As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it may contain spoilers.
Imagine if I asked you to guess a number between 1 and 100. At first, you guess a few numbers at random: 22. 53. 71. 96. At each one, I shake my head and tell you to guess again. So you decide to go through every integer from 1 to 100, one by one. I still shake my head at each number. Frustrated, you start yelling out non-integers: 50 1/2. 3 1/4. 67.9. I’m still shaking my head. Eventually, after much guessing, you finally yell out π3. Yup, that’s it, I say. I give you a self-satisfied smirk that suggests you should have guessed the answer sooner. You punch me in the face.
Welcome to my experience with Antichamber.
Antichamber is touted as “a mind-bending psychological exploration game where nothing can be taken for granted.” Hallways wrap around each other in geometrically impossible fashion. Staircases sometimes dissolve beneath your feet. The standard laws of physics don’t always apply. Sometimes, walking backwards takes you somewhere different than walking forwards. All of this is surprising for maybe ten minutes. After that, it just becomes frustrating, irritating, and to be frank, kind of stupid.
Look, I’m fine with having my expectations subverted. In fact, I like it when my entertainment surprises me. But subversion is just a tool, a means to an end. It shouldn’t be an end in and of itself. Antichamber is so obsessed with screwing with the player’s head that it fails to realize a key thing: if a game trains the player to expect the unexpected, then eventually the unexpected will become the expected. Antichamber’s surprises soon become mundane. Worse still, it becomes apparent that the game’s “surprises” are really just the same tricks over and over again; after you fall through the seventeenth disappearing floor, you’re likely to emit a resigned groan.
But Antichamber isn’t just about walking (and falling) through Escherian corridors. It also has puzzle elements. And how do you solve those puzzles? With…*gasp*…a magical gun! (Because no game has ever done that before, right?) This particular gun is used to manipulate coloured blocks that you find throughout the levels. Some of these puzzles are actually quite interesting and well-constructed, especially the earlier ones. But as the gun gains new abilities, the puzzles become more and more tedious. In particular, the middle-mouse-button block-dragging ability isn’t accurate enough to be reliable and often causes frustration when it doesn’t turn out as intended. The puzzles just end up feeling rote and perfunctory, as if they’re there merely to pad out game once it has exhausted its mind-bending gimmicks.
Most of the puzzles are accompanied by a drawing captioned with a vague platitude like “Sometimes you have to move backwards to go forwards.” Some of them are located in front of puzzles, and others are found upon completing puzzles. In the former case, these platitudes can be treated as simple riddles, and when you find their solutions, then their associated puzzles become trivial. (Seriously, you might as well just buy a friggin’ book of riddles.) In the latter case, it’s as if the game is adopting a smug tone, chiding you for not solving the puzzle earlier. The problem is that aside from the cryptic hints that caption drawings, Antichamber provides little to no guidance. It isn’t interested in teaching you its mechanics. Its idea of psychology is giving you a tool, not telling you what it does, and then laughing at you for not figuring it out immediately.
It never feels like I’m succeeding or making progress when I’m playing Antichamber. Solving a puzzle can take you to a dead end or transport you right back to where you started. Maybe my primitive brain is wired to crave the reward structures of a typical video game, and Antichamber is trying to show me how shallow they are. But if that’s the case, then Spec Ops: The Line already did that better. (Did I seriously just compare an indie first-person puzzler to a AAA third-person shooter? Yes, yes I did.) Spec Ops exposed the shallowness of a typical game’s reward structure by making players complicit in the player character’s downfall. It started out by giving the player control, and then it made him or her lose said control through his or her own reward-seeking actions. On the other hand, Antichamber never gives the player control, so it feels as if the game is unfairly withholding rewards rather than showing me why I shouldn’t have or want them. It’s like I’m Charlie Brown and the game is Lucy, yanking away the football at the last second.
Antichamber wants me to stop playing video games for the endless cycle of effort and corresponding gratification and instead enjoy them for the experience. However, that message holds sway only if I’m convinced to apply it outside of the game. But Antichamber isn’t convincing in that regard. In practice, its message ends up being: “Value the things Antichamber values, so that you can get the most out of Antichamber.” It’s essentially circular logic, and that’s where the game falls apart. Antichamber rarely managed to engage me, so I was reluctant to engage with whatever it was trying to say.
Minor annoyances abound too. Sometimes the blocks act in an inconsistent manner. For instance, sometimes the “fuse-lighting” mechanic only “lights” one half of a line of blocks that has been cut in two. To give another example, on occasion, it’s possible to make it through walls of regenerating blocks; other times, it’s not. The game seems to rewrite its rules on the fly, with no regard for internal logic. The map in the hub area is poorly constructed, often pointing the player to a puzzle he or she has already solved. There’s also no way to pause the game to adjust settings without resetting a puzzle; pressing the Escape key takes the player back to the hub. Finally, in areas with nonstandard geometry, the frame rate slows down to a crawl. Presumably, that’s because the game is trying to work around the limitations of the Unreal engine, but it’s still jarring.
There are some things that Antichamber does well, however. Its visuals are simple but elegant. The line-drawing aesthetic is unique, and it makes the game feel like some mad engineer’s creation. It’s proof that you don’t need all sorts of complicated lighting and texture effects to make a beautiful game. Antichamber’s soundtrack and ambient nature sounds are also beautiful, creating a relaxing, zen-like backdrop for the game.
It’s a shame that the game fails to deliver on that zen-like quality. I never felt relaxed when I was playing Antichamber, so I often felt a dissonance between the game’s tone and its gameplay. Antichamber tries to “enlighten” players, as if playing the game will lift the burden of standard reward structures that appeal to their inner rat-brains from their shoulders. But for a game with such lofty ambitions, it falls incredibly flat. In the end, Antichamber is a pretentious mess of a game, too enamoured of its own cleverness to be anything approaching entertaining. Unengaging at best, downright condescending at worst, Antichamber is just not a good game.