Genre: Puzzle/Cards Developer: Alexander Bruce Publisher: Classification: TBC Release Date: 31st Jan 2013 Platforms:
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Each play session of Antichamber, the passion project of Australian indie developer Alexander Bruce, ended with me walking away from my computer with a mild headache. Iíve pulled back from the computer, blinked until reality comes flooding back in, and massaged my own forehead, realising that thereís a very real possibility that my brain has started to melt. But each time, Iíve been grateful that a game had found a way to make my skull throb simply by being smarter than me.
Antichamber doesnít play by the rules: the rules of life and death, of gravity, of space. It reinvents these rules as it sees fit, throwing the player into a labyrinthine complex with no prior instructions, and then asks them to move from room to room however they can. Things donít work the way one might expect them to, though. The corridor you just walked down may lead somewhere else if you turn around. Staircases may appear out of thin air. You are frequently lied to with exits that go nowhere and countdown timers that arenít actually counting down to anything, and progression doesnít work in the ways youíre used to.
Because of its constant rule revisions and refusal to conform, Antichamber can be a difficult game to describe. Playing it requires a constant adjustment of your perceptions of mechanics and spaces youíve encountered. This is why Iím coming away from play sessions with headaches Ė because the game demands constant attention to bizarre puzzles and pieces of logic that only make sense within the game world itself.
Thatís not to say the game feels in any way random, or that itís anything less than a spectacularly sharp work of design. In fact, Antichamberís design philosophy is brilliant and extremely intelligent. Early on, I sometimes felt as though I was stumbling into solutions rather than actually properly solving the gameís puzzles, but I soon came to appreciate that this was actually intentional Ė Antichamber has to force you outside of the box a bit to make sure that you stay out there for the rest of the game.
The presentation is minimalist, but smart. Thereís little in the way of music, just ambient noise that hints towards themes that arenít necessarily made clear by the architecture (you might hear the rush of waves hitting rocks in one area, for instance, or crickets chirping in another). The game has a small colour palette by choice, and absolutely makes the most of it. A rush of red or green after traipsing through an all-white corridor can have quite a potent affect, signifying both significant points and indicating whether or not the puzzles ahead can be tackled yet.
When the game starts to shift part way through from focusing on stumbling through non-Euclidean spaces towards puzzles focused on manipulating blocks with the block-guns you unlock, itís initially hard to know whether to be disappointed or relieved. The later sections of Antichamber are no less ambitious than the earlier ones, and still expect you to wrap your head around an awful lot, meaning that the gameís concepts never quite become normalised. There are four guns, each with slightly different block-manipulation abilities, and finding a new one will typically mean that a whole bunch of scenarios and rooms you encountered earlier will suddenly start making sense to you. Itís enormously empowering to gain a better sense of understanding in a game like Antichamber, even when youíre constantly having it snatched back away from you.
As abstract as the game is, itís not without mercy. There are secrets and tricks to discover, techniques to learn and remember, but nothing is hidden, as such Ė if someone can be done, itíll be demonstrated somewhere, even if the demonstration is quite subtle. Throughout the game you collect little life lessons scrawled across the wall, which serve as (occasionally somewhat trite) clues for what to do next.
Itís hard to tell exactly how seriously these lessons are intended, but they hint towards the gameís original intention (it was originally entitled Hazard: The Journey of Life). The overarching metaphors, and the idea that Antichamber may be a game about life itself, doesnít really come through, but then theyíre never pushed to the forefront enough for that to matter.
This is the sort of game that, by design, will invite speed runs and exploits in the same way that Portal did. Itís actually probably smarter than Portal was, though, simply because its purposeful incoherence is so subtly anchored. Simply put, it feels like the work of a genius, one who has thrown out the textbooks on structure in the same way some of the best, weirdest filmmakers do, and has produced a work of singular vision that will none the less mean and play a little differently for everyone who gets their hands on it.
Itís not all completely smooth, though, and sections that focus more on manoeuvrability tend to falter a bit. One room required that I set up a Ďfuseí with blocks and then disintegrate one in the exact middle to set off a chain reaction of doors opening (disintegration becomes a bit of a running theme later in the game). This was all well and good, except that placing blocks with precision is a finicky business, especially when a puzzle requires that you use a lot of them, and I had to restart the puzzle many times. Worse still, a few sections required a bit of first-person jumping, something the controls really arenít well suited to at all. These sections are few and far between, but stand out nonetheless for being a bit irritating.
Antichamber is not the sort of game that every player is guaranteed to finish. Stepping away from it to nurse oneís brain is essential, and coming back to it is extremely daunting because of the gameís non-linear structure. Thereís a central area that can be accessed at any time by pressing the escape key, from which you can access every room youíve discovered from a map. The map reveals which rooms still have exits to be discovered, although the game doesnít make this clear. You never know where these exits will take you, and itís not uncommon to solve a puzzle only to end up in a room youíve already been in, having effectively wasted your time.
Other times, though, you may find that youíre now better equipped to handle a puzzle you skipped in this area hours ago, but in my playthrough this rarely happened on purpose. It can be dauntingly disorientating, but thatís exactly what the game is going for, and as long as you can embrace the sweat on your brow, the frustrations are worth it for the moments of triumph.
Antichamber will turn your brain inside out and then ask you to reach inside your own head and turn it back the right way. Itís quite unlike anything else Iíve ever played, and it simultaneously made me feel like an idiot and a genius. Itís daring, confident, original and enjoyable, not to mention ridiculously smart. Just make sure youíve got some paracetamol handy before you start playing.