I’ve become a really big fan of titles that challenge our expectations and perceptions of what constitutes a game. Usually this comes down to mechanics, like how Half Life 2 introduced physics based puzzles (something that was essentially impossible previously) but there have been many titles that have up ended the traditional idea of how games should operate. Quite often this leads to novel experiences that you just won’t find in other games, although there have been some notable exceptions. Antichamber is one such game that takes your preconceived notions of traditional game mechanics and continuously breaks them down in order to build them back up and does so in an incredibly intriguing way.
Antichamber throws you into a dark room with 3 walls that look like chalkboards and one that’s a window, with the apparent exit sitting behind it, tantalizingly out of reach. You’ll then turn your eyes to what looks like the beginnings of a map whereby a single click will transport you into a room. Things seem somewhat normal at first but it doesn’t take long before you’re seemingly trapped in a world that’s constantly changing the rules on you, forcing you to break all the conceptions you have about how things should behave and reforming them to fit into this strange new world.
The world of Antichamber is one of stark contrasts with the primary colour being white which is then offset by heavily saturated colours, all blended together in cel-shading to give everything this slightly surreal cartoonish feel to it. The visual style reminds me of The Unfinished Swan which similarly used white as the primary colour and it works just as well when its transported from that whimsical world to the cold, unforgiving world that is Antichamber. This combined with the decidedly organic sounds that proliferate the environment make for an unique experience that’s hard to put into words accurately but it certainly does work well.
Now this is the point in the review when I go over the core game mechanics which, for most games, typically consists of a few well known ideas with an unique twist. Whilst there are some familiar mechanics in Antichamber they are really only a distraction when compared to the variety of ways in which the game world behaves differently to that of any other game. Looking at a wall from one side could should you one thing while looking at it from another could show you something entirely different. You could walk down the same path dozens of times, seemingly going around in circles, only to find that if you turn around the correct path suddenly appears before you. Just when you think you’ve figured them all though you’ll likely be surprised by yet another strange twist on how this reality operates, forcing you to rethink not only the current puzzle but all of the ones that you encountered previously.
The non-euclidean geometry is only the beginning as well. Part way through you’ll be given a gun, for want of a better term, that’s capable of removing, storing and then placing blocks ala Minecraft style. Initially the use of blocks is relatively limited, usually used in order to trigger switches, hold doors open or as ledge for you to jump on. However as you go through the various levels you’ll be able to find upgrades to it that will allow you to draw blocks in a line, required for some puzzles where you can’t place blocks directly, and another which allows you to tell blocks to move to a certain point. The mechanics sound simple on their own but their use is really anything but leading to a whole bunch of highly frustrating yet satisfying puzzles.
The use of all these tools as well as the non-euclidean nature of most the puzzles is actually fairly intuitive for the most part which most puzzles having a pretty obvious solution should you be familiar with this particular style of game. This is primarily due to the not-so-secret hints that are contained within every little pictograph that’s lying around before/after each puzzle which gives you a bit of indication of how to go about solving it. Without any tutorial to speak of however there are some mechanics that aren’t really explained at all which can lead to you getting stuck with no way of progressing until you haphazardly figure it out or look it up online.
The prime example of this for me was the ability to generate an unlimited number of blocks if you drew a hollow square on a wall. Upon completing said square it will fill itself in, generating a large number of blocks for you to use which can then be used to generate even more, ad infinitum. The “Too Many Lasers” puzzle is a prime example of a puzzle that you will simply not be able to solve unless you’re aware of this mechanic and a quick Googling around reveals that most people discovered this mechanic by mistake, not by intuition from the game. It’s probably the biggest criticism that I’ll level at Antichamber as whilst I can understand the idea of making discovery part of the game you at least need to include a decent way of discovering the core mechanics, especially when its as vital as the one I mentioned.
There’s also an incredible amount of emergent game play possible once you’ve got the fully upgraded manipulator gun and a decent supply of blocks stored up. Whilst I’m sure this has been taken into consideration during Antichamber’s design there were a couple puzzles which I put in the too hard basket early on only to come back later and breeze through thanks to my stash of blocks. Not all of them can be done like this due to the use of the block destroying gates but there are quite a few that you can break severely should you manage to bring your blocks along.
For a game with potential for so many game breaking bugs I’m happy to report that my experience with Antichamber was mostly trouble free with the exception of trying to get it to run at the start. There’s a rather unfortunate bug in earlier versions of the PhysX engine which conflicts with the UDK which causes Antichamber to die before you can even get into it. Thankfully checking the discussion forums on Steam led to me finding the required update and the game ran smoothly after then. This solution isn’t working for everyone at the moment so your mileage may vary.
Antichamber is a truly mesmerizing and challenging game, filled with puzzles that will break down your preconceptions, rebuild them and then unceremoniously break them again just to keep it interesting. So many of the puzzles were incredibly cheeky in their implementation, teasing you openly for thinking that something should have worked which simply didn’t. It was one of those times where getting a puzzle wrong was actually one of the most enjoyable aspects as I know the coding behind this must have been an incredible challenge developer, something I really appreciate. Antichamber is right up there with titles like Portal for its innovative game play and definitely makes my list of must play games for 2013.
Antichamber is available on PC right now $19.99. Total game time was 4 hours.