Video games level up to high art—and Chicago artist William Chyr is at the controls | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Video games level up to high art—and Chicago artist William Chyr is at the controls

The artist and polymath is using PlayStation as the canvas for his magnum opus, Manifold Garden.


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  • Colleen Durkin; props by doug johnston

On a chilly Friday night last October, William Chyr is standing in the center of the Pilsen art gallery Mana Contemporary, a beer in one hand, a PlayStation controller in the other.

A mix of well-heeled art patrons and casually dressed twentysomethings has crowded into the compact space for an offbeat exhibit, "Manifold Garden," a sneak peek at the still-unfinished puzzle-based video game of the same name that Chyr's been toiling at for years to design and build for PC and Sony's PlayStation 4. Between bites of cheese and sips of wine, attendees gaze at prints of game screenshots depicting a series of complex symmetrical structures in muted colors that call to mind blueprints for skyscrapers as devised by M.C. Escher.

The game itself is groundbreaking in its rendering of impossibly labyrinthine architecture and the gravity-defying gameplay in which the physical laws of the universe are malleable—a player can shift gravity, turning walls into floors. It's also notable for what it lacks: there are no characters, not a word of dialogue, and no traditional story. Chyr describes the narrative as "like a parable, like 'God created the world in seven days'  level of storytelling." It's a game about learning the cosmology and physical rules of a beautiful but alien space.

Chyr has previewed Manifold Garden at least a dozen times before—but only at gaming conventions, where it's been nominated for awards by major video game websites and generated significant buzz that helped the title land on the most-anticipated releases of 2016 lists of numerous critics. But tonight he's presenting the game in a context he's more familiar with—an art gallery. Before he decided back in November 2012 to try his hand at making a video game, he was exhibiting a much different kind of work: larger than life-size balloon sculptures informed by everything from everyday flora to otherworldly fauna.

"I've never seen the Mona Lisa. Most people haven't, they've just seen it indirectly in magazines," he says when asked about the switch from physical art to the virtual kind. "But the amazing thing about games is that you're experiencing them exactly as the artist intended—through the video game console and TV."

And yet Chyr is not opposed to the old- fashioned gallery show. But the prints affixed to Mana Contemporary's austere walls are sparse and chilly. The exhibit isn't particularly interesting until the moment Chyr nudges the twin sticks on his PlayStation controller, jolting into motion Manifold Garden's fantastical world. After navigating the game's unseen avatar through a network of palatial rooms, he hurtles the character into space, passing a series of skyscrapers, beams, and stairways that twist and turn and seem to go on forever.

Chyr is expressionless as he toggles through the game. The 29-year-old, known to some as Willy, is slight of frame, his look distinctive only in its uniformity: long black hair that he wears slicked into a ponytail, white-framed glasses, and loose-fitting V-neck T-shirts.

"If you want to do installation art these days, video games seem like the perfect evolution," he says, the words, as always, leaving his mouth slowly, like he's measuring each syllable. "It's virtual space where you control everything."

In other words, the real exhibit isn't here, not in this physical space. The two- dimensional stills plastered on the gallery's walls are thumbnails that merely hint at the true scope of Chyr's work.

A middle-aged art professor stares at the limitless architecture on the screen with an expression of incomprehension.

"So, how is this a . . . video game?" she asks hesitantly, holding out a glass of red wine as if to ward off the controller Chyr offers her.

Chyr pauses long enough to make you wonder: Is this whole exhibition just a Trojan horse, a ploy to sneak a PlayStation game past the contemporary art world's hallowed gates?

A similar thought crossed my mind a few months later on a Saturday afternoon in January while attending a meetup for users of Twitch. On the popular website, gamers broadcast themselves playing while, on average, 550,000 concurrent viewers from around the world tune in. Every weekday afternoon, Chyr takes to Twitch to present the ongoing development of Manifold Garden to a small but devoted audience. In sharp contrast to Mana Contemporary, Ignite Gaming Lounge in Avondale, the site of the meetup, resembles a massive Xbox converted into a clubhouse: dim lighting, eardrum-busting electronic music, black walls dotted with Mortal Kombat posters.

Chyr had planned to demo Manifold Garden live to the 100 or so gamers assembled, but was thwarted when Ignite didn't have the necessary equipment to render the game. No one seemed particularly disappointed, though—least of all Chyr, a pensive artist adrift in a sea of motormouthed teens and twentysomethings giving unbroken attention to their first-person shooters and complex strategy games. He could've gone home and retrieved the device that would've made his presentation possible. But instead, he left after half an hour.

"It was, uh, an interesting meetup," he said later. "Not what I expected."

If Chyr's plan was to use the auspices of a video game to smuggle in profound ideas about architecture, physics, and the mysteries of the universe, he was beginning to think Manifold Garden would be a tough sell to this group of Red Bull-swilling, trigger-happy hardcore gamers.

The fantastical structures in Manifold Garden are influenced by 20th century artists and architects like M.C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Tadao Ando. - WILLIAM CHYR
  • William Chyr
  • The fantastical structures in Manifold Garden are influenced by 20th century artists and architects like M.C. Escher, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Tadao Ando.

In 2016, enough of high culture's gatekeepers have grown up around Nintendos that video games with artistic aspirations don't necessarily have to sneak past them. Nor do gamers automatically reach for the reset button when confronted with offbeat or more complex genres that go beyond mashing buttons and shooting aliens. One result of this new environment is that the seemingly disparate worlds of contemporary art and video games are finding some room for crossover—even if the convergence is far from perfect.

"You see a dual, fragmented audience at Willy's shows. You get the Chicago artgoer who has a phobia of an Xbox controller and a gamer who wants something that requires twitch reflexes," says Chaz Evans, a cofounder of the itinerant Video Game Art Gallery. "That said, the overlap in the Venn diagram between those who want to see experimental media in all its forms and those who want to play video games—that overlap is wider than people assume."

There's a hope in Chicago's indie-gaming circles that Chyr's Manifold Garden, upon its planned release sometime next year, expands the audience who cite fine art and gaming as intersecting interests. Chyr doesn't go that far, but he admits he senses he’s a part of an exciting new movement.

"It really does feel like French New Wave with film, and I'm an active participant," he says. "I mean, I'm not Godard, but it's like, I probably know the Godard of games."

If gaming and art are indeed experiencing a moment of convergence, Chicago is a logical epicenter. The city boasts a vibrant scene of DIY developers, arcade bars, developer co-ops, and indie festivals like Bit Bash, the three-year-old alternative games festival taking place August 13. Last year's edition of Bit Bash resembled an art festival more than a traditional video game convention, and not just because of the presence of craft beer, food trucks, and DJs. More than 1,000 attendees played 40 indie games, some exhibited in ways reminiscent of an off-the-wall contemporary art show: a swordfighting game in the hollowed-out half frame of a car, an eight-bit dragon game displayed on a cabinet mounted into a backpack worn by a volunteer.

"It's a common idea to us—show off games as something more than a booth and a TV. We're showing off the medium like it's art," says Bit Bash's Rob Lach, whose title of lead curator hints at the organization's intention to elevate the form. "People often brush them aside as 'just games,' but there's a reverence for them here in Chicago."

Chicago even has its own sort of missionaries working to bring games into the high-art conversation: Evans and Jonathan Kinkley, the cofounders of the three-year-old VGA Gallery. In addition to partnering with Mana Contemporary for Chyr's ongoing artist residency at the gallery, the nonprofit sells video game art prints (ones from Manifold Garden go for $35 apiece). They've also helped organize and curate exhibitions like "Game Art vs. Art Game," opening August 18 at Columbia College's Arcade Gallery, a group show of "video games of artistic significance," created by experimental game designers and fine artists dabbling in games. Likewise, VGA Gallery is collaborating on a fall exhibition of the art of Philip Mallory Jones, a multimedia artist making a game called Dateline: Bronzeville, about a weekly newspaper columnist solving a mystery in the titular south-side neighborhood.

"It's often thought that galleries don't include video games and games don't include art history," Evans says, "but I'd like to think that both could include both."

Their proselytizing appears to be paying off.

So far this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art has hosted two gaming pop-up exhibits curated by Bit Bash during the institution's Prime Time after-hours event series. Attendees could look at the social realist paintings of Kerry James Marshall on one floor of the MCA and play a round of the PlayStation game Johann Sebastian Joust on the next.

Michael Green, the MCA's assistant director of community programs and engagement, says neither art patrons nor museum staff raised an eyebrow. These days, he says, "games are a more acceptable and accepted kind of thing within our museum's contents and just within an academic framework."

Patrick Jagoda agrees games are making progress in academia. The assistant professor at the University of Chicago and cofounder of the school's Game Changer video-game design lab helped establish a video game library at the U. of C. in 2012 as the study of the form has expanded beyond their production—design, engineering, and animation—into the social sciences. Jagota's Critical Videogame Studies course analyzes games in a manner similar to the way humanities classes examine other narrative forms such as novels and film. "We focus on the formal attributions and cultural implications of games," Jagoda says, "and have both aesthetic and philosophical discussions about them."

Indications that games have leveled up in cultural cachet are evident outside Chicago as well. In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum announced an "Art of Video Games" exhibit, its curators proclaiming that the medium was an amalgam of traditional art forms—painting, writing, sculpture, music, storytelling, cinematography—"that offer artists a previously unprecedented method of communicating with and engaging audiences." The Museum of Modern Art in New York followed suit in 2013 with a permanent spot for 14 games, ranging from Pac-Man to Portal, in the institution's applied design wing. Jason Rohrer, creator of Passage, one of the games on display at MoMA, had a five-month exhibition this year at Wellesley College's Davis Museum that was billed as the first solo art museum retrospective for a video game designer.

On the surface, it might seem surprising that the contemporary art world has begun to embrace a medium best known for paper-thin, simplistic distractions like Angry Birds or the orgies of violence, gore, and sexism in Grand Theft Auto—brain rot for kids or those afflicted with Peter Pan syndrome. After all, games are still one of the few cultural objects that qualify as a bipartisan scapegoat; both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have indiscriminately condemned the form for causing moral decay in children and teens.

Manifold Garden - WILLIAM CHYR
  • William Chyr
  • Manifold Garden

Until recently, video games didn't fare much better with progressive cultural critics either. Just six years ago, legendary Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert declared on his blog that "video games can never be art." "No one in and out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists," he wrote. It was a post heard round the world—or at least in video gaming's often shrill corner of the Internet. Ebert's screed drew the predictable ire of thin-skinned fanboys who came to gaming's defense, leaving more than 5,000 comments on the post. A few months later, Ebert wrote a half apology, but his original post prompted something of an existential question: In the four-plus decades since Pong became a nationwide obsession, have games remained just glorified kids' toys or have they come to deserve a place among the long-canonized mediums of cinema, literature, and visual art?

Ebert's assessment was eventually overruled by an unlikely art critic—the U.S. Supreme Court. In a case that arose from a California effort to ban the sale of violent video games to minors in 2011, none other than the late justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his judgment: "Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player's interaction with the virtual world)."

SCOTUS support or not, the debate over whether games are art now seems nearly irrelevant.

"The average person experiences games such as Candy Crush or Call of Duty, but what most people don't know is [video games] are also the new frontier for artists," says Blair Kuhlman, a designer at Synapse Games in Lincoln Park. "There are so many beautiful and amazing and weird things right now."

The award-winning PlayStation title Journey plays like a Joseph Campbell monomyth set against an animated painting. Critics praise dystopian document thriller Papers Please for its ability to make players consider their morally suspect role in the game as a border agent who decides the fate of immigrants. The surreal Kentucky Route Zero, made by a pair of Columbia College alums, feels like what might happen if David Lynch directed a virtual adventure about a delivery driver exploring a magical highway. Artists like Kuhlman are crafting low-fi experimental fare that stretches the very definition of a video game to its breaking point—which is why many in the field are beginning to use the term "interactive art" in place of "video games." Columbia College's game-design classes, for example, fall under the school's Interactive Arts & Media department.

The new breed of brainy, artful indie games that has emerged since Ebert's polemic is indebted to Jonathan Blow's time-warping puzzle game Braid. Released on Xbox 360 in 2008, the title combined the visual aesthetics and the gameplay tropes of Super Mario Bros. with the narrative structure of Italo Calvino's 1972 novel Invisible Cities to unfurl an ambiguous story about the motivations of a man rescuing a princess from a monster. Braid's popularity was proof to the industry that it was possible for a single artist with vision to make a commercially successful game that didn't rely on cutting-edge graphics or cheap thrills.

Critics have likened Braid to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, and Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape as a similarly transformative work that helped push the creative envelope and lay the groundwork for a new production model. Blow's long-awaited follow-up, the esoteric PlayStation 4 brainteaser The Witness, grossed more than $5 million during the first week of its release in January. That's impressive for an obtuse puzzler designed, as Blow told the Guardian, "for people who like to read Gravity's Rainbow."

Images from Kentucky Route Zero (top) and Jonathan Blow’s The Witness
  • Images from Kentucky Route Zero (top) and Jonathan Blow’s The Witness

Chyr doesn't have a dog-eared copy of the notoriously perplexing Thomas Pychon novel lying around, but he's in many ways a direct product of the increasing intersection of fine art and video games that Blow helped set in motion. Chyr says he didn't choose video games because he loves the medium; it's merely the form that offers the most artistic possibilities. And that's part of what makes him an exciting and pioneering figure. Up until this point, video game designers have been mostly familiar with other video games or the rather intellectually shallow realm of nerd culture—sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes. Manifold Garden's influences are Chyr's—fine art, cinema, architecture, physics. That constellation of unconventional reference points has the potential to both appeal to art crowds and broaden the interests of current gamers, says Bit Bash's Lach.

"As these worlds mingle, you see people trained in fine arts working [in games]," he says, "and that's great because some of the best projects are heavily influenced by other mediums and not by games."

Before he was inspired by Blow's work after seeing the documentary Indie Game: The Movie in 2012, Chyr had almost zero experience with video games. They certainly weren't on his creative radar when he came to Chicago from his native Toronto in 2005 to attend the U. of C., where he double-majored and graduated with physics and economics degrees. He enjoyed aspects of both fields, including summer research work at a nuclear physics lab in Italy, but realized before his senior year that he didn't want to be saddled with a career in either. On a whim, Chyr started studying circus arts, learning to juggle, ride a unicycle, and twist balloon animals through the U. of C. student organization Le Vorris and Vox Circus. He considered joining up with the circus full-time before an unlikely career path opened up when he began experimenting with pairing LED lighting and balloon sculptures to resemble bioluminescent creatures. His experiments with balloons as sculpture led to two large-scale installations on campus and one during a Festival of the Arts fashion show. Two days after Chyr graduated in 2009, the Museum of Science and Industry saw his sculptures on the university's Science Chicago website and commissioned a work for a high-profile event in Millennium Park.

"One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I'm making balloon installations," Chyr says with a laugh. He worked birthday parties and the occasional festival, and performed on the city's streets. When that hustle didn't pay the bills, he began seeking a career in advertising. A 2010 internship at ad-firm giant Leo Burnett petered out after seven months when he couldn't secure an entry-level position in the art department. He made a single spec ad during his brief tenure—a drawing for a brand of feminine-hygiene products featuring a maxipad designed to look like a maze with a dot of blood in the center. His boss buried it, but it later caught the eye of an executive at the firm who launched a print campaign around it that eventually garnered industry awards and the praise of feminist blogs for its unique design and bold concept as the first ad of its kind to depict blood.

"I didn't even see the final piece until I picked up an Us Weekly at a 7-Eleven," he says.

Chyr made more headlines soon afterward—this time with an experimental novel called The Collaborwriters in which every line was chosen using an online voting system. But that project fizzled after five pages. Broke and depressed, he moved back to Canada in 2011 and landed a six-month gig at the Calgary science museum Telus Spark.

He returned to Chicago in 2012 after Beck's Brewery selected his balloon-sculpture designs to appear on the labels of a series of limited-edition "art bottles." The exposure from the bottles, as well as an accompanying short documentary about Chyr that was made as part of the campaign, opened up paid gigs building elaborate balloon sculptures at museums, galleries, and public spaces such as Ogilvie Transportation Center. He landed his first solo exhibition in June 2012 at High Concept Laboratories, “Systems/Process,” in which he filled a two-story warehouse with knotty chains of balloons created via a “generative algorithm.”

But like one of his leaky sculptures, Chyr's enthusiasm for full-time balloon work slowly deflated. "I realized I was just becoming 'balloon guy,' " he says. "I didn't have the benefit of the doubt of someone like Jeff Koons. No one cared at the end of the day. It didn't matter if I did a great or mediocre piece—the reaction I got was same, like 'Oh cool, balloons.'"

Chyr considered switching to glassblowing and thought about going back to school to study architecture when he came across Blow's Braid. It was a revelation about the purely artistic possibilities of video games.

"I like architecture, but I discovered that I just wanted to make cool-looking stuff. But in the real world, people have to actually live in buildings and they need bathrooms and piping. In a virtual world, you never have to think about where the toilet is," Chyr says. "Turns out I didn't want to be an architect—I wanted to be a video game architect."

—William Chyr

Chyr built a rough prototype in November 2012 based on an idea inspired by the scene from the 2010 film Inception when Ellen Page's character learns the rules of the movie's dream world and bends and folds the Paris skyline, which allows her and Leonardo DiCaprio's character to walk on new planes of gravity. In the game he devised, initially named Relativity after the iconic Escher drawing, physical laws were never constant. Players would solve a series of ten puzzles by hitting buttons and switches that shift gravity, permitting the avatar to walk on walls and ceilings.

It was an interesting concept, but its limitations and technical flaws were revealed after Chyr showed an early build to a few local game developers he met at Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park. "I thought they were going to be like 'You're a genius,' but that wasn't the case," he recalls. "It was a disaster and everything was wrong." Still, Chyr got enough positive feedback that he believed there was a nugget of a good idea. During a six-month artist residency at a hotel in Shanghai in 2013, he kept tinkering but gave himself an ultimatum: If nothing came of the game in half a year, he'd quit and go back to balloon sculpting.

One of the first things Chyr realized during that period was that Relativity was quite boring. To help spur new ideas he tried out a few other titles, chief among them Valve Corporation's 2007 puzzle game Portal. "I hadn't picked up a controller since the old Nintendo 64 days," he says. Relativity began to seem less like a true game and more like a virtual walking tour of Chyr's art installations interspersed with a few simple puzzles.

Based on advice from local indie developers, feedback from play testers at video game shows he attended, and lots of trial and error, he wholly reconceptualized the game. He expanded his gravity-flipping parlor trick into a system of physics the player would gradually learn; he envisioned small moments of discovery as a player explored architecture and space—for instance the realization that the world of the game looped in on itself.

"You see a skyscraper that looks like it never ends, and you're like 'Holy shit,' but then you experiment and drop a box down off a ledge—it appears to fall from both above and below simultaneously and land from above. Now you use that knowledge of the world to solve a puzzle," Chyr says. "It's about a certain kind of poetry through physics."

There was still no dialogue and no characters, but the game was no longer just a play on Escher and a Christopher Nolan film—it became a loose metaphor for the interconnected discoveries of the last 400 years of physics.

"You have Newton," Chyr explains, "and Newton says, 'OK, the apple falls from the tree and this is how gravity works.' Then people start building on top of that and you get to Einstein and he says, 'This is the shape of the universe.' Newton had this model of gravity that made sense for everyday, but Einstein was talking about gravity for very large objects to the point where gravity bends space-time itself. Space-time is curved. If the theory of relativity deals with things on a large level and then quantum mechanics deals with things on a very small level, is there some kind of unified theory that ties everything about the universe together? The game is trying to capture that.”

Along with improving the game's theoretical framework, Chyr sharpened the visuals. Once simple, flat, and minimalistic ("I suck at modeling, so I made everything with boxes," Chyr says), the images became dizzyingly complex, full of patterns and ornamentations that evoke the designs of architects such as Tadao Ando and Frank Lloyd Wright. Indeed, the horizontal lines of Wright's Prairie style crept into Chyr's mind after the artist visited the Robie House in Hyde Park.

By the end of 2014, the upgraded game had begun to get noticed. While attending a game-development camp in Toronto, Chyr was approached by a Sony representative who'd seen the game and asked the artist to show it off at the electronic giant's trade show, PlayStation Experience 2014. The presentation led to Chyr inking a deal with Sony in November of that year that meant Relativity would be developed for PlayStation 4.

"It was an amazing opportunity, I couldn't say no," Chyr says. It meant an infusion of development funding, wider distribution—and soon enough, a new name: Manifold Garden.

"The original prototype . . . just involved changing gravity to walk on walls. The game is so much more than that now," he wrote in a September 2015 blog post on PlayStation's website in which he unveiled the new title. "We've added a ton of new mechanics, and the game is now really about exploring architecture and consequences in a world where physics is turned upside down."

In 2012, Chyr and more than a dozen volunteers twisted together some 1,500 balloons to create his installation A Handful of Stardust inside the Calgary science museum Telus Spark. - FABY MARTIN
  • Faby Martin
  • In 2012, Chyr and more than a dozen volunteers twisted together some 1,500 balloons to create his installation A Handful of Stardust inside the Calgary science museum Telus Spark.

It's the first week in July, nearly four years since he began developing Manifold Garden, and Chyr is seated in his Hyde Park apartment, eager to show off the most recent version of the game. In the living room that doubles as his home office, his desk is dominated by three large computer monitors, each teeming with game-related programs, software tools, browser windows, and a chat program that lets him talk shop with his ever-remote peers. Handwritten notes taped on the walls are full of game-related reminders and to-do lists. His residency at Mana Contemporary is ongoing, but Chyr says it doesn't make practical sense to actually do development work at the gallery.

He hands me a PlayStation controller and I begin to move through a series of floating rooms, hitting buttons to flip gravity and navigate corridors and hard-to-reach exits on ceilings. My stomach gets mildly queasy when I fall off an outdoor walkway into the abyss of Manifold Garden's infinite loop.

Chyr says in recent months he's added a "dark world," multiple endings, cubes that can be used to "bend" or redirect streams of water, and a yin-yang-like morality system in which a player decides if he wants to grow or destroy trees.

Manifold Garden just keeps on blooming. But for how long?

The game had been scheduled to drop this year, but Chyr pushed back the release until 2017. (Manifold Garden's official website hasn't been updated to reflect the change, and a blurb from Wired magazine on the site's home page says the title is "among the most anticipated games of 2015.") This summer he hired a contractor to assist with programming to ensure the new deadline is met.

"I could release the game in three months, and it would work functionally, and you can solve all the puzzles, and it'd have a lot of interesting ideas—but it wouldn't be a great game," he says. "I want to make sure we have enough time to really polish up the edges."

In June the game's latest demo was nominated for a handful of awards at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in LA. Still, Chyr couldn't help but notice some of the competition was focused on emergent technology, particularly games built for virtual reality headsets. He worries that the ground has drastically shifted in the industry since he started work on what became Manifold Garden way back in 2012.

He's also become more concerned with the possible reaction of what is now Manifold Garden's target demographic.

"This game was initially designed more with art in mind, now it's definitely more gaming-centric. It's not like I'm scared of the New York Times art critic. I'm scared of Steam reviewers that are going to be like 'This is bullshit, don't buy it,' " he says of the PC-gaming distribution platform. "It shouldn't be the case, but it is."

Chyr is learning the hard way that there's at least one definite downside to working as a video game architect—he can keep polishing edges and building to infinity with almost no physical limitations to stop him.

"If you're an artist, unless you're crazy, you're not going to want to spend all of your life on one painting," Chyr says. "Yeah, we've got to finish this, otherwise I could just work on it forever."  v

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