After completing Quantum Conundrum I was immediately ready for another game of that style. Not quite ready for more Quantum Conundrum, though, or I’d have dove into the DLC. And not quite ready to replay Portal, or I’d grabbed it off the shelf.
So I grabbed Antichamber instead.
Let’s get the graphics out of the way first: Antichamber barely has any. Looking at screenshots, or watching the YouTube trailer, you might not even recognize it as a game. It looks like someone’s homework assignment. Everything is stark contrast, straight lines, bright color. The most minimal of the minimalist. There are a few cool-looking rooms, and an art gallery area filled with nifty looking impossible shapes to look at (but not interact with)… but most of your play time will be spent staring at white hallways and white walls.
People will say the graphics work for the kind of game Antichamber is. People will say that the game wouldn’t have been the same without its unique visuals. I call bollocks on these people. For one, the visuals aren’t unique. It’s black lines on white paper. There is a threshhold at which bare-bones visuals are no longer distinct, and Antichamber is below it. And for another, well, M. C. Escher didn’t just draw impossible lines. He drew impossible objects. Looping stairways, tesselation gradients, and so on. There’s (theoretically) no reason Antichamber couldn’t have been set in a haunted mansion, or a dusty pyramid, or whatever. Instead, it’s a computer simulation. That’s what it looks like.
Well, okay, there’s one reason: Antichamber is designed to challenge and subvert your expectations about what a game is. It only wants you to succeed if you are able to second-guess every convention you’ve ever learned. It wants you outside of your comfort zone. The game does feel cold and clinical… discomforting, even. So it does work. It’s just, by my reckoning, it would have worked better if the “second-guess your conventions” convention were re-cast as, say, “it’s ghoooosts!”, and the hallways were creaky wood and cobwebs.
Make ye no mistake: “second-guess your conventions” is just a convention. It’s a gimmick. The best puzzles in Antichamber are designed so you have to forget what you know — or think you know — in order to advance. But then, so were the best puzzles in Portal, and Quantum Conundrum, and RHEM, and Ocarina of Time. It’s, ah, kind of the definition of the word “puzzle”, isn’t it? If a game challenge conforms exactly to your expectations, it isn’t a puzzle challenge. Antichamber is really no different.
It’s a little different. Just a bit. Before you can even start solving puzzles, you have to solve the world. The game is first-person, WASD-and-mouse (no gamepad support, tsk tsk). You can run and walk and jump. That much you know. But you are dropped into the game with no introduction, no motivation, no goal and no help. You set off into the maze, disoriented, and because you are disoriented, little things like changing hallways and endless staircases seem more confusing than they really are.
But Antichamber is not random. There are rules to how the world works, and once you learn them, the game is no longer discomforting. I won’t give any examples — finding out what they are is part of the puzzle, after all — but the game has an internal logic that can be unraveled.
Actually, I’ll give one example. Sometimes, a hallway or doorway will lead to two different places depending on whether you’ve turned to look back through it since you entered. You might turn left, walk to a dead end, then turn around and find a stairway leading up has materialized behind you. You know, Escher stuff.
Except none of these quasi-dimensional connections really, well, fit. They follow no logic, internal or otherwise. So, no, not Escher stuff. The walkways and drop-offs aren’t mapped to any clever, impossible topography… they’re simply impossible. They’re just coded to work the way they do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s hub room. On one wall is a giant map of everywhere you’ve been. The map is just nodes and arrows. You click a node to warp immediately to the room it represents. Then, from anywhere in the maze, you press Esc to warp back to the hub.
That works brilliantly for navigation. It’s a great concession to gameplay. But it damages the sense of “impossible place” they were aiming for. There is no cohesive whole. There is no seventh-dimensional superstructure. It’s easy to make an impossible hallway if you cheat. I’ve done it in RPGMaker. Not a game-breaker by any means. Just disappointing.
As you wander around the world, learning how it works, you will make note of many locked doors. Doors are locked with configurations of colored cubes. At the end of your wandering you find a gun that can manipulate colored cubes. That gets you into a few doors. Later, you find a stronger gun that manipulates them differently. And on from there. The strongest gun opens the door leading to the exit. All very… conventional, really.
The gun/cube puzzles were mostly smart. There were some really clever ones, although none were as fun as simply working out what each new gun does in the first place. (Or learning to use an old trick in a new way.) Unfortunately the designers cheated here, as well, and most of the cube puzzles are set in piped grids in the walls. Find a door, look at the nearby piped grid, solve the puzzle, door opens. At this point the game is reduced to a series of what are essentially browser puzzles. Match the colors, arrange the grid, drag the line, block the laser. Very disappointing, considering how cerebral the initial “wander around an impossible place” phase of the game is.
Some of these cube/pipe/lock puzzles were very difficult. I rapped my knuckles on a few of them until I forced myself to step back and consider what I wasn’t seeing. Often, and truly, I was only able to succeed after letting go of my pre-conceptions of what the rules were. The theme of Antichamber, in other words, working as intended. Again, though, this is exactly how I solve the best puzzles in any well-designed game.
Is Antichamber a well-designed game, then? Well, sure. Just… incoherent. At first it’s a game about learning the rules to an impossible place. Then it’s a game about learning to manipulate cubes. Then it’s a game about solving stand-alone wall puzzles. Then it’s a game about… uh… whatever the hell the endgame was.
I enjoyed it, but I noticed all the spackle. Kind of hard not to, when you’re constantly stepping in it.
The game starts you with a timer. I don’t know what the timer starts at, because I didn’t notice until I had already wandered around a while and Esc’d back to the hub. Eventually the timer hit zero and nothing happened. Presumably something happens if you complete the game quickly enough. Or maybe that one un-openable door I found would have responded if I’d reached it in time. I’m not really motivated to replay the whole game just to find out, nor am I confident I could do it quickly enough. I guess a speed run mode in a puzzle game is a progressive idea, but it still baffles me.