There’s nothing traditional about Antichamber. There’s also plenty about it that could easily frustrate. It doesn’t do anything fancy with textures and lighting – especially early on – and it eschews anything too complex in its options or control methods – those would be superfluous to the core ideas it has.
A sentiment that will occur to most players more than once…
Part of a new wave of imaginative independent games that are exploring new ways to tell a story, Antichamber very obviously wants to be different. It’s played from a first person perspective, featuring a kind of mechanic-enhancing gun, so there are likely to be comparisons to Portal bandied about. That’s not quite fair though, this isn’t as packaged as Portal or even comparable puzzlers like Quantum Conundrum. Even that convenient shorthand is robbed from us by this peculiar experience.
It claims to be about choice but really it’s about exploration, surprise and discovery. But this isn’t even exploration and discovery in a traditional sense. Antichamber avoids strict adherence to Euclidian Space. For those who are unfamiliar with Euclidean theory, that basically means the three dimensions we commonly experience and the ways each of those axis and planes (x, y and z) intersect with each other. Basically, everything you’re familiar with since the very first polygonal 3D game you played – everything you’re familiar with from living in a three dimensional world.
One door was open, so long as I wasn’t looking at it. What else is accessible when I’m not looking at it? I have no idea because I can’t see it. So you’re not just fighting the odd geometry, you’re fighting your own insecurities, instilled by brief occurrences earlier in the game. There’s very little indication, aside from the occasional garish splodge of colour around a doorway, of where you should go or even where you’ve already been.
We’re not just looking at a game that’s reticent to signpost too much or hand-hold the player through any stages of their progress. The lack of guidance isn’t an error, it’s a design feature. And although it looks, at times, almost unfinished, you’ll soon realise that the sparsity of decoration is in aid of the game’s principles of design. Far from inducing rage, Antichamber’s belligerent obfuscation of goals or purpose end up being its most endearing quality.
Some of the mind-bending antics required to reach the first ‘gun’ in the game
There may be a bare minimum of signposting but you’re constantly aware of the ultimate goal – the exit. The room you start in consists of three walls. One wall of basic options and a timer counting down from ninety minutes. One wall that displays a map showing each area you’ve discovered so far, from which you can jump back to any room you’ve visited. The third wall shows the diagrams and notes you’ve discovered along the way. The fourth wall is entirely transparent: a window showing the exit that you’re trying to reach.[drop2]When Antichamber opens, that goal is tantalisingly close and yet untouchable. The game plays with this too, allowing you access to that small corridor very early, raising hope and snatching it away just as quickly. You shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the exit might not be the point to this experience at all. Is it the final destination or merely the start of something else? Regardless, it’s the journey towards that goal that really counts.
There is something there too, a narrative underneath the scant plot development offered by notes and diagrams spotted around the environment. Antichamber is almost impossible to adequately explain. It may be rough and basic at times – almost a wireframe prototype – but it’s also incredibly smart beneath that plain veneer. Looks aren’t important though, this is a trip for your mind rather than your eyes and what Antichamber does incredibly well is make you think.
It’s not just about setting up intellectually challenging or dexterity-testing puzzles either – Antichamber gets under your skin and plants a seed of doubt. Not simply in how the game plays with our usual perceptions of the time and space around the player but how we rely on our own assumptions so assuredly. It’s unnerving, unsettling and very enjoyable.