Antichamber just blew my mind


— 10:10 PM on April 11, 2013

I didn't know a whole lot about Antichamber when I started playing. That ignorance was intentional; after first laying eyes on last year's teaser trailer for the indie puzzle game, I decided it would be best to steer clear of reviews and other promotional materials. Some things are best experienced untainted by preconceived notions, and this looked like one of them.

Besides, the teaser revealed that Antichamber had already won all kinds of awards on the indie gaming circuit. That's usually a pretty good indicator a game doesn't suck.

After spending several evenings with Antichamber, I can confirm that all of the accolades are well-deserved. I cannot, however, say that I have a firm grasp of what's actually happening in the game. That's part of what makes the experience so compelling.

Antichamber starts abruptly, with no story or introduction to set the stage. There's no tutorial, either. You figure things out as you go along, aided only by cryptic hints scrawled on the walls. These illustrated clues provide vital insight into a game world unlike anything I've explored before.

The stark, largely black-and-white environments look like they've been pulled from M.C. Escher's sketchbook. They show a similar disdain for Euclidean space. The world is presented in three dimensions, but those dimensions don't always line up as one might expect. Corridors that should lead to the next room sometimes empty out right where you began—and without covering the necessary distance or making the turns required to actually loop around to your original position. Even the content of the world can change based on the speed of your movement and the direction you happen to be looking.

Want to navigate this surreal maze successfully? Be prepared to forget everything you think you know about how to play video games. Antichamber seems to delight in defying expectations. The scattered hints may seem vague and obtuse, but they make it pretty clear Antichamber shouldn't be approached like other games. At times, it feels like you're playing against yourself, battling habits reinforced by years spent in titles designed according to an entirely different rulebook.

Although Antichamber isn't a shooter, there are guns. These are used to solve puzzles by manipulating blocks of matter distributed throughout the world. I've managed to collect three of the four guns so far, and each one behaves differently. The game doesn't tell you how differently, of course, but it provides ample opportunity for you to make that determination yourself.

If my descriptions seem a bit hazy, that's because I'm trying to avoid saying too much. Antichamber's genius, at least for me, is how it lets players discover the world for themselves. The game doesn't unfurl before your eyes; you unwrap it, fold by fold, as if deconstructing an intricate piece of origami from the inside out.

While the process is often frustrating and confusing, the puzzles don't feel unfairly difficult. Players aren't really penalized for failure. It's impossible to die, as far as I can tell, and hitting the Escape key brings you to a sort of home room that allows instant warping to any location you've visited. One wall of this room contains all the hints encountered thus far, while another has a 90-minute countdown timer. Nothing happens when the time runs out, but I assume there's some kind of bonus for finishing within the limit. That may be the only achievement the game offers, since rewards aren't doled out for progression.

In a game like this, progression is the reward. I've felt deep satisfaction solving some of the puzzles and figuring out various mechanics. I've also felt incredibly stupid for not seeing some solutions earlier, especially since they were right there in front of me the whole time. Antichamber can be maddening when you're stuck, but getting unstuck is a liberating experience. You're freed not only from the shackles of the puzzle, but also from the preconceptions making the path forward—or not forward—so difficult to see.

So, yeah, mind blown. And I haven't even finished the thing yet.

The more I think about it, the more Antichamber reminds me of a low-grade magic mushroom trip. Or, ahem, so I've heard. I'm not talking about hallucinating roughly sketched surroundings with occasional splashes of vivid color, but about perceiving the world from an askew perspective that offers moments of genuine insight and inspiration. Playing Antichamber evokes a relaxing, almost meditative state, as the ambient soundtrack and overall design encourage calm contemplation.

At $20 on Steam, Antichamber is a little pricier than the average indie game—and more expensive than the psychoactive fungi I may or may not have ingested during my misspent youth. But there is real depth and brilliance here, even if the developer's methods feel just a little bit exploitative.

   
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