Manifold Garden – Thoughts After Playing

Manifold Garden was, in every sense of the word, a treat. In a puzzle game, some of the key things I want to encounter are: outside the box thinking; novel mechanical concepts; interesting atmosphere; clean and intuitive presentation; puzzle solutions that make me feel smart. Manifest Garden delivered on all of these, and more importantly, it did very little to get in its own way. While it’s common to find games that include one or more of those positive qualities, it’s far more rare to find a game that lets you fully enjoy those things – with minimal exception – for its entire runtime.

To give an example: the puzzles in Manifest Garden are – relative to similar games – fairly short and simple. Given the baseline complexity of the game’s world, I consider this to have been an entirely necessary decision. The game’s two fundamental mechanics are that 1) the player can rotate the world’s orientation to change what direction is “down”, and 2) the world’s space is infinite and loops on itself (if you travel far enough in one direction you’ll end up where you started). This is in an incredibly novel and versatile concept, but as a game with physics-based puzzles and a first-person perspective it also has the potential to be incredibly disorienting. Adding too-complex puzzles runs the danger of having the player be frustrated by their non-Euclidean freedom, rather than being able to enjoy it. As someone who enjoys a good tough puzzle I might feel somewhat underwhelmed by its puzzles in isolation, but in the context of the game they felt perfectly suited, and I absolutely felt like a big brain genius after solving them.

To add some more, unstructured praise: The visuals were show-stopping throughout (I’ve always been captivated by fractals), I don’t remember much of the music (but in that good way where it supported the atmosphere seamlessly), and I was constantly delighted by how the game surprised me with new mechanical interactions that arose from very simple objects and concepts.

The few negative things that I encountered in this game are all broadly related to the design challenge of figuring out how to allow the player to understand “where” they are at any given time in a world where ideas like “position” and “orientation” are very flexible. One way this was mitigated was that, in open areas where this is the biggest concern, landmarks and points of interest were easily discernable – even from a distance. So even if the player doesn’t have a great idea about their current position, they can at least figure out their destination. The trade-off is, however, that navigating solely based on landmarks rather than an understanding of the layout of a space can make progress and travel feel somewhat disconnected and abstract. Yes I completed the game without feeling significantly lost at any point (which is, in itself, a huge accomplishment in design), but I often had the nagging feeling that I was leaving an area prematurely after homing in on a visible landmark and finding progress to a new area. The game does teach you early on that if you need to return to an area it will take you back, so you ultimately just have to put aside any internal instincts to “map out” the space and plan routes and instead trust in the game to guide you along.

I would recommend this game pretty broadly to folks who like puzzle games, particularly stuff that is mind-bending and messes with perception. Similar to (but still very different from) Antichamber and the Portal series. I would caution anyone who has trouble with spatial puzzles, dislikes feeling disoriented, and possibly folks who get motion sickness or vertigo (depending on how it manifests in video games).

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