Willy Chyr's Relativity
with Willy Chyr
I had the chance to interview installation-artist-turned-game-developer Willy Chyr at this year’s E3. While talking with the ideas, inspirations, and various forms his vision has taken, I was able to play one of the most mind-bending games I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. Willy Chyr’s Relativity feels like trying to orient yourself in an alien area of space where normal rules no longer apply. There’s no story, no characters, just awe-inspiring geometry and clever puzzles.
One of the biggest difficulties in talking about Relativity is how to discuss its universe. This is largely due to the core mechanic which allows the player to turn walls into floors, flipping their personal gravity completely. On top of that, the universe infinitely repeats. Fall off the edge of the world and it will continue to fly past forever until players land back on it. These qualities make describing spaces in more depth than the vaguest terms a challenge. Take a look at the trailers and preview images when we talk about worlds full of nothing but stairs or "H" patterns for a better idea of what that might mean.
The demo I played takes place in the first world of the game. There are multiple worlds, each with their own unique architecture and space. World One begins within a structure where players learn how to use the basic mechanics to navigate and solve puzzles. This is where I began my time with Chyr and what follows is our half hour conversation that covers everything from Inception to balloon art.
Jack Gardner: I’ve heard a bit about Relativity, but could you give me your summary of the game and why it has undergone a slight name change?
Willy Chyr: I was doing everything on this game for about two and a half years. About three months ago, I was backed by Indie Fund and was able to bring on a programmer to help with my optimization and console certification stuff. So now I am trying to focus most of my energy on just the design aspect of the game. We did change the name to Willy Chyr’s Relativity just because there was some legal stuff with using the word Relativity alone.
JG: Oh really? Is there some-
WC: Yeah, I know it’s come after me, but Relativity Media, the film company, they trademarked the word relativity in every category, like fashion, university- I think it’s because they’re financiers, they’re like, “Oh, we can just finance everything.” It’s a long list of things and computer games just happens to be one of them. Plus, relativity is a fairly common term. I just put my own name in front of it.
JG: Would you say that it is a relatively common term?
WC: [laughs] It is a relatively common term, good one. Also, it is a very abstract game. What’s great about the word relativity alone is that it’s a concept, right? It has a meaning, but doesn’t give you a- like if I called it Crystal Palace, it implies there’s a king, etc. etc.
JG: It comes with a whole set of assumptions.
WC: Right, and Relativity doesn’t have that. You ask people if they’ve seen Inception and that scene where they are walking in the dream world of Paris and they fold the city in half and start walking up the walls. That’s based on the M.C. Escher print, “Relativity” and was the inspiration for the central mechanic. As soon as I saw that scene, I was like, “Oh man, what if they took an object from one gravity, from like that wall, and combined it with an object from the floor they were walking on. What happens then?” The film doesn’t really explore that, but this game is to fulfill that thought. It just kinda ran from there.
It has gone through a number of iterations. It used to be the world rotated, not you. The problem was if that happened and you had a bunch of tables, as soon as that happened they would all fall to the bottom corner and just stay there. They’re not going to organize themselves again. So, I switched it to where you change your position and then that makes the world looks different to you. You’re not changing the problem, the problem stays the same, but you’re changing how you look at the problem. That was the kind of original thinking that I wanted players to go with and what has driven the design choices that I have made.
JG: So, Inception actually inspired this?
WC: Inception, yeah, like, I saw that scene- I’ve always been a big fan of M.C. Escher’s work and so I loved Inception because it had all of that, but when I saw them walking up the walls, I was like, “There needs to be more of that.” I want to go inside there and just - I don’t want to steal secrets - I just want to play around with stuff. I studied physics, you know, as an undergrad, so this is a whole new set of rules to play with, let’s see what cool things come out of that.
JG: Is this your first game?
WC: This is my first game, period. Like, not my first commercial game, this started as a way to try to learn Unity and just expanded from there.
JG: Did you have any doubts going into this? Were you unsure if you could complete it? Did you have a moment of, “I’m not exactly sure I can do this?”
WC: Oh, yeah, all the time. I mean, the way it happened, the version where the world rotated, I worked on that for four months and at the time I didn’t know anything about game development so I thought I was the bomb. It was going to be four months and it was going to come out and it was going to be the next Portal, right? Then I showed it to Young Horses, they made Octodad and are also in Chicago where I am based, and it was just a disaster. So many problems with the build, with the design, and I went back and rewrote everything from scratch. I was doing a residency in Shanghai at the time for six months. So I was like, “Okay, what I am going to do is rewrite everything from scratch and see if after six months it’s promising enough to keep going with it.” So, I never- I’m at E3. This is running on PlayStation 4 right now. I never expected this. You get to one stage and it is like, okay, I am only a few steps away from making it better. I do that and it just keeps going from there. I thought it would take three months, now it has been almost three years. [laughs] Getting backed by Indie Fund was really a huge confidence boost. Having never made a game before and working alone for a long time, if I felt something was good I wasn’t sure if it was actually good or if I was being delusional and trying to convince myself that this thing I have been working on for so long is good. So, those are all the people who have- John Blow has been a huge influence and inspiration-
JG: Has he consulted on Relativity?
WC: Yeah, I sent him the game- I met him at Practice in New York last November and I sent him a few builds of the game and he has always given me really, really great feedback.
JG: What is he like to interact with? I’ve never interviewed him, but I always imagined that if I did, I would feel that he’s way smarter than I am.
WC: I am sure he is very, very intelligent, but he’s not… like, I always thought he would be super intimidating to meet with, but he was actually just a really nice guy, really chill. I was having a conversation with him and it was fifteen minutes later, twenty minutes later, and I was like, “Man, I am still talking to this guy!” When he talks, he’s really interested in you. He’s not looking around and, “Oh, I gotta go….” You know? I’ve met him, I just mentioned I was working on this game and the next day he sent me an email and was like, "Hey, where can I get a build?" And I was like, oh man, he's interested!
Now you can see you’ve made it outside. This is where most of the game takes place. It is a lot about trying to figure out where to go from here and it is more and more about pattern recognition. That beginning section indoors was teaching you the rules so you can navigate this.
JG: [laughs] The world just repeats if you fall?
WC: The geometry of the world is actually a four dimensional donut, and you are on the surface of it. If you think of a 3D donut, like from Dunkin’ Donuts, and you are a 2D character on the surface of it, you wrap around one way and you wrap around the other way. So, we added an extra dimension, and you can wrap around along a 3D axis.
Back to what I was saying, there is no narrative in the sense of a story. You’re not like, oh, someone has captured you and thrown you in here.
JG: This is just how it is.
WC: Right, this is just how it is, but the narrative is when you discover more of the mechanics. Like, that box? That’s a fruit that grows on that tree, so you go, “oh, okay!” and that becomes something important later on. And, “oh, okay!” the world wraps around, so there are these constant revelations that the mechanics are part of larger ecosystems.
JG: How did you sketch this out? Did you physically draw it out or did you just go in and make it?
WC: I don’t… I just go in and I make it and then I play it and I test it and go back and tweak it. I’m not even a good drawer or illustrator in 2D. And this is… the thing different about this from other games is that you can do a top-down sketch of the level, right? Players come in through here and go out through there. Maybe you have two stories or even three stories, but each story can have a separate illustration. With this game you can’t do that. There’s no top-down view. So, I have to work in a 3D environment. It is much easier for me to go in the engine and start messing with it and then of course then I go inside and play it and try to walk around and just remember okay that window over there- and it is also really hard to talk about things-
JG: It is really hard to have reference points! [laughs]
WC: Yeah, you can’t say to the right of- like…
JG: Because it is only to the right some of the time.
WC: You can’t even say go up! In most games you might not have an objective right, but you usually have an objective up. In this game there is no objective up, no objective down, so it is really hard to both visualize and talk about the spaces in this game.
JG: It strikes me as a game that would be almost impossible to design with a team. There’s a reason it is Willy Chyr’s Relativity.
WC: Yeah, it took two and a half years of me iterating and prototyping for me to figure out what the game was and it needed that rapid prototyping phase. Now I have people helping me with a lot of the programming tasks, but that’s because it has come to a point now where I know what all the mechanics are and how everything works together, but all the code I wrote is really messy. When I started, I didn’t think you could go outside. It was all indoors, and I had these lights and people were like, "Where is the light coming from?" So, I added a window. And people looked out the window and saw the other stuff and they said, “That’s really cool,” so I allowed you to go outside. Then people went outside and fell off and I just faded the screen to black and respawned you, which wasn’t very interesting. So, I made the world wrap around. You see all of this wasn’t planned for from the beginning. There were so many edge cases in the coding that it was causing a lot of bugs. Now I am just rewriting that. Now it is at a point where it is easy to bring people on because I know what the game is, but yeah, I don’t think I could have done it as part of a team. There was a lot of stuff that I threw out and it is a lot easier to throw your own stuff as opposed to someone else working on it for three months and saying actually that doesn’t work.
JG: What are some of the features that you threw out?
WC: Oh, a ton. I mean, I was playing with time dilation stuff that just got too tricky. I was playing with geometry that moved. The problem with that is it became a lot of time-based puzzles where you’re just waiting. You’ve got this platform that goes back and forth and if you miss it, you’ve got to stand there and wait for it to come back and that just wasn’t a lot of fun. I did, at one point, have a gun because someone said, “What if you could point at a cube in the distance and turn it into a different color?” Which I thought was a really great idea, but then as soon as I had the gun there it changed the whole vibe of the game and made it feel much more aggressive. Even though it was a cool mechanic, I decided it just wasn’t worth it.
JG: Yeah, this feels like a very contemplative game. Almost like what you would do when you’re solving a Sudoku puzzle. You kinda want to get into a groove. Roughly how large is this world?
WC: You’re almost done with this world. If you turn around you’ll see you’ve got three of [the four towers] lit. This is World One and it’s one of the smaller puzzle worlds. You can try this last one or I can also show you some of the other large worlds that I have in mind that don’t have puzzles yet but give you a sense of the geometry.
JG: I would like to see if I can finish this first world.
WC: Okay. You might be one of the first one to do it at E3.
JG: Oh, really? [laughs] Well, I guess I’m just a hot shot. Would you say that this is your dream game or do you have ideas for future projects?
WC: I actually don’t know. I was an installation artist for many years and I studied physics.
JG: You were an installation artist? Have you done anything I would know or that people could Google?
WC: Yeah, yeah, like, I’ll show you some quick images. They were on Beck’s Model Labels for a while. So, I did these large scale structures with balloons for art centers and public spaces.
JG: Where might people be able to find those?
WC: If you just go to my portfolio, just Willy Chyr. There are actually like forty of those and then just Relativity. [laughs] Ummm… yeah, but I actually don’t have plans for other games. This is… for me this isn’t a calling card for a career in the game industry.
JG: This was just something you want to make?
WC: Right, and it just happened to be this game and a game is a big project. It’s like I want to put everything I have ever wanted to see inside of this. If you look at some of the previous stuff I’ve done, you’ll see that they were all kind of working towards this.
JG: What has it been like trying to shift over from installation art to games? It isn’t a leap most people would make.
WC: I think people think making a game, working with computers, is such an I-can’t-do-it kind of thing. You know?
JG: Computers are scary.
WC: Yeah, computers are scary. And I think if more installation artists knew what you could do in games, everyone would be doing it. In installation art, yeah, you can work within this space, but you’re still bound to physics and so many of your problems are logistical. If I hang this here, is that going to pull down this structure? In games, you can write the physics. You can choose how fast objects fall and for me that is incredibly liberating. So, as a medium, it has been freeing and liberating. It has definitely been… like, I didn’t even play games before I started working on it, so the culture of it has been very new to me.
JG: That must be quite a culture shock.
JG: Is this your first big event?
WC: No, I’ve done a few, but E3 is definitely the biggest by far. I did PAX East. I did PlayStation Experience. But this is- E3 is on a whole other level. I guess I could compare it to art fairs. But at art fairs you never get to see the artist, it is usually just the gallerist. Maybe that is the same way with how this works with the larger studios. Indie game developers are really cool and there is an encouragement to [meet with people], but there is not so much with the art world. Like, you can’t hold your own show because that’s vanity, but in indie world you want to do things yourself as much as possible which I think is cool.
Okay, so you have finished this. Where that sign popped up and said you are done with the demo, that would be where it took you to the next world.
JG: Did you also do the sound for Relativity?
WC: No, that would be Ryan Roth. He did the sound for Starseed Pilgrim. It is still really early. He just sent me some stuff a few days before this. I’d love to show you some of the later worlds. [He takes the PS4 controller from my hands and opens up a debug menu and begins flipping through a list of worlds.]
This is a world that is just made up of stairs. It is just infinite staircases that go up and down.
JG: [laughs] This would be nauseating in VR.
WC: I kinda want to wait for some 14-year-old to make a twelve hour long video of him trying to reach the bottom. He’s like, “No guys I can do it, there’s something down there!” It might be kinda cool on my part to make it so after twelve hours there is something there. [laughs] But it is all based on the idea of the world repeating, taking that mechanic and seeing how far I can run with it. This is another world based on Indian stepwells. With installation art, it was always about how you perceive space differently because of the work and I wanted to let people experience what infinity looks like. Infinity is an idea: This is it. There will be a door, you can leave, but if you wanted to you can choose to walk around here and explore.
JG: You got inspiration for this world from Indian stepwells?
WC: Yeah, I actually saw those in The Dark Knight Rises. I think there was a scene that had those. I take a lot of visuals from Christopher Nolan movies. [laughs]
JG: He’s a very visual guy.
WC: Here. This is one I like a lot even though it is simple looking because it is based on the simple "H" pattern.
JG: This is the kind of thing I wish saw more of in games because you can do anything. You can do castles in the sky, you can actually display infinity, and most people don’t.
WC: There is so much of this desire to do photorealism, but I would just go outside if I wanted photorealistic, right? What is nice is having a very minimalist art style, no textures, no normal maps, no characters, no crazy animations… that allows me to explore complexity in other areas.
JG: The more I see of this, the more I think that this is something that only an installation artist could make.
WC: And only in a game, right? I don’t just want to build a building and put something inside. I want to…
JG: Explore the fullness of space?
WC: [laughs] How much can I get away with? So, this is a fun one, it is based on a fractal pattern. Actually on my website you can see many years ago I was exploring fractals. You can see there is a giant cube here in the middle, and then a cube half its size in the corner and then another one there and that together forms this structure. So this is the second instance of it. I wanted to know what it would be like to walk around in it. It also becomes how the puzzles expand. In the very first iteration of the game it was just a sequence of rooms that you explored linearly and it had one puzzle, then another, and it got increasingly harder. It was very much like Portal. Portal is much more than a puzzle game, it has great world building and good storytelling, but I knew I would not be able to compete with that.
JG: It is good that you recognized that limitation.
WC: Right! And it did take me a while, like it took a long time, but as soon as I realized that the way the puzzles will evolve is you start off in these rooms and you’re just, “Okay, I’ve got this cube, I open that door. I know how this works,” and eventually it moves to the outside. So, a lot of people ask how many puzzles are in the game and that’s hard to answer because the puzzles aren’t just inside rooms. [Chyr gestures toward the screen, indicating the in-game world] This is a puzzle. You have to understand how this geometry is laid out and once you understand that geometry, you have to use that in relation to the- the puzzles aren’t in these little boxed rooms, they are in this space that I don’t even know how to describe.
JG: The space itself is part of the puzzle.
WC: Right! And there is also some navigation and I didn’t want a fail state because I didn’t want to disrupt that flow. They’re very contemplative puzzles and if I need to bring a box up to a ledge way up above me, if you don’t understand the geometry, you think you have to build up a set of stairs and bring it up, but if you understand the geometry of the world you can just jump down and land up there. That’s the kind of thinking I want.
JG: So, have you done a lot of playtesting with this?
WC: I have done a tremendous amount of playtesting. Last year I showed at fourteen events and I think to date I have had over a thousand playtesters. It is something I do, not every week, but every two weeks I’ll get one person to play through some of the things.
JG: Has anyone gone through the entire game yet?
WC: No, because the entire game is not finished, but a lot of the Chicago developers where I am based have played the very first build of the game so they have played the later ones. For them, the game is spoiled because I need to know if things are working and they are helping me sort out all the broken bits.
JG: Do you have an idea of how long it might take someone roughly? I know some people will take to it faster than others.
WC: World One took you about twenty-five minutes and you are definitely on the faster end of it. I would say a half-hour for players like you and maybe an hour for players who don’t do a lot of puzzle or first person games and there would be maybe five or six of those worlds with a lot of puzzles. That first playthrough would take five to six hours. BUT every puzzle in the game is actually another puzzle. Once you’ve progressed further in the game and know how things work, you’ll go, “Oh wait, that thing I saw earlier was actually part of something else!” And you can go back and replay everything. That… that could be like forty hours. The ones you go through in the primary one, we are playtesting to be the right level of difficulty. I have a lot of puzzles that are very difficult that I think are great puzzles, but I’m not going to put them in the primary playthrough because some people will make it through, but some people will hit this massive roadblock. There is a lot of interesting stuff that players can’t see if they get stuck.
JG: What do you want people to take away from Relativity?
WC: I want people to just walk away feeling like their mind has been blown to bits. I remember seeing the Inception trailer and I didn’t even care what the story was, I just saw the visuals and I knew I wanted to go into that world. I feel like everyone loves Escher stuff. It doesn’t matter if you are into sci-fi or fantasy, people see these crazy worlds and it is like… I want to know what it is like to be in there and Relativity is seeking to answer those questions. “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if you could walk in different gravities?” When you just think of it briefly, you’re overlooking a lot of interesting things. I want people to finish this game and just sit there speechless.
JG: It’s fine if you can’t answer this question or don’t want to answer. I’m curious, how do you conclude a game like this? It seems like it goes on forever.
WC: There will be a conclusion. It is something that I am still working on. The biggest challenge is how do you create that climax? If you have a story, finally you meet the big boss and you defeat it and that’s a climactic moment. I think it will probably come through this… I think even when you play you are constantly having increased understanding of the world. You’re like, “Okay I am in this room. Okay, now I can walk on walls. Okay, I can only use blue boxes on blue gravity.” Your understanding of the world increases. I think at the end I would like it to be like realizing that we actually live in a little marble.
JG: Like Men in Black! [laughs]
WC: [laughs] It’s the revelation. I’d like the equivalent of that, something that compresses everything you’ve been through and makes you see it all in a new light.
JG: When might people be expecting to see this?
WC: I am aiming for 2016.
JG: Any specifics there? First quarter, last quarter?
WC: I don’t think first quarter, I think somewhere in the middle. I’m in the final stretch. I know what the design is, we’re just trying to get the tech ready. And I want to make sure I really take the time to polish it up as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time breaking my brains grasp on reality and solving puzzles in new and unique ways. I can honestly say I've never played anything like Relativity and am looking forward to seeing the different worlds and discovering how Chyr aims to conclude the geometric adventure. And it does feel like an adventure, despite the lack of characters or story. It conveys a sense of scope and bigness that makes you feel like an errant traveler in a space that was not designed for humans. It's exciting to discover new ways to look at the space around you. Both Willy Chyr's Relativity and Willy Chyr the artist are really cool and inspiring. Keep an eye out for Relativity releasing sometime next year for PC and PS4.
Feature originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 07/25/15