Antichamber is an indie, first-person, puzzle platformer from Alexander Bruce. It was released in 2013 for PC only (available on Steam).
The First Thing
I really enjoyed my opening moments of Antichamber and it nicely set up the tone for the rest of the game. Upon starting there is no menu or title screen and the player will immediately find themselves in a black antechamber with writing and images on the walls. On one wall is an interactive options menu and I thought this novel approach seemed good way to pull the player into the world; as well as establish a tone of innovation/novelty for the rest of the game.
Plot & Devices
In a similar style to Q.U.B.E. there is no plot; in fact even less so since the end of Q.U.B.E. allows some minor inferences. Antichamber is about the gameplay, nothing else.
|A fairly standard puzzle: blocks, locked doors & gun|
The general goal of Antichamber (although this is never directly expressed) is to proceed through a maze of locked doors and puzzles to reach the 'top' of the complex. Although due to the abnormal physics it is not especially clear that you are moving in any particular direction. The unusual physics is a core gameplay mechanic and is based around Euclidean Geometry (basically... objects do not have to obey perceived 2D/3D rules). This leads to some very interesting level design where hallways, objects and puzzles are not what they appear to be. Often the player will find that walking through a door will lead into a room with no entrance, or looking through a small opening changes the current room into the one being looked into.
One of the core puzzle mechanics concerns the manipulation of blocks and the gun that the player carries. Although blocks come in different colours, it is the gun that is important and the abilities it has depends on the current game progression. The colour of the blocks is really just an indicator of the 'level' of the puzzle - so that it can be returned to later with the appropriate gun. Each new gun retains the previous abilities, and adds a new ability. They are:
● Blue: can pick up and deposit blocks.
● Green: can pick up and deposit blocks continuously.
● Yellow: can command blocks to move towards another location. All connected blocks will follow the commanded block, like a snake.
● Red: can make blocks continuously appear around the target location in an expanding fashion.
All of these abilities are limited by the number of blocks in the gun. i.e. the red gun can only make three blocks appear if it has three blocks 'stored'. The gun can store an unlimited number of blocks but they have to be picked up somewhere. Puzzles that require many blocks often have a regenerating source somewhere close. Every now and then puzzles will feature 'dead zones' where all blocks stored in the gun will be removed if the player passes through. This is either part of the puzzle, or designed to prevent the trivialisation puzzles by stockpiling blocks.
|A fairly typical 'green' puzzle requiring continuous blocks|
Blocks have various purposes. They can be used to construct simple ladders or bridges. Fitted in a slot to activate/deactivate switches. Can hold open doors or block lasers. And can form squares to create more blocks, or inside special grid switches. Pretty much every 'puzzle' involves the manipulation of blocks in some way. Puzzles often have pictures nearby that can be activated to give vague hints as to how to proceed, and some will have arrows directly indicating where to go. At any time the player can instantly return to the starting antechamber and from there instantly travel to another part of the complex. Doing so resets all puzzles and blocks and this is how a player will restart any failed attempts.
Other puzzle mechanics are pretty standard; lifts, switches, lasers and bouncey platforms. As well as the puzzles, there are secret rooms that require advanced puzzle-solving to enter that and showcase elements of the developmental process. As well as elusive pink blocks for completionists.
The art style is quite simple and the graphics are non-intensive. The simple aesthetic adds to the mystery of the levels and hides the geometric tricks that create such interesting level designs. The sound effects are quite basic and the background music is atmospheric. There is no spoken dialogue, but occasionally odd sound effects such as birds chirping, or the seaside are used to further confuse the player.
|Simple and effective|
The control scheme is simple and not rebindable. Since this is a PC exclusive I found no perceptible problems with the controls, and the frame rate was solid throughout.
Wrap Up & Negatives
I think the biggest negative for me comes from the overall concept and how it is tied in with grand level design. Individually the various rooms and puzzles presented are fine and generally enjoyable, but the player is expected to move around the entire complex and re-visit areas to a certain degree. When travelling along the standard progression path this is fine, but moving away from it (sidetracked, took a break, got stuck) can start to become frustrating - amplified by the unexpected/nonsensical nature of the game.
I was especially frustrated by one section where (for whatever reason) I had not learned an ability required. There are very few direct tutorials to contribute to the 'mystique', and so I spent 30-40 minutes running around clueless, revisiting previous areas and becoming increasingly frustrated. The crazy level design is fun, but it makes remembering the overall layout much harder. At least if you got stuck in Portal, you knew the solution was in a finite room; not the entire complex. The map is little help as well, since it deliberately does not represent dimensions accurately.
|WHERE AM I SUPPOSED TO GO, GAME?!|
Otherwise, the game is fairly solid; it achieves what it sets out to do. And to be honest, there is a chance that getting stuck/frustrated could just be a 'me' issue. But objectively speaking, there are moments in the game that are intentionally vague and confusing, so it is not hard to imagine someone feeling confused. Or vague. Perhaps a story would have been nice, but it is unfair to say that the game has no atmosphere. It may not have an evil talking robot but the unusual nature provides its own atmosphere. It took me about four and a half hours to complete, leaving behind a few secret rooms.
I do not know where I stand with this title. It has some of the most innovative level design ever and a puzzle game requiring non-standard puzzle solving is quite refreshing. However, it has the potential for great frustration. Maybe you could say that was 'developer intent', but I don't see that as a positive. Ultimately I'd rather be entertained than annoyed.
Is it worth playing? Most likely - if only for a few unique level experiences. Maybe you'll love it. Maybe you'll hate it. Or maybe you'll think: "Fun, but thank God it's over!". It's quite a polished game for such a small production, and a great demonstration of what innovation the indie scene can bring. Just remember it is a different kind of puzzler... and that messing with your mind is part of the experience.