One of 2019's trippiest games was Manifold Garden, but if you didn't have access to a PC or an iOS device with Apple Arcade, you didn't have a chance to play the M.C. Escher-inspired puzzler that wrecked my brain last year. All that changed yesterday, with the announcement Manifold Garden is now available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and most delightfully, Switch.
For a long, long time, Manifold Garden was one of those games that you'd come across during a Google search and go "I wonder if that came out?" and learn that, no, it hadn't. Designer William Chyr had slowly chipped away at Manifold Garden since for a number of years, almost running out of money in the process. But in late 2018, Manifold Garden finally released, thanks in part to deals with both Epic Games and Apple.
Chyr has worked on getting Manifold Garden ported to other platforms as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded worldwide, and on the eve of the game showing up in Nintendo's stellar indie presentation this week, I sent him a few questions about life in 2020, managing mental health, and whether a person who makes puzzle games is, in fact, good at playing them.
OK, so you made a puzzle game. But does that mean you're good at other puzzle games, too? If I came over to your place with one of those thousand piece puzzles, what happens?
William Chyr: I’m actually pretty bad at puzzle games. I played The Witness and thought I had completed it. It wasn’t until I watched a talk about the game that I realized I had missed an entire section. I think I made Manifold Garden partially so there would exist a puzzle game that I’m (somewhat) good at.
If you came over with a thousand piece puzzle, we would probably get frustrated after 10 minutes, and end up just drinking beer and playing Overcooked.
What's helped keep you happy during COVID-19? Some people are baking bread, some are learning how to paint. I started watching horror movies on Amazon Prime with horrible covers, like the kind of stuff I'd find at the video store when I was a kid. What's been your thing?
I’ve been studying Russian during this time. I’ve been learning the language on and off for several years now, and have been able to dedicate more time to it these last few months. The grammar is very challenging for me—I still don't fully understand the rule for forming plurals. Progress is slow but steady, and it’s really rewarding to see the improvements over time. I’ve been watching The Americans (wonderful show by the way!) and it’s fun recognizing some Russian words here and there.
You once said the financial instability of making Manifold Garden might prompt you to stop making games. What got you to that moment, and what have you done to try and address what was clearly a distressing mental health situation since the game originally launched?
Financial instability was definitely a major source of stress during development of Manifold Garden. It wasn’t just the situation I was in then, but also not knowing how the game was going to do, and if we’d be able to recoup our costs. There was a lot of talk of the “indiepocalypse” starting in 2015, and that led to a lot of anxiety.
Had Manifold Garden not done well, I would have had to disband the team and get a job right away. I probably would still have stayed in the games industry, since that’s where my skill set and contacts are. However, I would have stopped development on Manifold Garden and we definitely would not have had the resources to bring it to consoles. As it is, we’ve been able to continue to support the game with fixes, optimization, new content, and of course, new platforms.
Fortunately, we were able to secure platform deals with Epic and Apple last year, and that provided a lot of stability for the studio. I feel incredibly lucky that we launched the game last year, before all the chaos and uncertainty going on right now. My lifestyle hasn’t changed much since release, except that I do get more sleep on a regular basis now. However, just the fact that the game has shipped is a huge weight lifted for me.
I imagine you had to do a lot of playtesting with Manifold Garden, moments where you're watching people's brain tick. Is that interesting? Infuriating? Fascinating? Whenever I watch someone editing my writing, all I want to do is crawl into a hole. I actually walk away during it.
Watching playtesters is interesting, infuriating, and rewarding all at the same time. It’s fascinating to gain insight into someone’s thought process and witness how they approach a problem you’ve designed. The number of different solutions that people come up with is really impressive.
We did a ton of playtesting during development and I thought I had seen everything, but even after launch, we were seeing people come up with completely new and unexpected solutions. Watching someone get stuck on a problem can make you want to pull your hair out, but seeing the Eureka moment when everything clicks for them is absolutely wonderful and makes it all worth it.
This is a vague question but: what's the worst part about making video games?
Not having enough time to play them.