The primary colours, the simple shapes, the knock of wood on wood as the blocks tumble out – there’s nothing unfamiliar about a box of babies’ toys tipped across the floor. Then you start playing.
Toss a ball into a stack of blocks and those shapes shrink and morph, popping in and out of subjective reality. This is not everyday physics.
4D Toys is pretty much summed up by its name. Made by Marc ten Bosch, the game gives you a toybox and a highly accurate simulation of four-dimensional physics, then just lets you play. You will be knocking down duocylinders with hyperspheres, bouncing omnitruncated tesseracts and throwing 600-sided dice in no time.
“I’d never seen anything like it before,” says ten Bosch, who is based in San Francisco. “I thought it would be fun to make.” For the last few years, ten Bosch has been working on another game called Miegakure, which uses a simulation of 4D space as the basis for a series of puzzles. 4D Toys is both a spin-off and appetizer.
But ten Bosch also thinks playing is a great way for people to grasp the head-twisting concept of higher dimensions. “It becomes instinctive,” he says. “You get a feel for what’s going to happen even if you don’t understand why.”
Elegant like Escher
4D Toys and Miegakure join a handful of games that drop you into an impossible space and ask you piece together alien physics. “Exploring a universe with different rules has always been something people have wanted to do,” says Chicago-based artist and game designer William Chyr.
Some games take the infinitely repeating drawings of M. C. Escher as a starting point, using the vertiginous geometries for different effects. Antichamber, released in 2013, engages in psychological trickery to make you lose your sense of place, with looping corridors and rooms that contain different items depending on how you approach them. Smartphone game Monument Valley, released in 2014, gives delight by letting you manipulate Escher-like optical illusions. Monument Valley 2 came out a couple of weeks ago and builds on the elegant puzzling of its predecessor.
Chyr is working on Manifold Garden. Like Antichamber, the game drops players into in a weird, disorienting place – but here they are encouraged to really understand it. Chyr wants players to feel overwhelmed by the dizzying strangeness of the world at first, but then to experience revelations that let them piece together how it works.
The first thing you learn is that you can switch the direction of gravity. There is no up or down or sideways. You later discover that the world wraps around on itself. Drop something over the side of a platform and a few seconds later it will fall out of the sky above you. The same happens to you when you fall into the abyss. Players must master these rules in order to move through the world.
Chyr was inspired by one Escher piece in particular, the 1953 work Relativity, which shows people climbing multiple staircases at impossible angles. At the time, Chyr was creating installations for large spaces using balloons – but he wanted to do more. So he cast about for a new material to work with. He thought about metal working or glass blowing. “But they were all huge logistical nightmares,” he says. Then, a friend showed him some of the things people were doing with games. For Chyr, creating virtual worlds has that same sense of freedom that his balloon work afforded him.
The biggest challenge is ensuring the rules of his world are consistent so that players feel they are really learning about an underlying mechanism. Ten Bosch is also going to great lengths to ensure his simulation is accurate. But first he had to invent a way for players to visualise and interact with the fourth dimension at all. His simulation is an extrapolation of 3D physics that had not been made before. A few things had previously been worked out by physicists, but others just hadn’t been talked about, says ten Bosch.
He now has a simulation of 4D space that is intuitive enough to be a playground. And it is attracting unexpected attention. Days after releasing 4D Toys, ten Bosch started getting emails from physicists excited about actually being able to see some of the 4D concepts they had in their heads. They’ve asked him to add things to the game, he says.
“There’s a kind of spinning that can only happen in four or more dimensions – something like a floating four dimensional spinning top – and they want to be able to see that really clearly,” he says. “It’s super hard to imagine with words but you know the math is there and it should be possible.”
Ten Bosch thinks his games could make all of us see the world a little differently. Thinking in higher dimensions is good for humanity, he says. “When we look at stuff we always think of it in terms of what we can see. We think of particles as tiny spheres that move around because that’s all we know.”
Ultimately, however, he admits that playing in four dimensions is just a lot of fun. “Nature is the best designer,” he says. “It’s so much more interesting to play around with a fundamental concept of our universe rather than a weird rule that some dude scribbled down because he felt like it might be cool.”
Throwing these impossible shapes about on screen, I see what he means. They’re hard to keep track of, though. I drop a cantitruncated 16-cell polyhedron and it rolls out of my reality again.