Manifold Garden review – rewiring strange architecture in the void

October 30, 2019
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I wonder if Manifold Garden was born in that bright, strange moment in which a game world first wrapped around. You know, in the moment when Pac-Man first disappeared off one side of the screen, say, and reappeared – after a pause that grows more mysterious with every passing year, frankly – from the other side. The spaces in Manifold Garden are initially daunting. They’re huge, bottomless, and the horizons race away forever. Then you start to think: Hey, isn’t this corridor I’m walking down just suspiciously long? Then you realise that the real estate repeats, like distant trees in a Hanna Barbera cartoon, but freakier, because the loop has nothing to do with tiny budgets and everything to do with messing with the head. The world becomes a loop, but the loop looks nothing like a loop at all. The Slinky has been straightened. You can still see the trees that repeat up ahead, and behind you, and all around you. To proceed you must understand where you are already as much as where you want to go.

This is fun. Actually it is an astonishing amount of fun. When a solution to a problem in Manifold Garden finally becomes clear and turns out to be both audacious and simple, I often find myself laughing out loud. Game epiphanies can seem cheap sometimes: the music does this, the god rays do that and then you feel like the world has turned its face towards you and smiled a sleepy smile. But Manifold’s Garden’s epiphanies are not cheap at all. They are surprisingly frequent, sure, but each one stands for something, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more progress, a fresh way of viewing the world that had been obscured until now.

For the first hour, though, I was not convinced. Manifold Garden is a game about working your way through fantastical geometry, bending all things except logic and cause and effect. Cathedrals rise up out of the peachy void, the Lloyd Wrights mint atria and quadrangles from rose-coloured dawn. Always there is somewhere to go, somewhere to get to, a path that leads you forward, even if forward may look like upside-down, like inside-out, like backwards. But the game takes a while to teach you the things you need to know in order to get oriented. And so one of the greatest outdoors games of all time begins in poky little corridors and spare bedrooms.

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