Antichamber sets the tone immediately by introducing the player to the main menu, which just happens to be manifested in the physical space of the game itself. The standardised menu options are illustrated on a giant black chalk screen, in the bottom corner of which is a countdown tick tocking its way slowly towards zero; beginning at a rather worrying hour and a half—one and a half hours isn’t very long, and what will happen when it reaches zero? This completely unexplained countdown adds immediate tension to what would otherwise have been a clever, but ultimately meaningless way to render a menu—it goes beyond simply being a smart aesthetic trick to being a direct influence on the player and the gameplay; that timer will always be in the back of one’s mind, right? Instantly, Antichamber infiltrates one’s head, adding a little uneasiness to the clean, synthetic visuals that take on the indie game’s equivalent to brown (white and black, in that exact order) to great effect; not to mention its affect on the gameplay and the player.
To recap in the form of an introduction: A time limit means hurrying; hurrying can lead to one’s downfall. Literally.
The world of Antichamber has its own laws of physics: some floors remain solid only if you walk, while sensitive molecular pigeons reign over many doors and openings. Nooks and crannies contain secrets or other worlds entirely, and quite often if you don’t look where you are going, you will not end up where you expect to—that almost sounds a little poetic, doesn’t it? Once again, another indie staple—the modern tract of amateur, meandering philosophy that permeates many indie games—is used for something more: little empowering proverbs are littered throughout the world of Antichamber. Indeed, one of the only ways to follow your progression through the game is by inspecting your collection of these proverbs, which are helpfully collaged on a chalkboard in the menu room; it’s satisfying watching the chalkboard fill, and a little strange too: a collection of truisms and pauper profundities hardly summarise one’s experience of Antichamber adequately, nor does it accurately represent one’s progress: what of the puzzles that one solves leading up to a new picture? Are they remembered on the map rendered in the menu room as it fills up in the same way as the collection of philosophies, or only in one’s own memory? But let’s try not to get too sidetracked by the poetry—sometimes you just have to go back. Turn around, and this time perhaps that old, all but forgotten (though well recorded) sentence will take us somewhere:
But once again, the modern tract of amateur, meandering philosophy that permeates many indie games is used for something more: little empowering proverbs are littered throughout the world of Antichamber, but instead of serving only to help us understand the game and its creator(s) on an emotional level, they are used as clues and encouragement: “failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress” is not just a completely unhelpful truism that only the Anthony Robbins of this world can truly appreciate and benefit from, but a completely helpful clue as to what to do next as well, and an accurate analysis of what just happened. It’s a minor difference, and ultimately an aesthetic one, but it is of such importance that it deserves high praise—directly relating the gameplay to such messages means that they can transcend simply being cute stuffing and become an integral part of the whole experience: stuffing is best when used in unison with the dish in question.
The dish in question is not one, but many: the meat and potatoes, the tiramisu and the Dom Pérignon—the puzzles. Sometimes the clues are a little too good, all but spelling out what must be done to progress, but the fact that they are more than just clues means that they feel like less of an intrusion than they could have, and the abstract nature of the puzzles are inseparable from the themes that help explain them, which helps add just that little bit more to the puzzles so that it’s not simply about solving them, but discovering them too; considering them—discovering and considering; the two pillars of Antichamber: Let us consider discovery first.
Exploration is equal in importance to puzzle solving; the only motivation for solving a puzzle is so that one can move further forward, edging a little closer to the conclusion of the journey that one has discovered; and so, one is often teased and patronised by the game: the road forks, spoons and knives at almost every junction, and at quite a few of them, the motivational posters tell you gleefully that choosing one path may not mean missing another—or the opposite entirely—but the fact of the matter is that the decision of which way to turn is an agonising one due to the labyrinth nature of Antichamber’s world: if one makes a wrong turn and gets stuck, then one cannot simply retrace one’s steps to try going the other way! Things are more complicated than that; yes, one can always simply return to the map room and begin from the beginning, but what if one has put a great deal of work into a puzzle just a few doors back? The untaken path might have lead to the requirements for its ultimate solution. Work must begin again, but I’m sure there’s some proverb to help one cope with such situations.
And all the while as one is turned this way and that—moving from solid, sterile walls, to vibrant technicolour numbers and words and molecular pigeons—Antichamber doesn’t stop at patronisation, but elevates the despondent discourse to genuine mocking—just out of reach; just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye are not only doors, but guns too. These guns make it impossible to think of Antichamber without Portal coming to mind; the guns themselves resemble a portal—strange circular devices—but this does a disservice to Antichamber’s videogame literacy: the likes of Metroid Prime, Castlevania and Killer 7 amongst others spring just as easily to mind, and it’s this very teasing that is handpicked from Metroid Prime.
Antichamber uses teasing to the same degree of success as the Metroidian masterpiece itself. In fact, Antichamber knows that it cannot simply plagiarise (an unflattering word for the highest form of flattery, and an incredible compliment in this case) Metroid Prime’s exploration-based structure due to the significant difference in world size and game length, and the far more complicated and complex nature of Antichamber’s map. The major driving force and motivation could not simply be a shiny new area—the fantasy of what is to come next guiding the player through the agonising wait as they search for the required solution to move on to their reward—as it was in Metroid Prime; the solution to the problem needed to be just as important as the ultimate reward of the new and unseen: cleverly; coquettishly, Antichamber teases the players with guns; colour coded guns that help deal with another big divergence from the structure that it borrows so freely from: freedom.
Seeing red blocks without a red gun is not motivation enough, because if one is sufficiently ambitious, then the red blocks can be adequately manipulated without the latest red model, but seeing the latest red model itself in all its shiny-new-thing glory? A glimpse just for a moment—just long enough to make you want it, and perhaps with a tantalising message of encouragement to boot? One speaking of danger? Great danger can lead to great rewards or something to that effect; it’s the sound of a belt unbuckling; the metallic twinkling of a zipper, or whatever it is that is in these days before it all comes out—it’s irresistible.
The above does not imply that the joy of the below is crushed under the weight of the above:
Of course, motivations and carrot dangling are nothing more than manipulation; but we live our lives through manipulation: Our bodies manipulate us into fulfilling their needs; others manipulate us with rewards or punishment as we manipulate others, but true exploration can only come about with freedom, and for all its rules and oddities, the world of Antichamber is a free one—birds fly away if you run, and floors disintegrate if you jump, but if one falls through the floor then one lands on another and without the birds in the way you just might notice something that you couldn’t see for the feathers only moments ago, and even if one’s gay dillydallying has led one to nowhere but failuresville, one can simply give up—return to the map and start somewhere else. The beauty of such a system is that if one is ever stuck on a puzzle, one can simply try another with no consequences other than having to start the former from the beginning sans benefit of the latter. And there are so many puzzles that frustration simply does not occur: almost every corner or door is a puzzle, and each puzzle is a break; a little rest and recreation from the bigger issues that one is facing elsewhere in the world of Antichamber, and best of all? Due to the physics-based nature of the puzzles (Antichamber uses the Unreal engine after all!) there is one final escape: tomfoolery with Tom Towers; naturally one can’t play with me, but even so…
One session of play
I found myself suffering a fever;
A nasty, sweaty, mind numbing fever; a thoughtless,
All conquering fever that meant I played for two hours, achieving nothing.
For half an hour I tried to work out how to get past one puzzle; my mind half melted.
After my ultimate failure I gave up: I was trapped with only four exits, each as confusing as
The last resort was to go up: an ingenious plan, for above—many metres away—were two
More possible pathways—so I set about meticulously building a staircase for myself.
Block by block; one by one; slowly but surely, I climbed my way up high,
Leaving the room looking like something out of Minecraft.
It was a glorious achievement; a masterpiece,
And I’d thought of it myself;
No motivational poster:
Just Tom Towers.
Of course, it was only due to the addled state of my mind that such an ingenious plan could ever have been conceived: if I had been a functioning human being, I would simply have remembered the map feature. Still, two hours well spent—nothing achieved but my own satisfaction. This spontaneity applies not only to mentally challenged individuals such as myself, but also to those with unaffected intellects; oftentimes one may accidentally solve a puzzle, but instead of a feeling of anticlimax or disappointment, there is satisfaction: There is something special about spontaneity in a game when physics are applied; something affirming; something real and tangible; something that goes beyond Portal, not through it.
As previously stated, I believe there are for more interesting cases for comparison, but given the perceived similarities that these games share I can’t help but speak on it. At the risk of reciting blasphemy and destroying my professional reputation completely, I would like to begin by saying that I believe Portal to be Valve’s crowning achievement; okay, maybe tied with Steam and Gabe Newell’s carbonite neck. While Portal required an elaborate system of smoke and mirrors to make its world seem tangible and real, Antichamber needs none of these: instead of GLaDOS telling us that the world is real and tangible, Antichamber shows us that it is; in this sense, it’s like comparing portals and guns, and you know what they say: never bring a portal to a gun fight. Allow me to me make things clearer: it was GLaDOS that made Portal a mindfuck; the spontaneity of portals could only result in humorous but anticlimactic and ultimately unfulfilling accidental puzzle solving spontaneity, but Antichamber achieves these things in such a more tangible way that perhaps I should have begun this sentence like the paragraph below, and I can; I will; I have:
If Portal is a mindfuck, then Antichamber is a mindlovemaking. Okay, it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but, if you were paying attention, that is entirely my point. I think. I hope. I know.
If you were indeed paying attention, then you would understand that the above was the first part of two, and you should also remember what we are about to discover next: consideration, but within our consideration of discovery, we quite literally put our powers of consideration to use, meaning that there is but one more thing for us to consider since we already discovered consideration under the guise of exploration sometime ago: this is not only an anticlimax, but a dead end.
I believe I have previously mentioned the pathways that lead nowhere, rewarding one with neither picture nor accomplishment; only a few more chalk marks on the map, but they serve another purpose as well. These dead ends are classic red herrings, helping to add to the confusion and untrustworthiness of the world; just a little more stuffing for the roast which adds just a touch more flavour to the meat, and sometimes even hides portions of the recipe or ingredients that serve no purpose but to give us pleasure and enjoyment; a little extra salt is hardly going to nourish us.
But if one catches a red herring, one can simply return to the menu and throw it back; which is a good thing, because the above was going nowhere.
I would like to end spontaneously with a criticism: sometimes the fragile nature of Antichamber is illustrated a little too literally—walk through a wall with a barrel full of blocks and the game can chug along; a suspicious static can sometimes follow beside one on perfectly solid walls: a jagged tearing that seems far too effective to be deliberate; and sometimes stray blocks can be forever trapped in the ether, unmanipulatable by the player, but perfectly capable of affecting the world around them, and removable only by an abrupt, total exit.