Miegakure is a 4-dimensional puzzle game. What this means is that I am going to struggle to convey exactly what playing it entails. That's not to say that the game's designer, Marc Ten Bosch, has made something alienating or overly intellectual. It's a warm, funny, deeply intelligent game, which I was pleased to have the opportunity play on the periphery of this year's GDC.
I think it could be very important indeed.
When I asked Bosch whether players would struggle to understand his game, he replied that you didn't have to understand gravity to know that if you throw a ball, it would go down. And he's right. There are levels of understanding, and comprehending how this game shifts between dimensions is less important than simply grasping that it does so, and that you need to play with that to proceed. Despite this game being based on Bosch's own interest in adding a fourth dimension to classical game design, and taking the formidable literature of 4D thought as the basis for his programming and design, this is a game that is immediate and approachable. Flipping through dimensions is remarkably intuitive- you control a character through a Japanese zen-garden vs temple sort of space, and familiar jumping and running about controls make themselves known immediately - and from there I shifted dimensions, messing about with this strange toy until I quickly understood most of the problems that I faced.
These are problems such as someone being on the other side of the wall from you. To get to them you need to shift dimensions, step into the fourth dimension, move to their location in this new realm – where the wall is absent – and then shift back again. Those basic principles begin to escalate as more elements are added. Having to move a block with you between dimensions, shifting it through bands in the overlap phase between worlds, and then pushing into place in your target dimension, initially seems like standard puzzle-game fare folded into Bosch's neat dimension sliding. But when I found myself with three overlapping dimensions alongside the 'real' world in which I was attempting to make progress, I began to gasp at the possibilities.
Bosch explains it like so:
Think about a two-dimensional character living on a horizontal, flat two-dimensional plane. To this character, height would be a foreign concept. A number of actions we three-dimensional beings take for granted feel like absolute magic to this two-dimensional character...
But us 3D beings can see the object from above, and also simply lift it off the ground to move it outside, essentially teleporting it. Now by analogy a four-dimensional being could perform many similar miracles to us living in only three-dimensions. This game allows you to perform these "miracles."
So yes, Miegakure does have the potential to become overly difficult through mind-bending situations, but my suspicion is that Bosch will know when enough is enough, and will craft this with enough care to avoid frustration. It has a wry attitude, and when it playfully skips to a 2D version of itself, you can tell that there's going to be room within its four dimensions for gentle joking at its own expense.
And Bosch is taking his time to construct and craft this game quite carefully indeed. He reports that he's perhaps a year away from releasing the game, and that the great part of his time, and the challenge he has recently surmounted, was the tools (and the mathematics) required to allow him to construct puzzles along these lines. Now, then, he has to really get stuck into the task of making a puzzle game based on the principles he has so far soundly demonstrated. Playing Miegakure made me realise that I'll eventually have to return to this game and its developer to see what was actually the main challenge of development: the programming skill and mathematical comprehension required to make a 4D game, or the game design genius needed to actually apply these ideas in a form that will provide players with increasingly intricate and interesting puzzles. Bosch reports that he playtests constantly, and watches player reactions, which is certainly going to help him craft this strange little game of impossibly overlapping boxes.
As for my own time with the game, I found myself with a familiar feeling, which was the excitement of having had an early brush with something genuinely inspired. Bosch's idea started, he says, as a joke, but we all know that jokes are often only funny because they hint at something serious. What is serious here is the matter of coming up with a concept that is new. While I doubt this game will have as much general genre impact as Portal, I had the same sort of response to playing it for the first time: Miegakure's dimension shifting is a brilliant conceptual flourish that, like Fez before it, snags the imagination to drag us down a rabbit hole of problem solving. I can't wait to see where it goes next.