It’s not often a game will launch you strait into an experience without even as much as a main menu, but it’s clear that Antichamber sets out to defy typical game conventions. It will not provide you with instructions, and there is no direct narrative to follow, the player will simply take control of a faceless character that operates within a mysterious black room. This location will serve as the players central hub, with each of the walls representing the games options, an interactive map and clue board to display any hints you discover. Any information that you need to know will be displayed here, and the player can quickly return at any time by pushing the escape key.
If you had not previously heard about this indie project, no doubt the first comparison that may come to mind is Portal. However, make no mistake, apart from sharing a first person perspective and the use of unconventional weaponry, these two experiences are remarkably different. This is a game that is entirely designed around geometry, space and perception. What you think you see is often not the case, and to get where you’re going may sometimes require that you literally walk backwards.
As soon as the player takes their initial steps out of the hub and into the first room, it will quickly become apparent this is not a typical first person experience. To put it simply, the game world is made up of a series of inter-linked rooms which are all locked down by environmental based puzzles. There is not a linear path that you can follow to the end, and some puzzles may not be solvable until you unlock additional abilities. If you are to make any progress, you will need to think outside the box.
Due to the non-linear nature of the game, the interactive map within the hub will quickly become vital to your progress. This map will continue to grow as you explore the environment, charting each room you visit and with a single push of the escape key, the player can instantly return to the hub and teleport to anywhere that’s been visited before. There are many puzzles that can not be solved strait away, so it is recommended that you come back often to review your direction.
The player will begin the game without having any direct influence on the environment, which means the initial puzzles will have you thinking entirely about perception. However, as you progress further into the experience, you will acquire a gun-like apparatus that can be used to interact with a limited quantity of blocks that exist within the majority of the rooms. This may not sound particularly exciting, but the many ways in which the player can manipulate these blocks will quickly inspire creative thinking.
The block-gun has four available upgrades throughout the game, with each being a different colour and adding its own unique ability to your arsenal. These additional abilities will allow you to revisit previous rooms and re-evaluate any unresolved puzzles. However, the deliberate non-linear structure of the game starts to become a bit of a burden at this point. It’s undeniably satisfying to go back and resolve a puzzle that had you banging your head against the keyboard, but there are so many rooms within the game that it becomes exceedingly difficult to remember which rooms lead to those puzzles left unsolved.
There are no visible indicators to confirm which rooms have been resolved, so if you lose track of where you intended to go next, prepare for a lot of trial and error. There are many rooms that play host to more than one puzzle, so you may find yourself repeating the same puzzles to try and see if that room will lead to somewhere greater. There are arrows marked on the map which suggest unexplored pathways that you can pursue, but they are not indicative of where you need to go. This is an issue which could have been easily avoided if the map allowed markers to be placed, or another inventive way to track your progress.
There are many intriguing design choices that deliver throughout the experience, and there are others that will leave you pulling your hair out. However, the mechanics of the game itself are exceptionally well thought out. This is a game world that deliberately sets out to fool your senses, but it never actually feels as if you’re being cheated. The character movement is precise and using the block-gun to manipulate the surroundings simply works well and never prevents the execution of creative ideas.
The simplistic visual design is not something entirely new as we’ve seen similar art direction from other puzzle games such as Echo Chrome and Unfinished Swan. However, the approach does feel appropriate for this style of game as it allows the designers of Antichamber to direct the players attention with the use of colour. This unique focus works well in combination with an appropriately ambient soundtrack, and does well to create a unique identity of its own.
There is not a direct narrative that is presented in the game, with the exception of a concluding plot device which is explored towards the end of the experience. If it’s done correctly, an indirect narrative can still be quite entertaining as the players personal experiences will shape a unique story of its own. However, making the decision to include a plot device so late in the game felt out of place and made for a very confusing conclusion. It wasn’t a game breaker, it simply felt odd.
Antichamber is an innovative puzzle game that successfully captures many unique and intriguing ideas. The primary focus on player perception speaks loudly for the psychology behind the game, and it will leave players feeling satisfied upon it’s conclusion. However, if you are someone who likes to explore, be prepared to keep track of any puzzles you intend to come back to. There is no way to place markers on the map, so the non-linear nature of the experience can quickly become very punishing for those unprepared. Antichamber is not like anything else you’ve played before, it is a flawed, yet brilliant experience that all fans of the puzzle genre should consider.