I am sitting down to write this with a pounding head and a triumphant spirit. I’ve spent the last week rearranging blocks, walking backwards through walls, climbing up stairs to reach rooms three floors below me, and honestly I am exhausted. If anything can be said about Antichamber, the Escher-esque brainchild of Alexander Bruce, it’s that it puts you through the ringer.
There is one major criteria that determines whether a puzzle game will become a classic or remain as just a way to pass the time, and that’s originality. Now I don’t really care if the set up of a puzzle is different, but I do care whether it challenges the way I think or not. That’s what makes the titan indie puzzlers of recent years so successful: they gave fans a new way to exercise their brains. Braid took the platformer through time; Fez made us transcribe the third dimension into 2D; and Closure made us really think about the things that disappear in the dark. I’m always sad when I finish a puzzler because I feel like the best ideas are already taken and I won’t be consumed by any of them every again, but every so often I get proven wrong and this time it was by Antichamber.
It’s a game about being misled, about screwing with spatial reasoning and the things you take for granted. When you turn off your light before going to bed you assume that you’ll still be in your room when you turn the lights back on. If you go into Antichamber with that same mindset, prepare yourself for some punishment.
‘Every journey is a series of choices. The first is to start the journey.’ This, along with a picture of a baby, is what greets you once you turn on the game. You are in a black room surrounded by four walls and even though there is a giant picture of a baby plastered across a quarter of it, it is still the most normal room in the game. You turn around and a small square appears labeled ‘Click here.’ You do, and the journey begins. You are dropped into a neon labyrinth and can do nothing but jump and walk around. The only help you get comes from black squares on the walls that give little philosophical snippets which you can apply to both the puzzle and life as a whole. But other than that, you are on your own going forward. I don’t say ‘to leave’ or ‘win’ or ‘kill the boss’ because there is none of that. You are dropped in a room and just start doing things without any rhyme or reason, solving one puzzle after another without knowing why; there is no story, no bad guy, and no motivation for what your character is doing. What there is instead is a slew of staircases that don’t make sense, floor panels that disappear, and holes that send you up by falling down.
The game doesn’t give you any tutorials either, you learn by doing. Sure, once you need to learn a new mechanic the next puzzle will be very easily solved by using it, but other than that you aren’t told anything. The majority of the puzzles are a combination of blocks that you can manipulate with a special ‘gun’ that you upgrade as you progress, lasers, and doorways. The puzzles themselves are very logical, but getting to them is where the game trips you up. The layout is not linear as defined by reality and so doorways on one side of the map can open to reveal a room floors beneath you. Although you get used to this eventually and your brain rewires to make sense of this fever dream, it broke my heart every time I thought I solved a puzzle that would get me further though the game only to find myself opening a door and ending up in the starting chamber. Oh, and to makes things even more fun the doors sometimes disappear when you look away from them, which is cool because it’s not like you wanted to ever go back to that room you spent four hours trying to find that you totally remember how to get to anyway. Luckily, pushing escape lets the player teleport from room to room. Unluckily, this doesn’t help much when some puzzle solutions require stuff from the three puzzles you did leading up to them.
The hardest part about Antichamber is remembering all of the tools you have in your arsenal – it isn’t just buttons and clicks but movement patterns and drawing. No gamer has ever forgotten they could push a button on a controller, but in this game you’ll forget that a staircase can disappear by jumping on it or that entering a room backwards can make it a different place. You have to rewire your brain to make those things standard if you want any chance of perfecting the game. I don’t say ‘beat’ here because the game can be beat by only doing 5% of the puzzles and people have done 8 minute speed runs of it. But perfecting it, that’s a different story. That’s where this becomes the sweetest of crack for the puzzle enthusiast. I guess that’s the point of the game though, as a sort of metaphor for life. You can either rush through it and get to the end, or you can go the extra distance and be proud of the life you led. Sweet revelation.
I love this game to death and I would make sweet Mobius babies with it if I could, but there are still two beefs that I have with the game. First, I don’t like the color scheme. While the sharp yet simple colors enhance the trip-factor of the game they do also hurt the eyes after a while. Maybe I’m just becoming an old fogey, but playing that game was like staring at a neon sign with dilated pupils. I couldn’t play for longer than a few hours at a time before I had to take a break. But that’s a personal issue, and the second thing is that the replay value is minimal. I came, I saw, I brutally conquered the game, and after seeing a guy pull off a 7:30 speed run I don’t see why I’d ever turn it on again other than to see friends squeal from playing it. Braid and Fez I can see myself playing again, but that’s because there was some story in both of them as well as phenomenal art. The minimalist approach that Bruce took is wonderful in its simplicity and what it does for the game, but it doesn’t do anything for my soul. I like my eye candy.
But that being said, if you’re a puzzle gamer then get this game. If you love exploring and being tested beyond how fast you can push a button or how slick you are with a joystick, take out your wallet and shell out the clams for Antichamber. Bruce put in years of work into this baby and it was definitely worth the wait.