a result, I have, gosh, such a frustrating love/hate relationship with puzzle games, and it’s tough for me to articulate exactly why some work, while others don’t. The Talos Principle is one of my favorites of the last few years, but I couldn’t stand The Witness. It actively made me feel upset, because the way The Witness communicated was going right over my head. The Room, Gunpoint, World of Goo? Loved ‘em. In a given year, some of my favorite experiences inevitably revolve around puzzles. The problem with these games is my brain.
I have infinite confidence in my fingers to decipher a set of complex platforms, which is why you can toss me at a game with absurd dexterity-based difficulty and I’ll be fine, but I have so little confidence in my ability to tease out a solution requiring the same level of intensity from my head. In many instances, a “hard” game is putting your fingers in the right order. With a puzzle, it’s abstract, and your inability to figure out how to piece it together more nakedly reveals a personal inadequacy that quickly pushes me to stop playing altogether.
This is such a long windup because when I turn to you and say Manifold Garden is a puzzle game that works me for me, that I’m sticking with it despite everything in my bones saying I should run away—that means something. Manifold Garden reminds me of a spiritual successor to Antichamber, another one of those rare moments I stuck with a puzzle game from start to finish because even in the moments where I was tearing my hair out or was forced to look up the solution to a puzzle, the overall experience was worth it.
You’ve probably seen a screenshot or video from Manifold Garden before; it’s an indie game that’s been kicking around for years under the guise of a playable M.C. Escher painting, with endlessly repeating geometry and intertwined staircases leading into the heavens. If you’re wondering how you didn’t hear about the game coming out, it’s because Manifold Garden went from game-that-was-in-development-forever to “oops, it’s out” in record time; its release date was announced only two days before the game showed up on Apple Arcade and the Epic Game Store. (It’s coming to PlayStation 4 at a later, currently unknown date.)
How Manifold Garden works is tough to describe in words, but in short, it’s about realizing what you see in front of you is just one way to look at an image, and purposely distorting that perception in order to accomplish what’s being asked. Sometimes, that can be as simple as getting a block from one side of the room to another. But simple tasks here are complicated. There is a reason Manifold Garden is the first time I’ve been searching the phrase “non-Euclidian” since I was playing Antichamber in 2013. It’s playing with very similar ideas.
Like I said, it’s hard to describe, but let’s try. Imagine walking into a room and you see two objects on the walls: a block on the wall to the left and a locked door on the right. On the left wall, there’s also a hole where the block could presumably be dropped in, and a line connecting that hole to the locked door. The block is out of reach, and in Manifold Garden, you cannot jump. Your only interactions are to pick up objects, drop objects, and…bend gravity. When you approach a wall, your cursor will change color—red, orange, blue, etc. That color corresponds to that wall and that wall’s sense of gravity, and when you interact with a wall, it now becomes the gravitational source for the entire world. Up becomes down, left becomes, right, and so on.
That process, which you’ll be doing a lot in Manifold Garden, looks like this:
The wall on the left, let’s say, turns your cursor blue. By interacting with it, gravity now corresponds to the blue wall. The blue wall is now the ground, which means you can walk over to the block and pick it up! Now, drop the block in the hole, and voila, the door is open. You now have a few different ways of getting over to that door. You can walk on the ceiling, head back to the “original” ground, etc. Every wall in Manifold Garden can be manipulated, meaning the presented design of an area is A) purely aesthetic and B) deeply misleading.
Here’s how a short puzzle plays out, which should help all this make a little more sense. Have fun watching my brain slowly try to work through what the game is asking in real-time:
In playing Manifold Garden, there are so many moments where I truly had no idea what I was doing. I was trying things, but it didn’t always feel like the experiments were leading towards a result. And this is usually the moment where a puzzle game starts to grate on me, where I can’t get a sense of progress. But over and over again, this seemingly mindless toying around in Manifold Garden would, in fact, lead to progress and the solution would arrive.
At times, it felt like I was cheating. Is this the intended solution? Boy, this doesn’t feel like the intended solution! But such reactions may also be the sign of a good puzzle game, when the player feels empowered by their own actions to the point of skirting up to and beyond the edges of reality. But in a game where reality itself is constantly falling apart, that feels right?
You’re often rewarded for such wild experimentation, too, because Manifold Garden is a game where the next step is rarely obvious. There are no dialogue trees, no hint systems. It’s a game that relies entirely on the player to suss out what’s next, which, again, is usually a recipe for disaster for yours truly. But Manifold Garden and I consistently found ourselves on the same wavelength. I’d take a breath, look around, and say “OK, what am I missing here?” Then, it would appear.
Let me walk you through another example. After completing a puzzle, the player escapes to this massive open area, filled with parallel stairs. You can walk up the stairs, you can walk down the stairs. It doesn’t lead anywhere. There’s nothing to do except stare in the distance.
This is one of those great moments, when the game is waiting for it to dawn upon you how much control you truly have in Manifold Garden, how much the game can be hiding in plain sight, and how much you can manipulate everything around you to reach the unreachable.
See that door in the distance?
How the…how the hell do you get there? Again, you can't jump. You do not have a grappling hook. But you do have the ability to change the will of gravity. And so:
That’s how. The rush I felt is why I’m still playing (and still loving) Manifold Garden. It’s because I want to chase moments like that, and so far, it’s proving to be a game full of them.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you can help me solve this next puzzle, drop an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).