There’s a sort of movie that’s very hard to talk about. Movies that are mostly about a twist, a movie that is held together by deliberately using a large portion of the movie to construct an expectation in your mind, and then they use a dramatic device to completely subvert what you’re expecting. Some movies do this so well that even knowing there is a twist is a kind of spoiler, a thing that ruins the experience of the movie. There’s something similar to that in videogames, too. I’m not referring to games with plot twists, though.
No, I’m talking about the challenge of explaining the clever puzzles in Antichamber.
How To Explain?
Antichamber is a hard game to describe without hinting at, or revealing the nature of, some puzzles. More than any puzzle game I’ve ever played, it’s a pure puzzler, a game where the puzzles are the game, and the game itself is the puzzle. It is a game where some puzzles are about perception and some are about manual dexterity, and I’m pretty sure that some of them are about timing, and at least one of them is about patience. There are puzzles about standing in the right spot, about looking in the right spot, and there are puzzles about fussing back and forth with a mouse button held down.
That’s one of this game’s best points. It’s so very pure.
Brighter Than Gold
It is, essentially, a sandbox puzzle game. The sandbox experience is typically undirected, and when you’ve worked your wriggly toes down into the sand of a good sandbox, you care less about any higher goal, any overarching plot, but rather on how you’re going to solve the individual puzzles presented to you. Most importantly, while some of the puzzles have a solution, most of the puzzles have a few solutions. This isn’t like a Rubik’s Cube or a Layton puzzle game; in this, the puzzles are not discretely disconnected from one another. Some puzzles are even built around exploiting the way you think of them as isolated!
I got my toes thoroughly sandy at several points, and flew through puzzles the first time I spotted them, which might have been another kind of manipulation – making sure I felt smart to keep me on the hook. At its finest, I was roaming through challenge after challenge, seeing glimpses of a future tool, or a puzzle I couldn’t yet solve, and coming to grips with it. Sometimes I’d become frustrated, and leave a puzzle behind, leave, and only find myself exactly back where I’d found myself stymied before. What really strikes me looking back on it is how Antichamber is actually a reasonably small game, in terms of rooms and levels and time – but it wears its size deceptively, faking scale marvellously.
The ending of the game’s narrative actually stands out as an extensive break with the game’s existing style. It’s not claustrophobic and endless and physics-defying. Oh, it’s limited – extremely so – but the path you take and the spectacle you witness is so strange that my initial thought is: Is this meant to mean something?
Then a moment later, after a game entirely about assumptions and the familiar being rejected, I thought no, it probably just looks cool.
No Longer There
It’s pretty strange that a game with this sort of ending seems to be building up to a crescendo that seems immediately dismissible. That isn’t to say that Antichamber is a great game, or even a game I particularly enjoyed. The first hour of the game is mostly about your interaction with the environment trying to solve puzzles without a truly clear impression of what you can or can’t rely on, or if there is some sort of goal or progress to reach. Are you making progress? You don’t know. You can’t know! There’s movement, surely.
I understand that the game plays by rules. One of those rules is that the game is trying to baffle you with occasionally arbitrary nonsense. There are dead ends, and areas that are just meant to look like dead ends, and it’s all trying to make you question your assumptions about videogames. Unfortunately, one assumption I had is that this was a particularly clever game I’d have fun unravelling. Instead of umming and ahhing around puzzles and feeling very smart when I found the solution, the result was more of a flat ‘Oh, that was it?’
Another element of the game is how it feels like a one-session experience. If you stop playing it temporarily, it breaks flow of it, which I think is suggested by there being a timer as well. I remember leaving the game for sleep – selfish fool that I was – and returning to a videogame that seemed to be sulking at me. “You don’t remember where you were last, on this map? Well, I’m sure not going to tell you.” The puzzles carry this same air – you have to crawl into the headspace of the game to really grasp what the puzzles need to be solved.
I think that’s the great problem of this game. While there’s a scholarly tone to it, an erudition and a willingness to challenge ideas, all it really does with that is a sort of nodding, “Mm, makes you think, eh?”
None of this adds up to say that Antichamber is a bad game. It’s not one of my favourites, but I like some remarkably bad games. If you’re a fan of indie games on principle and like the idea of a user-mendacious game in the vein of Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, you’ll probably quite enjoy this. If you’re the kind of player who blew through Portal and Portal 2 and test new levels regularly, Antichamber will be a wonderful addition to that particular digital diet. And of course, if you’ve never played a first-person puzzle game before, Antichamber will blow your mind.
Buy it if:
- You want something patient, nonconfrontational and slightly passive-aggressive.
- You want a game that never stops you, but will push you aside often.
- You want something that can occupy hours of time after you’ve ‘finished’ it.
Avoid it if:
- You want a clear, distinct boundary between puzzles, and puzzles with perfect solutions.
- You want something for quick-fix playing.