Developer: Alexander Bruce
Release Date: January 31, 2013
In an age when most games hold your hand from beginning to end, it’s refreshing to see a game that gives you a toolbox of sorts and leaves you to your own devices, allowing you to learn, explore, and discover at your own pace. Antichamber, an environmental puzzler developed over several years by the one-man team of Alexander Bruce, takes that self-discovery to its logical extreme, dropping you into a world with no explanation and about as little direction as is possible in a modern game.
Antichamber starts you in a room with no objectives, no quests, and no goals to speak of. At the beginning, all you have and need to progress is the ability to move and look around from a first-person perspective, which goes further than you might think. It’s not uncommon to walk down a hallway and reach an impassable obstacle only to turn around and find a completely different path than where you came from. And even if you do happen upon one of the game’s many real dead ends, you simply hit a key to return to starting point and continue your journey down a different route.
As you progress through Antichamber, you’ll soon find a gun that allows you to interact with colored blocks you find in the labyrinth. This gun, you’ll soon realize, is your truest puzzle-solving tool, and obtaining it is a huge turning point in how you interact with the game. To say much more about the nature of the weapon would ruin some of the game’s surprises, but you’ll want to get very familiar with it.
Any of this sound familiar? It’s nearly impossible to talk about Antichamber without conjuring up images of Portal. With its stark visual style, test chamber feel, and even the inclusion of some unconventional firearms, the parallels are clear. However, the similarities mostly end there. Antichamber has no story or characterization to speak of, and it’s much more about the experience of exploring the expansive interconnected halls that it is plowing through a linear series of tests.
The puzzles in Antichamber manage to provide a wide range of smartly designed challenges, from navigating the strange geometry or using the block gun to overcome obstacles, and sometimes an intersection of the two. In stark opposition to other first-person puzzlers like Portal, there is very little brute-forcing of solutions in Antichamber. The real conundrums occur in your own brain as you work out how to wield the game’s twisted internal logic in your favor. However, the game strongly encourages experimentation, and there’s no penalty for getting it wrong. You can’t die, you can’t get stuck, and you can always quickly return to a room you’re having trouble with.
While there’s no tutorial or hand-holding in Antichamber, the game does teach you in some very clever ways. Throughout the expansive hallways, you’ll encounter signs that give you vague hints about the puzzle you’re about to tackle (and sometimes slyly about the one you just solved). But even without these cryptic messages, you could make it to the end of Antichamber by visual and gameplay cues alone. Each time you observe the world behaving in a new and unexpected way, it will follow its own rules the next time you encounter a similar situation. In this way, the game has a fairness to being unfair. It doesn’t follow the rules of our world, but once it establishes a rule of its own, it’s never broken.
Much has been said about the non-Euclidean nature of Antichamber’s environment, but even this is ultimately a red herring in how you approach puzzles and the world itself. You’d drive yourself mad trying to figure out how the game’s corridors connect, that’s an ancillary part of Antichamber’s challenge. Ultimately you can tackle slices of the world individually in such a way that the mind-bending geometry of the world is manageable.
Despite adhering to a strict set of rules, Antichamber does offer some frustrations in its overall style. While the nontraditional open world is an interesting idea, it can hinder your progress unnecessarily by abstracting the map to the point where you’re not sure where you came from and where you’ve been. Just realized the solution to a tricky puzzle from earlier? It’s often too difficult to figure out how to get back to where you were.
From a purely aesthetic level, Antichamber’s visual design is interesting and unique. The bright colors provide something fun to look at while serving as visual cues for where to go and what to do next. This striking design is marred, however, by a subpar technical showing. Antichamber has limited graphics options, leading to compounding issues caused by lack of anti-aliasing and unsupported monitor resolutions. It’s clear that a ton of care was put into the game design, so it’s a shame that the same care wasn’t put into the graphical performance.
While the visuals can be disappointing at times, the sound of Antichamber is an important element that lends much to the game’s overall style. The background noise of the labyrinth suggests the ambient droning and humming of some unseen equipment, and successfully imbues you with a sense of confusion and wonder.