I don't *hate* Manifold Garden*.
My trajectory of emotions while playing Manifold Garden went like this:
-> delight, at the visuals the game provides;
-> disappointment, that the puzzles don't seem to use the USP of the game much;
-> dread and cosmic horror, at the monumentally meaningless world the game creates;
-> frustration, that some of the puzzles involve knowing what I want to do, but not seeing how I am able to do it;
-> tiredness, and just wanting the game to be over, to the point of relying on walkthroughs to get to the end.
So let's unpick that, because I think Manifold Garden is an interesting failiure; I don't think it's a great puzzle game, but I do think it's a decent experience, and much how I love playing games on tourism mode without any conflict, I wonder if MG would be better without the puzzles. I don't think it successfully changed me as a person, but it did make me feel something, and at least some of what I felt was intentional.
The game looks good. It's interesting that there are virtually no textures on the walls in the game - it is entirely told through wireframes and solid colours. The lack of textures is important for the way that walls change colour when the player changes direction of gravity - the players' way of interacting with the world - but also I imagine there's a processing reason. Sometimes, because of the looping nature of the game world, the number of panels the player can see is staggeringly huge, and having a wireframe world rather than a textured world is a good way to keep it running smoothly (I used to do the same trick whilst playing Ultima Underworld, which allowed you to switch off the texture mapping and play in an abstract VR rave). This lack of... implementation of the game world has allowed the studio to go in a very haunting direction with the design: firstly, it means that any architecture must be communicated only with shapes and outlines, leading to a world of austere columns, staircases, and pedastals; secondly, it creates a sterile, unheimlich atmosphere. That word of course conjures up memories of 'House of Leaves', which the architecture also reminds me of; HoL has whole sections dedicated to describing the absolute lack of architectural style that the interior of the house has, trying to drive home the lack-of by listing pages of things that the architure *isn't*.
Now, as an aside I want to talk about the maths of the game world. Game worlds that loop around themselves have existed before, largely in 2-dimensional retro titles, Astroids and Pac-man being the obvious examples. When you have a flat 2-D world that loops at each edge, the mathematical explanation of that would be a torus, the bagel or doughnut shape. You can't map a flat rectangle to a sphere without all sorts of nonsense happening at the poles, but mapping a rectangle to a torus preserves the both parallels and the areas.
The thing is, a torus is a 3D shape with a 2D surface, so this is why the mapping works. MG seeems to be a 3D implementation of this same thing would necessarily involve the existence of a 4D torus for it to be happening on the surface of. This is a really neat idea! You can read Chyr's blogpost about this, It has really good visualisations of the maths involved. Reading up on blogs and design documents gives me a real sense of the creator that the game doesn't give me at all. I really like this design document too.
The game has two mechanics: change the direction of gravity, and looping
3D space. most of the puzzles take place in small closed enviroments,
where you only have to worry about changing gravity. Each of the small
worlds you inhabit has several of these, connected by abusing the open
world's looping. Quite a few times, I found myself walking across these
huge open spaces, looking for a jumping off point I could change gravity
from. I like how the game progressed from large open environments,
where the 'world' could be seen a few times across space, to loops there
the 'world' extended through the loop, to worlds where the loop is
small enough to be useful in the actual puzzle. However, for almost all
of the game, the two systems don't really interact; The 3D looping world
is dazzling, but is also mostly just used as a replacement of a 'jump'
feature. When it gets more local, the looping universe ends up being
used exactly like portals in Portal. So there's this disconnect between
the 'hook' of the game (being the looping world) and the mechanics of
the game (being the coloured-block puzzles) that I found quite
disappointing. It's not Ludo-Narrative Dissonance, more Ludo-Environmental.. I dunno, they're not oppoite each other, they're more perpendicular to each other. Like, one is saying 'pizza' and the other is saying 'brick', and those aren't opposing, but they aren't linked either.
Playing Manifold Garden depressed me. It made me want to stop existing. The spaces are so grand, blank, and beyond comprehension, even before you get to the 3D world-wrapping, that it makes me feel despondant. Aside from the landscape being alienating, the lack of any conversation, any people, or any signs of life, left me numb. While this chimes in with some great authors, like Kafka, Borges, and PK Dick, who often look at the absurdity of reality and come away hollow and despairing, it lends a sense of pointlessness to the game. I felt nothing driving me to complete the game, whether an emotional draw or a hint system. Despite the fact that I relate to the alienation that those authors make
me feel, I have grown away from it, and towards the writing of people
like Vonnegut, who look at the meaningless universe and find humour and
humanity in it. Glados in Portal does more than just act as an antagonist - It is a subtle reward system, each level completed granting one more small punchline, one more little reason to make progress in the game, as well as act as a companion (as well as the signs of earlier test subjects, even if they're not there *now*, act against the sense of being alone). Many games have other characters, that can be talked to for hints, or just to foster a sense of urgency in your quest; MG's lack of this is an interesting twist, but I found the experience actively unpleasant.
As a design decision, there is not only no other beings, but also no character model - this avoids questions as to who 'you' are (a spider, according to my children), but also raises questions - at one point in the game, you can see the loop clearly enough to see a block you are carrying moving as if by itself. this tells us the loop is indeed a loop - and not infinity at all! - but also it hghlights the fact that the player is apparently invisible.
As I said, Dread and Cosmic Horror, that's quite an achievement in a video game. That was my take-away from the game about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in.
But as that drew away as I carried on playing the game, MG began to grow frustrating, as I would find myself getting lost and having to walk miles around really large structures - it reminded me of moments in Deus Ex, where you'd have to walk around the edge of a massive building that hadn't been fleshed out at all. Things began to get less enjoyable when I would reload a game, and have no idea where I was or what I was meant to be doing, and there was no way to know what direction to go off in, because everywhere looked the same. Then some of the puzzles began to rely on spotting tiny details in a massive noisy map - finding the right tree you needed began to feel like some sort of abstract tessellating 'where's wally?' game. There was one puzzle towards the end, where I couldn't find a yellow tree for a block I needed, so I back-tracked to the last puzzle I solved, becoming convinced that there was some clever way I could reuse one of the blocks from that puzzle; however,it turned out there was another yellow tree right where I needed it in the puzzle, rendered invisible by the amount of detail on display.
My point is, that wasn't fun. It was frustrating that I knew what I needed, but I couldn't find it; I felt that it wasn't my fault I was stuck, but the games'. By the time I'd got past that point, I just wanted it to be over. I didnt find the puzzles interesting to solve, and whenever I got stuck, I didn't feel it was because the game was difficult, but because it was obtuse.
So I'd like to compare it with a game that I've been stuck on more often than MG, but never at any point did I feel frustrated with. Recursed is about four years older than MG, but has only had 1/6 as many reviews on Steam, if that's anything to judge popularity by; both are rated 'very positive' in reviews.
I think Recursed is a good comparison, because MG is flagged as 'infinite' and 'recursive' a lot, and I don't think it's either of those things. MG has loops in it - but that's not the same as being infinite. A repeated loop from 0-9 is not the same as an endless string of increasingly large numbers, or a recursive pattern that contains itself. Recursed - which I discovered in an old RPS review and have played on and off since its release in 2016 - does contain true recursion, as eventually you start playing with levels that literally do contain themselves. And look - it's right there in the title! The concept *matches* the game mechanic!
Recursed does not contain a hint system or any other players, but there are rings lying around that talk to you, presumably having been dropped by an earlier player. I am about halfway through the game, I've been stuck on it loads - but never have I felt at fault for being stuck, and never have I felt frustrated at being stuck. Any time I've been stuck, it's usually because I've been too tired to play, I can't get my head in gear to deal with the puzzles - but when I come back in the morning, it works out just fine. A couple of times, I've gone to look on the internet for hints, and at no point have I kicked myself for not getting it.
The game doesn't look fancy, it's a 2d retro-pixely platformer, but I think it's massively under-appreciated and stunningly well-designed, because it allows me to feel clever. I definitely felt things while playing MG - it had an impact - but I didn't feel clever. It was a really interesting experience (and I appreciate this - making me feel what the game did is a product of a great deal of effort on the studio's behalf), but I didn't enjoy it as a puzzle game.
I think that's interesting because my assumption was they'd created an interesting world and needed to fill it with a puzzle mechanic, which hadn't really worked; but reading the design docs and stuff, it seems like the gravity stuff came first (inspired by Escher), and the bit that i really liked - the 3d looping - seems to have been put on top. Maybe there were two separate games in here, trying to get out? Is this 'first novel' syndrome, where you try to pack too many ideas in? Maybe I'd have really liked the puzzle mechanic, if that was the whole game.
I think I just talked myself into liking this game again.
*I keep calling it Manifold Valley, partly because that's where my parents live, but also because it's reminiscant of 'Monument Valley', another puzzle game that deals with visual paradoxes. The two titles have the same rhythm and many of the same sounds; like how Supergrass' B-side 'Melanie Davis' fits with 'Eleanor Rigby'. Maybe the 'Three-Two Title' is a thing to explore in a future blogpost.