Get to Know a GameDev: William Chyr

Game Art William ChyrIt’s becoming more obvious that game dev is indeed an art form. For William Chyr, an installation artist turned game developer, this is especially true. Over the past 4 years, he’s been working on a game that can be difficult to describe; however the moment you see Manifold Garden, it’s instantly recognizable as art.

There have been several recent titles that show a desire for games that artistically go above and beyond to deliver an emotional experience. And for an artist well-versed in creating experiences, William Chyr found it natural to build a digital version.

I really saw, and I still do see the game as an extension of the installation art; and that’s about experiencing and perceiving space.

Given his unique background and game project, we were eager to learn more about William’s game design and development process. So, as the award-winning and highly acclaimed Manifold Garden enters its first found of beta tests, let’s get to know the game dev behind it.

William Chyr Manifold Garden Game DevMany people know you as an installation artist who is making a game. But what would be your official title?
I call myself an independent game developer, because developer encompasses every aspect of it. I think most of what I do right now is design; at least that’s what I enjoy the most. 2 months ago I brought in someone who is a full time programmer, so I don’t do as much programming – in fact very little compared to before.

Did you enter the games industry as a programmer?
This is actually my first game; I’ve never worked in the games industry outside of Manifold Garden. It feels like I just brute forced my way into it; carved out my own entry point.

Previously, I was an installation artist for about 4 years. I had also studied physics and worked at linear accelerator lab in Italy, so I’d done some programming there. I also worked at Leo Burnett; did you ever see the ad I made?

I remember people saw it as ‘shocking’ (LOL). Is advertising something you’d steer away from now?
It was fun when I was there, but I did realize it ultimately just wasn’t for me. When I started, I didn’t know anything about advertising. I didn’t know who Leo Burnett was, and they’re one of the big companies. I just saw the school job website after I graduated. Meanwhile, I’d just gotten an internship that taught me a lot about design, mostly from other designers.

One of the things I still use a lot is the hundred idea exercise, where you have an assignment and you just come up with a hundred ideas. That forces you to not go with the first one, which is usually not the best one. If you come up with a hundred ideas, one of them is bound to be good.

Are video games something you’ve always been interested in, or does your path surprise you?
No, I had interest in it when I was a kid actually. But the only game I played was Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and after 18 I basically stopped playing games and started working on Manifold Garden.

Do you ever feel like you missed out?
No, I feel there are some pretty large gaps in games that I haven’t seen. Like I never really played Pokémon, when other the kids had it in school. I haven’t played Pokémon Go, because I don’t really have any time. But I’ve also never played Final Fantasy or big ones people talk about. Sometimes it’s a little bit tricky.

I guess it’s like a frame of reference you don’t have?
In a way; it wasn’t like it was intentional. It’s nice because it does feel like a lot of people go into games wanting to recreate some other thing, and that isn’t what I wanted. I really saw, and I still do see the game as an extension of the installation art; and that’s about experiencing and perceiving space.


Have you found it a personal challenge to be your own team?
Now it’s not so bad. I think maybe the 2nd and 3rd year of it were the worst. There was that first beginning year (when you think it’s only going to take a year) and there’s a lot of excitement. That was when I was in Shanghai, doing my installation work. So living in Shanghai, surrounded by artists… ahh.

But I came back to Chicago after that, for the 2nd-3rd year, and that was the hardest. The game was interesting enough to continue, but it still looked really bad; and that’s when you start seeing all the other games out there, and you’re realizing how much more you have left to do. You don’t see the end of it, and it’s like you’re past that honeymoon phase – you’re starting to see how much work it’s going to be, how bad your game is, or what it’s going to be. There I was just working all the time, feeling like if I wasn’t, it wouldn’t get done.

And now I’m in a phase where the game, (I was actually just thinking about this yesterday,) doesn’t feel like I’m making the game anymore. It feels like the game has legs now and it’s running, and my role is to just keep feeding the fire.

That’s always a nice feeling, after years of work!
Yeah, so it doesn’t feel like I’m carrying the thing but I just need to show up. You’ve still got to feed the fire, otherwise it’ll die out; but it’s going and you just need to keep your head down, not get distracted, and just stay on course. Because of that, I would say that the last 10 months I’ve taken a much more balanced approached. I don’t work all the time.

William Chyr Manifold Garden
Do you find it hard to strike the work-life balance?
My favourite is if I can do 6 hours [of work]. Like today: wakeup, do some yoga, go to the gym, a little bit of streaming, have coffee, take a break and just have a nice rhythm, that isn’t where you’re panicking. Just to get into that, it’s hard to tell people. Crunching is hard, but I also understand that in that middle part? It’s what you do.

I feel like, especially if it’s your first game and you don’t know what’s coming next, you don’t have a frame of reference, you don’t have a community, and it doesn’t feel like anyone’s excited about your game. You need to just do it. I don’t encourage that, but I also see how the nature of it is; you don’t know how long you’ll be employed.

Any advice to other devs in this kind of situation?
I always say don’t go too big, apply yourself as much as possible and only rely on someone when you absolutely need it. I know some are like, I’ve got an idea and right away I need an artist, a musician… and that’s already too much.

Now that you’re off-crunch, are there any games on your radar?
The game I always say, and partially because it’s not super well-known or understood, and is in my opinion the most beautiful game ever, is by a fellow in Toronto who’s called Droqen: Starseed Pilgrim. It’s interesting; it’s actually had a huge impact on Manifold Garden.

Starseed PilgrimA lot of people when they see Manifold Garden they think Portal or Antichamber, and those have had influences but they’re much more surface level. On a very fundamental level, and I’ve told Droquen this, I have taken so many ideas from Starseed Pilgrim. It’s a dance in its design; it has these rules, then bends and inverts and varies, and there’s different layers and each is a macro/microcosm of the previous one. You should talk to him.

We may have to interview him next!
Yes, so growing the trees I actually got that idea from Starseed Pilgrim – that’s very clear. But also, that game to me just represents exploration. You start off on this island, as this little character… it’s such a minimalist way of saying “Explore.” Just go out into the experience. It’s very much a designer’s game, in that many people find it difficult to play. To me it’s this beautiful gem of a game.

How fascinating. Anything else about you we should know about?
I’m taking a break from [appearances]. More focusing on work and not so much outreaching to people, but how can I learn from other professionals. It’s shifted from press and career focus within the industry, to what can I learn from other developers and streamers to get what I’m doing out.

And you do stream every day!
Yes, and that’s a whole other topic. But it’s been an incredibly positive and eye-opening experience.

Watch live video from WilliamChyr on

In our next article, we explore more of the inspiration and design for Manifold Garden, as well as gain insight into William Chyr’s development process.

Manifold Garden gif

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  • On August 11, 2016