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An Artist is Turning MC Escher's 'Relativity' Into a Video Game

Willy Chyr's video game, 'Relativity,' explores what one of Escher's worlds would feel like if you had to live in it.

Images courtesy of the artist

MC Escher's distorted perspectives have made their way through almost every strata of pop culture, referenced in television shows like The Simpsons, countless immersive installations, photo modifications, and music videos, and even the album artwork for Kid 'n Play's Funhouse. Artist, game designer, and former circus performer Willy Chyr, who holds degrees in physics and economics, joins the pantheon of creatives inspired by Escher's mind-bending reality with an in-progress project called Relativity.

Named for the Escher drawing of the same name, Relativity is an open-world puzzle game that involves manipulation of gravity. Players must navigate through an array of intricately winding rooms, shifting gravity's pull and opening locked doors with color-coded blocks. The world emulates the black and white minimalism of Escher's work, and the crisp modern design populating the walls, windows, and massive towers seen in the distance inspire a desire to explore. 

Chyr designed the game to facilitate that wanderlust: "I remember playing Skyrim for the first time, and what an incredible feeling it was to see a mountain in the distance only to end up there a little later," he told The Creators Project. "I’d like players to have a similar experience when playing Relativity."

The two years Chyr has put into developing that experience haven't been easy. He has player tested the game at more than ten different conventions and focus groups, and learns something new every time. "At this point, I estimate I’ve had over 1,000 people playtest the game, and I’m still being surprised by players," he said. Despite these trials and tribulations, the current version of the game is getting close to the last, and Chyr's attention to detail shows in every frame.

We talked to Chyr about MC Escher, his experience designing his first game, and the challenges of making a puzzle game like Relativity:

The Creators Project: What is it about Escher that fascinates you?

Willy Chyr: What I love most about Escher’s works is how they reimagine geometry and space. He takes a lot of everyday objects, like staircases and waterfalls, and transforms them into something new and bizarre.

At the same time, a lot of his works are visual representations of abstract concepts, and there’s a strong connection with mathematics in his work. This is very appealing to me, especially as I had majored in physics while in college.

How do Escher's ideas play into the physics of Relativity?

Relativity was inspired by the famous Escher print of the same name, which shows people walking in three different sources of gravity, all in the same world. What’s most interesting about the print is how the same objects are used differently by people in the different gravity wells. For example, in the print, you can see people walking on both the “top” and “underside” of the same set of stairs.

The core mechanic of the game allows players to walk on any surface, so any wall or ceiling can transform into the floor, and vice versa. Just like the print, there are multiple orthogonal gravity fields, but instead of three, there are six.

There is no objective ‘up’ in the game. A lot of the puzzles are based on learning to look at the environment from different perspectives, so what may be a staircase in one gravity well, is actually a shelf in another.

However, this is just the starting point, the basic way for players to navigate the world. From here, the game actually expands to explore other themes touched on by Escher’s works, such as infinity and recursion.

How did you decide on having different gravities as the variables?

In the first iteration of the game, there was actually only one gravity field, and instead of the player rotating and walking up walls and ceiling, it was the environment that rotated.

However, there were several problems with this mechanic. The first was that it made it impossible for me to place objects in a level in a meaningful way, because as soon as the player rotates the world, everything would just slide off and collect in the bottom corner as a big mess.

The second problem was that most of the puzzles were based on execution as opposed to actual thinking. This was very evident to me, when I did my first real playtest session four months into development. All the players would walk into a puzzle room, and see right away what they had to do to solve it, and would then proceed with struggling to actually execute the steps. I very quickly realized this was not the kind of game I wanted to make.

After that experience, I decided to redesign the game from scratch. When I played with having the player change surfaces, and having different gravities active as a result, the puzzles became much more interesting, and more in line with my goal of making the player see things from different perspectives.

Take me through the process of mapping out and designing a level.

I don’t map out or design levels on paper first. Instead, I’ll have a rough idea in my head of the layout of the level, and which puzzles I want to include, and then I’ll just start to build it in the engine.

It’s very difficult to imagine what a level will look like without being able to walk around in it, because I need to make sure it works in all six gravity fields. In some ways, it’s kind of like building six worlds in one.

After a rough draft of the level is built, I then start to playtest it on a regular basis and make changes based on those observations. For example, I’ll see that players keep getting turned around in one particular hallway, so I’ll add a window at one end to make it easier to navigate. Or, I’ll find that a lot of players are struggling with one particular puzzle, so I might move it to a later area, so players approach it after gaining more experience. I would say that about 90% of the level design process is this cycle of observation and iteration.

The opening level, which takes players on average about 1 hour to complete, has been redesigned over 40 times at this point, and I’m still making tweaks.

The view from Chyr's Unity 3D game design engine.

Why did you decide to frame the game with an open world layout?

I want the game to be as immersive as possible. In an earlier version of the game, there were portals that would take you to different puzzle rooms. When you walked into one of the portals, the screen would fade to white and then fade into the new room. Once you were in the puzzle room, you couldn’t leave until you finished the puzzle. And when you solved a puzzle, you would walk into a floating cube, the screen would fade to white, and then fade into the previous hub world.

This was implemented primarily because I had seen it done in other games, and it just wasn’t an interesting design solution. It broke immersion, and was a very overused video game trope. It also meant that the puzzles weren’t as interesting, because they were wrapped up and packaged in neat little levels, as opposed to having different layers that blend into one another.

I want the world to feel like one large seamless world you’re exploring, and making connections between puzzles in different areas. It’s also important for me that the player should be able to go to any place in the game that they can see. I remember playing Skyrim for the first time, and what an incredible feeling it was to see a mountain in the distance only to end up there a little later. I’d like players to have a similar experience when playing Relativity.

What intrigues you about puzzle games?

As a game designer, I’m heavily influenced by Jonathan Blow’s approach to design, specifically his philosophy of games as a method of uncovering truth. Here’s a talk he gave about the topic at GDC Europe in 2011.

To me, the best puzzles are the ones that shed new light on the mechanics, making you pause and think about the rules in a whole different way. A lot of these puzzles seem impossible at first, but once you figure out the solution, they seem blindingly obvious.

The thought process involved in solving a good puzzle is also very similar to that employed in solving scientific problems and proving mathematical theorems – figuring out what you’re starting with, the tools that you have on hand, and then stepping through the problem logically to arrive at a solution.

You cycled through a lot of different visual styles. How did you decide on the final look for the game?

The look of the game in its current state is still not final. I always tell people, it’ll be similar, but better, as I’m constantly making changes.

Most of the visual elements in the game were added based on purely functional reasons. For example, the reason why only the floor is colored is to show players that this surface is ‘down’ and to help them orient themselves. Originally, the surfaces were all the same color regardless of player orientation, but then I’d notice players looking up while trying to walk forward.

Coloring the floor different colors based on orientation has a very functional purpose, but also lends the game a very specific look. Likewise, the overall minimalist style was implemented so that players focus on the elements needed to solve puzzles, and not get distracted by insignificant decorations.

Currently, a lot of the functional elements are in place, and I’m starting to make decisions based more on aesthetics and atmosphere. Architecture is a very important theme in the game, so I’m trying to make the art style have the feel of hand drawn blueprints.

What was the most challenging aspect of designing Relativity?

Puzzle pacing and visual signposting have been the most challenging parts of designing Relativity.

The game has a very unusual set of physics, and I've made it a point not to explicitly explain anything to the player. Consequently, I have to make sure that players construct the right mental model of how the world works solely through the environment and the order in which they learn different concepts. The only reliable way I’ve found to figuring it out is by watching a lot of people play the game, and constantly iterating.

Likewise, because you can change your orientation and walk on any surface in the game, creating a sense of visual hierarchy in the level is very difficult. For example, in most games, you can have a castle or a mountain that’s elevated above everything else, and so from various locations, the player can always see themselves in relation to that. In Relativity however, ‘height’ does not quite have the same meaning. Something could be above you in one gravity, but in another, it’s now below you.

Again, because I’m not relying on characters or in-game maps to guide the player, I’ve had to figure out my own methods of leading the player to new areas using only the environment. The only way to verify that these methods work is through playtesting and observation.

I understand that there will be a narrative element to the game. Can you tell me a bit about that story?

There is an arc that carries through the entire game, but it’s more about the players discovering their purpose in the world through the architecture and the game mechanics. At the moment, that’s all I can say about that!

MC Escher's work has been referenced and remixed countless times in popular culture, from The Simpsons to The Matrix, including other Escherian video games like Monument Valley. How do you respond to these other Escher remixes in Relativity?

One work that has had a big influence on Relativity is Inception, specifically the scene where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Ariadne (Ellen Page) are walking through Paris in the dream world, and Cobb is teaching her how to manipulate dreams. Ariadne then asks “What happens when you start messing with the physics of it?” and proceeds to fold the city in half. A little later, you see Cobb and Ariadne walk up a street that’s 90 degrees to their original plane.

When I saw this scene for the first time, I immediately had a ton of questions. What if you took an object from the world on the ceiling? If you let go, would it fall back towards the ceiling because that’s where its respective gravity is pointed? And if so, could you place an object from your gravity on top of that ceiling object, and have them balance in midair? I was imagining all these crazy possibilities. Unfortunately, Inception didn’t really dive into that apsect of that world. But that’s where Relativity comes in. I want to put players in the world shown in that scene, and let them play with objects from different gravities, and see what happens.

You say on your about page that you are "an artist working at the intersection of art and science." How does Relativity fit into this domain?

Prior to Relativity, I worked as an installation artist for about four years. Most of my work then was based on taking different scientific concepts, such as emergence, and incorporating them into the creation process. The resulting installations played with space, breaking it up in new ways for people to experience, and offering a glimpse into another world.

I see Relativity as an extension of my installation work. It is a work of “counterfactual physics," imagining what the world would be like if the fundamental laws of physics were different. Like the installations, it’s an exploration of space using different scientific concepts. However, instead of only showing the audience a glimpse, it offers an entire virtual world that they can step into and experience.

You've been working on the game for two years, and have received input from hundreds of game testers at indie game festivals during that time. What is the most important thing you've learned as a first time game designer?

If I had to pick one thing, it would be the importance of playtesting.There is a tremendous amount of variation in how people approach games, and the only way to know how people will react is to playtest and observe. As the person creating the puzzles, you can never really ‘solve’ them in the same way someone playing the game is going to solve them. Something that seems incredibly obvious to me may turn out to be incredibly difficult to others.

The only way to figure out what’s working and what isn’t is through playtesting. In the past 9 months alone, I’ve shown the game at 10 different festivals and conventions. This is in addition to various monthly game developer meetups in Chicago, as well as individual playtesting sessions I’ve scheduled. At this point, I estimate I’ve had over 1,000 people playtest the game, and I’m still being surprised by players.

What's next for you after you complete Relativity?

I’m thinking of going to culinary school.

Lose yourself in Chyr's other artworks on his website here.

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