Of the many titles to appear on the indie scene over the years, few have piqued my interest as much as Antichamber. Originally conceived as a multiplayer combat arena version of the game Snake, the game is another story of a side project that became an award-winning success story. Its minimalist art style, soothing soundtrack and mind-bending, space-warping puzzles all combine to create an experience that, while no Portal, stands out as unique and engrossing amidst a multitude of other such first-person puzzlers.
You can buy it on Steam for 19.99$, though I really recommend that you be a fan of puzzle games if you're interested, as it can force you to rely heavily on intuition and inference, which, if you're low on either, can spoil the experience. This is a true brain-twister. There are no inscrutable riddles requiring knowledge of Shakespeare, but there are plenty of moments that require a pause for consideration and rethinking, so be sure of your temperament before purchasing.
Antichamber's abstract design eschews story in favor of simplicity. The game plays more like a series of life lessons that, as with so many things, in reality, must be learned via trial and error. You play a faceless, nameless, voiceless protagonist who wakes in a small white and black room, an antechamber of sorts (haha, the irony), with a screen on one wall displaying a map that will fill out as you discover new areas and a timer that starts at ninety minutes.
Don't worry about the timer, however. If anything can be said about Antichamber, it's that it's inherently relaxing, and there are no consequences for failure except perhaps some back-tracking. This may be spoiling the experience, but I believe the timer exists to stress the player for the first hour and a half, much like how many people stress about how childhood is too short, or that there always seems to be a deadline for everything. In truth, you cannot beat the entire game before the timer runs out, as once it depletes, it gives you a new panel to look at. To quote the game itself: "Sometimes it's about the journey and not getting to the end."
Once you leave the black box you begin in, you are thrust into a world of non-Euclidean rules, where virtually anything is possible. The game masterfully plays on expectations, with every puzzle pushing the player to consider the rules of reality and how they might be broken. One perfect example of this is a puzzle involving a pair of staircases, one red, one blue, and both leading opposite directions. While it seems simple at face value, descending or ascending both lead the player in an Escher-like loop that inevitably leaves them back where they started. I won't spoil the solution, but this is just one of many such initially frustrating, but thought-provoking conundrums the game offers.
Eventually, when the basic mechanics of movement and various bizarre environmental mechanics have been showcased, new features are introduced, starting with a 'matter gun' that allows players to suck up and deposit the various types of colored cubes that exist throughout the game, all of which have unique functions and serve innumerable purposes. Of course, to manipulate each of the four types of 'matter', you must collect upgrades for your instrument through the completion of specific puzzle sequences. Apart from this forced progression, the rest of the game is remarkably open to roaming. Cleverly hidden shortcuts provide access to new and ever more devious problems to solve while a fast-travel system, accessible via the map in the main antechamber, allows you to teleport straight to any previously completed section. Each puzzle is identified by a black square with a pictograph on the wall near it that acts as both checkpoint and humorous explanation for what lesson the puzzle is trying to teach.
Of course, one of the most important parts of the game is that nothing is explained to you directly. Apart from some basic info on how to control your character, written on the wall of the starting room, the game expects you to work out everything on your own. Normally this would be terrible, but Antichamber is so bereft of punishment or consequences that it really doesn't feel so bad. It can get frustrating if you run up a puzzle that repeatedly rebuffs your attempts to solve it, but eventually, you realize that as in life, some things are best approached later, with more preparation. The learning process feels fluid and exciting, with every success evoking a variety of emotions. Sometimes you'll read the message behind the checkpoint and feel abashed that you didn't work it out sooner, while on other occasions, you'll feel relieved or even amused.
Of course, the game's replay value is limited, like most puzzle games. There are a few secret rooms and mysterious pink cubes that serve no purpose but are fun to track down; but apart from the main experience, Antichamber is generally something you'll want to play once or twice a year if you're really enthusiastic. It's an unfortunate truth about adventure games revolving around puzzles that you can only play them so often, or else you run the risk of memorizing the solutions and thus spoiling the experience. This is especially true of Antichamber, where working things out for yourself is half the fun. Also, unlike some other titles, the puzzles generally only have one solution, which limits freedom of choice when it comes to solving them. It's unfortunate, but in the game's efforts to make every problem a parable, it sacrifices flexibility in terms of solutions for communicating the messages behind its madness.
Sound & Design
Antichamber's entire structuring is very much rooted in New Age and Minimalist styles. The blank white environment, disrupted by splotches of bright and vibrant colors, could almost be considered a metaphor for life itself: long boring intervals punctuated by bouts of excitement and emotion. Outlines are sharp, almost cell-shaded, defining every twist and turn clearly. Meanwhile, a powerful combination of nature noises, chimes, and calming tones permeate everything, preventing the abstract and alien environment from feeling empty or menacing.
There are no loud or sharp noises, in fact. Everything is dampened in terms of sound. Thrumming, the rustle of the wind, thumping; all are present, but apart from some distant thunder, there was nothing like the crackling buzz of electricity or any sort of violent klaxon. The world feels stripped down, bereft of danger (though not without moments of shock). It's an interesting sensation to play a game without stakes and where there seems to be no pressure. This may not sit well with everyone, but then the game isn't about being rewarded. It's about learning as you go. Again, the journey is everything.
How do you rate something that's never been done before? In my experience, Antichamber is unique. I have never seen a game that tests its player so; that challenges them to reach the answer for themselves. Nor have I ever seen a title play so creatively with expectations and reality. It's a slap in the face to all the conditioning inflicted by the games that have come before it. It rarely holds your hand, but its puzzles are never inscrutable or impossible. It teaches you its mechanics fluidly, allowing you to reach your own conclusions while forcing you to constantly challenge any assumptions you might make.
The game may not have a story, but a story would defeat the purpose of the game. Certainly, it's bare-bones aesthetics may not charm everyone, and it's certainly not for those without patience, but those are matters of personal preference. Antichamber, like it or not, is a brilliant game, with more mind-bending cleverness than an art exhibit by Escher himself. I highly recommend it. After all, a journey of self-discovery is always worth taking.
|+ Innovative, mind-bending puzzles||– Potentially frustrating for the less patient|
|+ Minimal hand-holding||– Some puzzles not as intuitive as they should be|
|+ Avant-garde design|