Antichamber


Antichamber is a philosophical first-person physics puzzler where the gimmick is that the laws of physics don't apply. This doesn't mean you can float or fly. Rather, you play in an M.C. Escher-like world where you might go up a flight of stairs only to arrive at the bottom, or travel through a corridor with six 90-degree turns in the same direction in a row. It does what it tries to do well, although there are a few design choices that I felt could have been changed to reduce frustration.

The entirety of Antichamber consists of progressing through a facility made up of a series of rooms that function as puzzles. Some of the rooms have multiple entrances or exits, and some require abilities that you unlock later in the game, so the facility soon becomes a sprawling maze.

Each puzzle also has a black panel at the end with a drawing and a philosophical aphorism related to the puzzle. For example, in an early puzzle, the player will come out of a corridor to find a stairwell with stairs leading both up and down. If the player ascends the stairs, they will arrive at the same landing as before. If the player descends the stairs, they will arrive at the same landing as before. But if the player goes back down the corridor after ascending and descending the stairs, they will find that it now leads to the next room. They will also find a black panel with the text "The choice doesn’t matter if the outcome is the same" and a small drawing.

The player can press the escape key at any time to return to Antichamber's main hub, which has every drawing and aphorism the player has seen, the basic controls, a map of the facility, and finally, the exit... tantalizingly located behind a glass wall. The player can travel to any room by clicking on it on the map, so despite the absurdity of the facility's rules of reality (or lack thereof), navigating around the facility is quite easy.

However, the map is also where my main source of frustration lies. The map shows how the rooms connect with each other. Once you have discovered a room, you can see how many connections to other rooms it has, even if you haven't discovered those other rooms. However, connections between rooms can be one-way or two-way, and the map does not distinguish between the two. In other words, on the map it may look like the room has an exit you haven't discovered yet—but it's actually an entrance from a room you haven't visited! This makes finding where you're supposed to go to next quite frustrating, because you can end up bashing your head against a puzzle searching for a solution that doesn't actually exist. If the developers had designed the map so that one-way connections were signified, or only undiscovered exits from rooms were displayed on the map, the game would be a much smoother and less frustrating experience.

My other complaint is that the game does a very poor job of explaining itself. Discovering the laws of Antichamber's world is a part of the game and an intentional design choice, and most of the rules are straightforward enough to understand intuitively or through trial-and-error. However, there are a few mechanics which are extraordinarily difficult to discover on your own and which the game never explains. This makes the puzzles that rely on these mechanics frustrating, since before you discover the mechanic you are confronting what is essentially an unsolvable puzzle, and once you learn the trick it feels like the game was playing unfairly.

Fortunately, those were my only two real complaints about the game. One of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, aspects of creating a puzzle game is to set the difficulty at the perfect level so that it is satisfying but not frustrating. It's only natural to expect a puzzle game to make a few mistakes on this front.

As long as you aren't bashing your head against an unbeatable puzzle (because you're attempting to discover an exit that doesn't exist or that requires a mechanic you haven't grasped), Antichamber is consistently clever and surprising. You quite literally never know what to expect due to the game's loose grasp of reality. While it may not follow the rules of our reality, it never breaks the rules that it has set for itself, so the game is always feels fair in that respect. It still plays by the rules; just not our rules. The game makes full use of its mechanics, and forces the player to do the same.

Antichamber has a unique graphic style that is simple but supremely effective in establishing the atmosphere. The game world has a minimalist geometric architecture, where everything is made up of straight lines and mostly right angles. The only exception to the bright, saturated colors are the gradients that transition between them; there are otherwise no patterns or textures. (If my descriptions aren't doing it for you, this might help.) This absurd and artificial geometric graphic style cements Antichamber's world as an artificial world constructed solely for the purpose of logic puzzles. The only exception to the minimalist geometry is the whimsical drawings on the black panels, which causes them to act as windows to our humanity within the game world. And this is exactly what the black panels are supposed to do--serve ass anchors that philosophically connect the game's synthetic world to our real one. In other words, Antichamber has a graphic style that perfectly matches and conveys the intentions of the game itself.

Music and sound design is also minimalist, but fitting. Objects have sound effects that help convey when and how you are interacting with them. The music is solely ambient, which is all the game needs.

The game has no story, which is fine. It is quite obviously an artificial world made solely to function as a puzzle for us, the player, so adding an actual story would go against the spirit of the game. And yet despite the lack of story there is something that I would probably call a narrative. Like everything else in the game, it's extremely minimal, but... it causes the game to have a conclusion that feels much more conclusive and satisfying than I thought possible for a story-less puzzle game.

Antichamber is a minimalist philosophical puzzle game, and a really good one at that. Every single element of the game follows its overarching themes and direction, creating a unified experience. That being said, there are a handful of frustrating moments. I would almost describe Antichamber as Portal without a soul, but that's wrong because Antichamber clearly has a soul; it's just that while Portal's soul lies with its humor and wit, Antichamber's lies with logic and philosophy. Moreover, this is a pure puzzle game, so I doubt it will appeal to anyone who is looking for story, characters, action, graphics, music, or... anything that isn't puzzles, really. But if you do like puzzles, Antichamber is an experience you won't regret.

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