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The design decisions that turned Relativity into Manifold Garden

September 16, 2015 | By Phill Cameron




William Chyr’s indie game Relativity seemed poised to do well. It presents an infinitely repeating world of complex Japanese and Chinese architecture, and allows you to shift gravity at will to manipulate the recursive nature of the world and get from the bottom of a building to the top by falling down. It’s a bit difficult to get your head around, but watching it in motion is mind-bending. But we'll never know, because Relativity no longer exists.

Chyr is a formal artist known for his expansive installations created out of hundreds of balloons, and Relativity was an attempt to move into a virtual space that’s not constrained by the same restrictions as reality. (That, and an attempt to move onto something new before Chyr became forever known as "the balloon guy," he confides to me.)

But today, after two years of development and multiple appearances at festivals and exhibitions, Chyr is tossing the name Relativity aside. It’s a bold move, and one not without risk; if people don’t get the message that the game is being released under a new name, then all of the anticipation Chyr’s built over the past couple of years will be for naught.

“It’s a bit of a bummer,” Chyr admits. “We got a lot of attention with the name [Relativity]. Every aspect of the game has been redesigned and refined, everything has changed, from the mechanics to the look. I think that a title is important enough to the game that it deserves to go through the same process.”

To his mind, refining the game and refining the name of the game go hand in hand. Just as the mechanics and the intended experience can change over time, so too can it move away from the original pitch, and the original name.

“Initially, Relativity came about because there’s an M.C.Escher painting of the same name,” Chyr tells me. “And that was the inspiration for the game. It was November 2013 when I first started making this game,  Inception had just come out. It seemed like a good way to learn Unity, and Escher seemed like a really cool subject, and I hadn’t seen anyone make a game specifically about the idea of walking on walls (although to be fair I hadn’t played games too much at that time). So the idea was to take that Relativity painting and make it into a game.”

Coming from the world of fine art, Chyr has gradually built up his understanding of  game development from a starting point of zero in the last two years, and the game that was formerly known as Relativity has moved far beyond that initial idea of turning the Escher painting into a playable game.

Chyr says that over time, the name ‘relativity’ increasingly seemed like a bad fit for his game's high concept. “The problem is that when people hear ‘relativity’ they think of Einstein’s theory, and they then think it relates to time dilation, which the game doesn't have” he tells me. “It is based on the idea that different gravities are relative to one another, but it’s difficult to override the prominent idea that people think of time when they hear relativity. So it was always going to be an uphill battle to get people to think the puzzles aren’t related to time.”

As he walks me through how he came up with the new title, it’s clear that the process itself has been very useful from a design point of view, forcing him to analyze what exactly his game has become, and how to encapsulate that in the minimum of words.

“I played Starseed Pilgrim, and that had a huge impact on the puzzle design of the game for me. Also, that game used to be called ‘Platform Planter’, when it started. It describes what the game is, and the game still builds out from that idea, and I think that Droqen [the developer of Starseed Pilgrim] could have released it as Platform Planter, but he came out with Starseed Pilgrim instead, which is not related to the mechanics, but is rooted in the theme. To me it’s so much more evocative, and I think Starseed Pilgrim is a beautiful name.’

“I think ‘Relativity’ is my version of Platform Planter, and came about when I was first prototyping and trying out ideas. Now the game is totally different. Now it’s called Manifold Garden. ‘Manifold’ is a math term that deals with the world wrapping that is in the game. It means that locally it’s Euclidian, but globally it may be non-Euclidean. I feel like in that regard ‘Relativity’ really doesn’t work, because you are walking up walls and changing gravity, sure, but it has gone a lot farther than that. So ‘manifold’ is a term to describe the way the world puts itself together, but is also something that refers to all these various mechanics compounding onto one another.’

“The ‘garden part’, now that I think of it, comes very much from Starseed Pilgrim. Japanese architecture has had a huge influence on the game, so you have gardening from a mechanical sense which we use to gate puzzles, but also a lot of what we’re interested in from the architectural side comes from Japanese garden designs.”

There’s no denying that the name of a game can have a huge impact on the perceptions of the player as they approach playing it, which Chyr’s example of Starseed Pilgrim/Platform Planter reinforces strongly. The concern, and the challenge for Chyr and those working with him on Manifold Garden, is making sure that altering the title at this late stage in development doesn’t prevent them from harnessing all the anticipation and interest that they’ve garnered over the past two years.

Chyr is hopeful it will be worth it. "The game hasn’t come out yet, and ultimately whatever attention you get pre-release doesn’t really matter compared to the attention you get after the release," he says.



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