By Nathan Grayson on January 31st, 2013 at 8:24 pm.
Truth be told, Antichamber felt nearly finished the first time I ever laid hands on it. That was nearly a year ago. But creator Alexander Bruce insisted that – even after multiple years of near-obsessive fine-tuning – his non-Euclidean, Escher-ish, other impressive words that start with E puzzler needed more. So now here we are. But is it actually, truly finished? And was it worth the interminable, largely radio silent wait? Here’s wot I think.
The normal, natural laws of the universe don’t even apply to pictures of Antichamber.
Seriously, have a decent stare at the one below. It’s like the black is rising up to pry open your eyes and nose and mouth – to guide a creeping, colorful wisp into all your cavities until there’s no room left for anything else. Because, at its best, Antichamber is an utterly consuming experience. When its bizarre (yet shockingly consistent) brand of hyper-logical un-logic takes over the screen, that’s it. The outside world has no place inside Antichamber’s stark, white walls.
It’s a game of nearly astounding confidence, overriding the rivulets of rules, creeds, sights, and sounds our brains are used to with tidal waves of its own. Floors fade into nothingness, stairs suddenly materialize beneath your every footfall, looking one way and then back again begets neon orange hallways blinking into existence, insistent that they’ve been there the entire time. Colors warp as though the offspring of a rainbow on the world’s most potent acid, and around every corner lies a new logical absurdity waiting to leap out and re-mold your preconceived notions about, well, the universe in its own image.
And it’s all so normal.
The first great triumph of Antichamber is that it manages to frame all this Escher-esque madness in a way that feels perfectly natural. You won’t find any overwrought pretenses or tales of mammoth-chinned space-time savior Ace Q. Antichamber here. Instead, the whole thing simply begins. After a few brief moments in a black-as-the-rest-of-the-world-is-white wireframe hub chamber, I was off solving puzzles because, duh, what else would I do here? But, in spite of that, Antichamber definitely means something. Its walls are lined with pictorial platitudes about life and the choices we make, and – while occasionally worthy of an eye-roll – many dovetail with in-game events to stirring effect. For instance, there’s always this just out-of-reach door that reads “The End” lurking about. The first time I finally managed to burst inside it – mouth slick with voyeuristic hunger – a wall sign curtly replied, “Life isn’t about getting to the end.” That was maybe an hour into the game.
I have my theories concerning Antichamber’s actual underlying message, but discussing them here would only undermine the joy you could extract from reaching your own conclusions. There is, however, a playful spirit of tricksy treachery guiding Antichamber’s every twist and turn, as evidenced by that subversion of our rush to finish games. I never felt like the game was laughing at me, though. Rather, it was like a wise old teacher chuckling at my youthful enthusiasm. “Drive is good,” it might have said. “But don’t let the rope holding the carrot become your noose.”
Because, at its core, that’s what Antichamber is about: learning. But the real brilliance of Alex Bruce’s meticulously honed puzzler is in how it dispenses knowledge. Where other games give their most crucial information away upfront, Antichamber makes player-driven discovery of that information the backbone of nearly every puzzle. Portal, for instance, might say, “Here is precisely how portals will interact with each other for the duration of the game. Now go solve this puzzle.” Antichamber’s signs, meanwhile, come more as life-affirming pats on the back. “Yep, you figured it out,” they say. “That’ll probably come in handy later. Just sayin’.” As a result, it’s this glorious series of “eureka!” moments. When you push on the outer edges of a rule, the game pushes back. But it’s very much a school of hard knocks kind of thing. You’re not given knowledge. You take it.
For example (and I’ll note that this is an early puzzle, as I don’t want to spoil too much), one room presented me with a ceiling tile that simply read, “Don’t look down.” So of course, I looked down. The floor immediately dissolved as though gobbled up by a swarm of invisible, metaphysical (and maybe even metaphorical; Antichamber’s got some strange stuff going on, you guys) termites. So I clomped up a flight of stairs and found myself back at square one. “Don’t look down,” I pondered, chewing my lip. Then I tried just walking normally. Fell again, of course. And, OK, let’s be honest: again and again and again. Then, finally, mercifully, I caught on. If I’m absolutely, positively not looking down, where am I looking? Up! So I stared at the ceiling and walked forward. Boom. New area.
Tricks of sight and perception abound in Antichamber, and the mental process I used to solve the aforementioned room became one of the go-to approaches in my toolbox. That, in a nutshell, is how Antichamber functions: you’re not picking up items and powers so much as you are new approaches to problem-solving. These puzzles demand surgeon-like dissection, but your scalpel’s effectiveness depends on how much you’ve sharpened your mind.
You’re free to tackle the stoic labyrinth’s challenges in pretty much any order you please, too. Admittedly, there’s still an optimal, near-linear progression binding many of them together, but – despite being set in a series of corridors – it’s not like some corridor shooter shouting “NO YOU CAN’T GO THAT WAY, UGH HERE LET ME DO IT FOR YOU.” Once again, it just feels natural. The hub area displays this winding, dead-end-ridden map, but I usually felt like I was simply strolling forward. If anything got in my way, I was sure I’d be able to find a way past it.
All of which is not to say there aren’t items. They’re just few and far-between. In short, there are multiple permutations of a gun-like object that allows you to manipulate blocks. Giving away each individual function would spoil a number of Antichamber’s best “eureka!” moments, so I’m not going to do that. But I will say that what essentially amounts to item-gating leads to some of Antichamber’s biggest ups and downs. A few hours in, I found myself completely stumped on every puzzle I hadn’t completed, and some of them actually required a power I hadn’t acquired yet. But Antichamber didn’t tell me that, because that’s not its style. So instead, I spent upwards of an hour or so banging my brain against every conceivable surface, spilling sticky thought juices in a game-wide snail-trail of exasperation. But then I figured it out. A new property of block manipulation that totally changed everything. Before long, that discovery led me to a new block gun ability, too. I spent the next hour positively decimating puzzles, a one-man shark frenzy of knowledge.
For better or worse, that’s Antichamber’s basic pacing structure: like a rollercoaster, but interspersed with momentum (and I, suppose, bone) shattering brick walls. If things are going a bit too well, odds are, they won’t stay that way for long. Put simply, portions of the game are extremely difficult, and while experimentation won the day more often than not, I sometimes had to stand up, take a walk, and clear my head. I rarely found myself truly frustrated, but there were a few occasions where I just felt exhausted. Braining hard. Need hunt buffalo. Watch tiny story people in fire box. Cook Hungry Man TV dinner. Maybe lie down for a bit, too.
My other quibbles with Antichamber are more nitpicky, but that doesn’t make them any less upsetting when they’re front-and-center. Mainly, there are times when some of the block gun abilities don’t control particularly well. In short, freeform pushing and pulling in a first-person game is an exercise in painful imprecision. As a result, I encountered a few puzzles where I knew exactly what I needed to do, but I just couldn’t. I kept (sometimes literally) tripping over a couple clumsy mechanics, and in a game that otherwise prizes itself on translating knowledge into immediate, gratifying action, that’s all the more frustrating.
Beyond that, the hub area map could use some more versatility. I’m not asking for it to display whether or not I’ve “finished” an area, because that’d undermine Antichamber’s open, discovery-oriented spirit. But it’d be a godsend if I could place my own markers on it or something, because – as is – the ones it auto-generates after you warp back from an area can easily end up pointing to rooms long since solved. At one point, after having not played for about 24 hours, that led to me stumbling around, trying to manually piece back together my memories of the game’s reality bending progression. As you’d expect, it took quite a while, because, well, Antichamber’s kind of insane.
So Antichamber’s certainly not without its flaws, but the core of its experience is unlike just about anything else I’ve ever played. It’s the very definition of ordered chaos. There’s an overt madness to it all – loud colors, wild swings of unpredictability, leaps of logic tremendous enough to break your legs – but beneath that rests a confident serenity. The soundtrack hums with frogs croaking, birds chirping, waves lapping, and wind whooshing about without a care. Bleak whiteness gives way to organic beauty. All the pieces click right into place. Naturally. Beautifully. Antichamber itself is a puzzle. And a very, very good one at that.