Wot I Think: Antichamber

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.

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64 Comments »

  1. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I really like the look of this from what I’ve seen so far. Developers: make Mac/Linux versions!

    Also very pleased there are no animated gifs in this WIT. That would have damaged my eyes.

    • pakoito says:

      It’s UDK because it had the best tech for this stuff so he’s not to be blamed.

      • Ninja Foodstuff says:

        So then a Mac version at least should be possible

        • pakoito says:

          Should, but it was not a priority. Maybe in some time, ask @demruth but he was stressed enough with one windows release.

          • Teovald says:

            I asked him : the absence of a Linux and/or MacosX version is what is preventing me from buying it instantly.
            In fact it is already mentioned in the FAQ :
            “I had originally planned to launch on both Mac and Windows, but finishing the game took way longer than expected, so plans had to change.

            UDK supports Mac, and I plan to support it as well, but I need to get the PC version stable first and then update my version of the Engine so that I can gain access to UDK’s Mac support. Unfortunately this was not entirely trivial the last time I tried, but is something I will be able to get done when I am not also focusing on finishing and launching the game in the first place.”

      • Mr. Mister says:

        Also because it was firstly created for the “(made by a) Educational” category of the Make Something Unreal Contest. It was named “Hazard: The Journey of Life” back then (makes the underlying message much more obvious), and he got third place and five thousies.

      • AllAboard says:

        No, it’s UDK so he could still use the portals code and designs he stole from users on another forum.

        • essentialatom says:

          Would be nice to see some evidence to back that accusation up.

          • TCM says:

            Assuming it’s the same All Aboard, he posted the same thing on the Penny Arcade Report. Here’s his response from there:

            “And here’s where I get called a liar. The forums were shut down around a year before he first announced anything. They were a forum on Unreal Engine 3 modding; of which he was a barely engaged member of the community.

            The main parts I’m talking about are the use of portals. The last time I saw the game, 90% of what was the game’s puzzles were nearly 1:1 copies of things other people put up in that forum.

            I have heard of and seen other things he has added to the game since then, but I just constantly wonder where else he’s stolen that from.

            Also, while he might be personable to journalists, he’s a pretentious “artist” in relation to the game dev communities I’ve seen him in, with constant taking and not much giving.

            Since I live in Melbourne as well, I’ve had the chance to see and play it a few times. Mainly at Freeplay, though. ”

            [ http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/its-not-what-you-know-its-what-you-can-figure-out-the-joy-of-antichamber ]

          • pkt-zer0 says:

            Well, if you knew the name/URL of said forum, one could still check if there’s anything in google’s cache or archive.org; or locate other forum members to confirm/deny this. So, that could be a start.

            That said, good artists copy, great artists steal. If he managed to take others’ ideas, and make something uniquely his own out of it, good on him. It’s not as if there’s an overabundance of clones similar to this game in the making, and he was merely trying to rush it out to market before the others.

          • Kitsuninc says:

            The way I see it is that if nobody was going to actually DO anything with any of that content, stuffing it together and actually getting it into people’s hands, even if it was stolen, is better than just letting it sit and rot.
            But still, these accusations could be totally made up.

        • ChromeBallz says:

          That must explain why it took him 3 years to finish this game and why no one else has made anything like it. Uhuh.

          • LionsPhil says:

            …well, people have made things like it?

            UT has had static portals in-engine since UT99; it calls them WarpZones. There’s a UT2004 map (Reconstruct, I think?) that does various neat tricks with floors appearing under your feet as you walk over chasms and such.

            Which is not to say anything about claims of theft. Just that this isn’t some innovative unbroken ground, unless there’s stuff in there that the unhelpfully vague review is omitting. All Nathan really seems to give us to go on are a couple of gimmicks. :/

          • RvLeshrac says:

            Can’t tell if LionsPhil is a troll, or if he actually believes a ‘Wot I Think’ is a review.

    • RaiderJoe says:

      Agreed. Another person here who probably won’t be buying before a cross-platform release.

  2. Michael Fogg says:

    I like it when RPS gets an 503 error. that little IF is the best thing in the universe.

  3. norfolk says:

    Will buy this asap. It looks like Scarab of Ra meets Portal meets Brian Eno.

  4. Spacewalk says:

    It looks like it was made in the early days of hardware acceleration when people put coloured lighting all over their maps because it was a new thing and they just had to use it.

    • The First Door says:

      From what I’ve seen the use of colour in the game is actually really important!

    • Syt says:

      Having stumbled through the game for 90 minutes I can safely say that the colours are more than just window dressing.

  5. Barberetti says:

    Well I’m not a mother, so that’s me out.

  6. Mr. Mister says:

    Been excited for years about this. I played both the MSUC build and the free UDK showcase build (which I think disappeared from the Internet), and I completed them both 100% without walkthroughs in only three runs!

  7. derbefrier says:

    sounds pretty cool. This is going on my “must buy at some point” list.

  8. Mr. Mister says:

    Saw two videos. I’ll be honest, I digged much more the original style for the advice plates…

  9. The Dark One says:

    You can tell the game’s been a long time in the making when the RPS quote on the game’s Steam page is from an article John wrote eleven months ago.

  10. Petethegoat says:

    Played this at Rezzed. I don’t think I got very far through (a room with a cube in the wall that you could nudge round??) before I got stuck, but it was immensely enjoyable.

  11. MiloticMaster says:

    Question: How heck do you do non-Eucildean space? The tricks Antichamber places with your mind when it magically warps space like that and you end up being where you were before even though you’ve been walking straight-
    But seriously how? On a technical level. Based on how 3D scenes are rendered and the colour style, I dont see how the game could ‘trick’ you into thinking something spacially looks like something else; but also I dont understand how it can warp space to make stuff bend in circles and loop back to each other without stuttering as it teleports you to a different place…
    Im lost.

    • mrwonko says:

      At its core it’s just like Portal (and Prey before that – and in all fairness, Quake 3 could already do it as well, minus seamless transition) – you basically move the virtual camera to the target place, render what is there (think of it as taking a picture), then draw the actual place and render that (think of it as making a big poster of the picture and putting it in your room, but you take a new one whenever you move).

      This game makes me want to do some weird Prey maps.

    • Stuart Walton says:

      Probably the same way Portal does it. The game runs 2 identical maps and when it’s showing you something that cannot exist in 3D space it’s likely using a portal to do so.

      • Ericston says:

        There is only one spot in the release version of Portal 2 where “something that cannot exist in 3D space” happens. Curiously, it doesn’t involve in-universe portals:

        Where is the “impossible space” in Portal 2?

        In the other cases, when you have made an in-universe portal, it’s rendered by showing the current map from the vantage point of the portal’s exit, like mrwonko said.

    • DK says:

      It’s just something Unreal engine does and has always done. Even back in the original Unreal Tournament games, it could seamless non-euclidian without a hitch.

      I’ve made maps back then in which a horizontal corridor is invisibly linked to a vertical one in another part of the map entirely – and if you look at it from one end it looks like a pit, while from the other it looks like a corridor. But step into it – and BAM you’re either fall or not falling depending on your entry point.

      Unreal Engine is really underutilized by the dozens of bland shooters it’s used for.

      • ChromeBallz says:

        I wonder whether Antichamber uses warp zones or “proper” portals. Though i guess it can use both…

  12. trjp says:

    On Twitter someone said something about ‘updating Physx drivers’ and that’s offputting – anyone using a cheaper-end AMD card care to check it’s not a chuggedfest if/when any sort of ‘hard work’ physics is required (as without an nVidia card it just expects you have a quad core i7!!)

    • Mr. Mister says:

      Someone on Reddit also said that he solved a problem by updating/installing PHysX, AMD card too.

    • Crusoe says:

      @trjp

      I’m running a 6870, installed physx to get the game past the logo screen.

      Chuggedfest might be a little strong, but atm I am getting some frame rate drops, yeah.

      According to a post by the dev in a steam discussion, a fix should be arriving in the next few days.

      EDIT; From the hour I’ve played, it’s a remarkable game.

    • trjp says:

      The worst part about Physx games is that they tend to be dependant/work best with just one specific set of drivers – so every time you get a game which updates those, other games break.

      Pain in the ass, frankly, not really sure why developers decide to use something which is going to run better on, at best, 35-40% of machines!?

      Should be mandatory to replace “Runs better on nVidia” with “we deliberately chose to fuck you AMD and Intel owners” :)

      • Dominic White says:

        You do realize that all Unreal 3/UDK games use PhysX, right? They just tend not to advertise it unless they’re offering special super-flashy hardware-only effects.

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  13. Mr. Mister says:

    BTW, I found the old UDK demo, http://www.fileplanet.com/210516/210000/fileinfo/Hazard:-The-Journey-of-Life-Demo-UDK

    Anyone else prefers the old art style for the signs?

    • baby snot says:

      That link auto downloads. Not cool dude.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        My fault, I made sure it was downloadable and copyed the link then. Fixed it.

  14. maninahat says:

    It all sounds fascinating, but that color palette is really putting me off. I don’t know if I could play a game that visually loud for very long.

    • Mr. Mister says:

      Demo’s pretty long, try if you can.

      • maninahat says:

        Ah, I tried the demo and the colours didn’t annoy me much at all. That’s a relief. the block placement is as frustrating as fuck though. Hopefully that is one of the things they’ll have fixed in the final release.

    • Parthon says:

      The game is mainly white. The colours are only for highlighting, emphasis and special effects. It’s not nearly as loud as the screen shots suggest.

      There’s no flashing colours though, it’s all static.

  15. LordZALE says:

    Edit: This reminds me of At a Distance.

    • surreal_pistachio says:

      At a distance from Terry Cavanagh and it was a great game! Anyway, anything from him is awesome :)

  16. MadTinkerer says:

    You know what this game needs? Oculus Rift. If O.R. comes with Antichamber support (or vice versa, whatever), I’ll be getting it first day.

  17. Low Life says:

    After about three hours of the game last night, this is the best puzzle game I’ve played since Portal. It’s very unique, fun to play and rarely (though sometimes) frustrating. I just want to keep playing it, even when I’m stuck on a puzzle and realize that I’d be more likely to solve it if I just left the game for a while.

    It also makes my eyes appreciate the fact that we live in a world filled with LCD displays instead of CRTs.

  18. ribobura osserotto says:

    Oh look, another ugly-looking indie game with poorly conceived puzzles trying to be deep and revolutionary. Nothing to see here folks, unless you have a thing for eye cancer and puzzles made to cater the mind of a dimwit.

    • Parthon says:

      You sir, are an imbecile!

    • Low Life says:

      I’ll give you 7 out of 10. You forgot to drag the developer’s personality in, and you could’ve finished your message with “It’s Hotline Miami all over again” for maximum efficiency.

    • Totally heterosexual says:

      1/4

      Good effort.

  19. MadTinkerer says:

    I just got the green gun and I’m having a blast. Won’t say too much more because of puzzle spoilers and such, but this game is great at frustrating you and then making you feel like a genius when you figure out solutions.

  20. Yosharian says:

    Ahh this fucking game is so annoying

  21. Ridnarhtim says:

    Hmm … I have to say I was expecting it to be a bit longer. I finished it in about 4 hours. Now, it is absolutely fantastic, and I definitely don’t regret buying it, but for 11 quid, I was hoping to be entertained for a little longer than that.

    • Timothy says:

      I finished in around the same time. There are some particularly difficult puzzles that aren’t required to see the ending, though; have you completed all of them? The signs act like collectables; have you got a full wall? How many secret pink cubes did you find?

      • Ridnarhtim says:

        Got another 2 hours or so out of finding the all the panels, which I admit is more than I was expecting. Not sure about the pink cubes… I’ve found a few, not sure how many there are or if they do anything.

  22. TinaHiggs22 says:

    before I saw the draft which was of $7429, I have faith …that…my brothers friend woz trully making money parttime from there new laptop.. there friends cousin started doing this less than 17 months and a short time ago took care of the morgage on there apartment and bought a new Lotus Elan. I went here, Great60.com

  23. Wallllrod says:

    I’ve just finished this game, but yesterday i sat down and ploughed through the main meat of it in one sitting. The last puzzle bit had me a bit stumped due to the issues about controls mentioned in the article, and for the money it was a little short, but the actual game itself was bloody marvelous. The mechanics and style were so refreshingly non-derivative and presented quite simply and effectively. It was like a mint imperial for my brain.

  24. Metr13 says:

    Am I the only one, that didn’t feel more non-euclidian than in the maps of games like Blood or Duke Nukem 3d? (custom ones, I mean, though there were a few wtf moments in blood itself, too)

    The whole game is just a slightly annoying puzzle… And my whole experience got broken when I turned wrong direction and encountered a shitload of puzzles I wasn’t equipped to solve.
    Not to mention the advice plates, that break the art style and immersion (for example, the captain obvious one in the ‘indefinite’ round corridor. I mean… compare antichamber to the mindfuck at the end of Metro 2033), and cubes, that don’t respawn until you go to menu room, then back.

    And, honestly, the colours do nothing.

  25. Mister says:

    Played the game and finished it when I realized… Hey… The puzzles and the ending relate to that movie Zathura. This game is pretty much like Zathura! Anyone else agree?