Even from the outset, Antichamber plays with conventions. Without the formality of a title screen, the player is dropped into a darkened room that acts as the games hub, which allows travel to any previously explored area by clicking the map displayed on a wall. Hitting escape at any point in the game brings the player back to this hub world, allowing quick redeployment to unsolved puzzles or other areas of interest.
The game has almost made a name for itself by containing the sort of spatial distortions that most games reserve for hallucinations and dream sequences. A series of linked corridors may spit you back out at their entrance. A box may contain different things depending on which side you look at them from, or be bigger on the inside. Look away and the world may not be quite the same when you look back. Lots of these aren’t mere visual tricks, but key parts of the landscape of puzzles that make up the game. Antichamber isn’t just asking you to navigate its convoluted geometry, it wants to you solve puzzles in it.
Visually utilitarian, Antichamber manages to convey a sense of muted style nonetheless and the impression is that the minimalism exists to allow for the visual trickery. Perhaps most impressive is how far the level design and simple lighting enable the player to quickly orientate themselves within the corridors and chambers, despite the complex and intertwining structure that links them.
Less easy to convey are the soundscapes that do more than simply reinforce the visuals, they apply a sense of character to the environment. This, coupled with the high-contrast lighting and careful use of colour serve to enliven what would otherwise be a lonely experience.
Indeed, the lack of actors at play in Antichamber leave it feeling very direct in terms of narrative, if a little unsubtle. The signposts that litter the corridors offer both hints and aphorisms in a coaxing, rather than goading manner and all of them attempt to teach or reinforce some basic life lessons. Statements like ‘Falling down teaches us how to get up and try again’ may seem supercilious or smug but are a pleasant respite from the standard ‘go here and do this because…’ exposition that games so often fall foul of. The narrative, such as there is one, is a grand tale of life itself, recounted in lessons and vignettes. It’s a grand aim and one that won’t sit well with all players, but does little to water down the experience on offer.
Progression feels much less linear than in other games in the genre, primarily as a result of the number of shortcuts, branching pathways and alternative solutions to puzzles. This structure can be daunting and often forces players to sacrifice one route in favour of another. This can be a little uncomfortable for players used to more linear game structure; where it’s commonplace to eliminate the progressive path in order to explore a dead-end branch with some shiny prize at the end.
Like many puzzle games, Antichamber suffers from the ‘where next’ problem, especially later on. The map shows the last path the player took before extracting themselves and highlights areas of potential interest early in the game. However later it’s down to the player to decide where they need to head next. The emphasis is on your growth and development as a player. In a similar way to Fez, a regular occurrence is to come across a previously insurmountable puzzle and be able to solve it, not because the game has given you a new tool, but because it has equipped you with the knowledge to solve the puzzle.
That’s not to say that Antichamber doesn’t equip you. The strange ringed object you will see in the screenshots is a tool that allows the capture and placement of coloured blocks, used in a variety of clever ways. In it’s most basic form this is all the tool does, but a few later upgrades open up a surprising number of possibilities; though again the emphasis is on understanding the subtleties of the blocks themselves, rather than any new capability you have gained.
It’s only natural for players to push the boundaries of any simulation they find themselves in, and it’s possible to feel like you are ‘gaming’ or cheating Antichamber in some situations, especially with later incarnations of the block tool. With that said, it can be a delightful experience to reach an understanding of the rules and mechanics at play.
The Good: Great innovative solutions and some fresh feeling puzzles. Use of geometry makes you wonder why we don’t see this more often. Borderline Genius.
The Bad: Some players may find the signs condescending. Expect to hear the block tool sounds in your sleep.
4.5 out of 5
Antichamber was purchased for £11.24 from Steam