Disclaimer: this analysis goes into detail about (and spoils many of) the gameplay mechanics of Antichamber, a puzzle game for PC. If you want the satisfaction of discovering and figuring out these mechanics on your own, you should finish this game before reading further.
I really like puzzle games. Portal. Q.U.B.E.. The Talos Principle. And other usual suspects. These games usually require the player to manipulate their environment to accomplish a goal.
Q.U.B.E. takes this very literally – the primary interactive element in the game is the environment, made out of blocks which sometimes extend and retract. Portal has the player use the titular portals to create pathways within the environment. The Talos Principle goes a step further by allowing the player to place objects which interact with each other throughout a level – and the trick becomes finding the winning combination.
Then comes Antichamber. Antichamber is not like those other games. (At least, not at first.)
Antichamber presents a bold idea of an environment which interacts with the player, not the other way around, and it does this through clever trickery revolving around the player’s perspective and subtle manipulation of that perspective. In short, what you see (or don’t see) is the main thing you interact with.
To give an example: other than certain pathways which become visible when viewed at the right angles, most of the action happens off-screen. You may walk down a straight hallway into a room, then turn around and find that hallway has become a curve and leads somewhere other than where you came from. Or, rather than a hallway, it’s now another room. Or nothing at all. Maybe the room you entered suddenly has no exit.
Here’s another: say you enter a room and you find a sort of window framed somewhere near the centre. All around this window is the room you are in. But when you glance through the window, you see something else. Something new. And you want to see more, so of course you put your face as close as you can. And once you’ve stepped away, you’re not in the room you were just in – you’re now in the room you saw through the window.
Things like like this – paths disappearing before your eyes, paths leading multiple ways depending on your direction, rooms which don’t make sense and yet do when viewed from a certain angle – give Antichamber its unmistakable, non-Euclidean charm.
Non-Euclidean, by the way, is a descriptor which basically means “locations within this space do not necessarily follow one another logically.” It’s shorthand for “anything goes” in geometrical terms. Antichamber, simply put, breaks the rules.
…Until it doesn’t.
Fairly early on into the game (within seconds, actually, if you know the fastest path to it), you will eventually acquire what I affectionately refer to as “the gun.” The gun is a tool for interacting with your environment. It allows you to “consume” various coloured blocks scattered throughout the environment and store them. You may then release (fire) them in the direction of your cursor to place them back into the environment.
These blocks are tiny and don’t offer much on their own, but have uses such as jamming open doors, blocking lasers which activate other objects in the environment, and building platforms to cross otherwise impossible gaps.
Later milestones in the game upgrade the gun, allowing it to outline shapes which become filled by blocks, shift and guide blocks through the air, and eventually create infinite planes of blocks in seconds. It’s neat and unique, but I still have a problem with it.
I’m of the mind that the gun is a bit lazy. It allows you to access new areas, but it doesn’t offer much meaningful interaction with the environment. Too often it’s simply used as a puzzle-solving mechanic, not one which seems to fit neatly into the world around it.
Mind you, it’s not as if the puzzling and playing with perspectives completely vanishes once you get the gun. You still have to understand your surroundings. But the focus is taken away from working through an environment playing with your every expectation and given over to blocking open doors with blocks, and solving little block manipulation puzzles in panels on walls to open locked doors.
My initial question is “why?” “Why does this game draw me in by abusing my perspective and playing with my expectations only to hand me a device for solving puzzles?” Or perhaps, “Why did the developer of the game choose to follow this direction?”
But look, I could talk for hours about how wonderful I think it is that Antichamber plays with perspective on the level that it does, and I could also rant about how unfortunate it is that the game eventually devolves into what can most generously be described as an evolution of standard tropes already present in the puzzle gaming genre, but neither of those things quite get to the heart of the issue on my mind while writing this.
What I see in Antichamber is a game which isn’t sure what it wanted to be. It started out as a deeply cerebral exploration game which required you to pay close attention to details, subtleties, hints in the environment – immersing you, as the player, more deeply than most other games could through nothing but expert manipulation of visuals.
Then you get the gun, and the game becomes a sandbox puzzler of sorts which really just wants you to roam around a vast, interconnected series of rooms, circumventing doors and elevators and other pathways all the while until you have all the powers necessary to finish the game.
So much of the game before that was brilliant – like the very first room (other than your starting chamber), which presents you with a large gap and text floating in the air simply saying “JUMP!!” So you jump and you find you can’t make it because the gap is too far. When you come back to that room, however, the text has changed – now it reads “WALK?” And you walk harmlessly across the gap, a path materialising beneath you as you do so.
Then there’s what some people refer to as the “LIFE room” – a gallery which displays numerous strange figures and pieces of modern art, including the logo of the game itself, all contained in little boxes which seem to change depending on the angle you view them. It’s beautiful, and it even showcases what is arguably the game’s central theme of perspective trickery, but it never goes beyond that.
And I’m not going to speculate if Alexander Bruce – pretty much the guy behind the entire game – had bigger aspirations for Antichamber or if it lived up to every expectation he had for it or what. He’s done interviews, he may have already answered those questions, and even if he did the answer does not change the experience we got.
There are genuine flashes of brilliance in this game, and I would’ve loved for it to stay consistent. And there’s so much more that could have been done.
For example… Make a door with a code combination which requires me to tilt my head this way and that to find hidden numbers throughout a room. Make a room with a central object which moves around that I have to focus on or else the floor disappears. Make a mirror maze except the mirrors show you other places in the maze and you need to use them as landmarks to figure out the right path.
You see? Perspective puzzles like that would be fascinating to build an entire game around, and in most cases I would say that these are not concepts we’ve seen in games before. Minimally, they’re not ones we’ve seen explored so deeply.
Instead we got block puzzles, and combination locks built around block puzzles, and all sorts of other tropey challenges which – while fun and engaging in their own right – are not, I would argue, the main draw of Antichamber.
I also want to reiterate since it probably sounds like I’m bashing puzzle game tropes – I love puzzle games. I love Portal, and I love Q.U.B.E., and I love The Talos Principle – in fact I especially love The Talos Principle because it also broke “the rules” by allowing and even encouraging the player to break the rules to sniff out secrets and overcome challenges more creatively. That’s awesome.
But that’s the kind of thing I wanted to see more of in Antichamber, and it really wasn’t there. A game about exploring an environment which seems unknowable loses its mystique when you can predict what you’ll find in it. It’s missed potential, that’s the main issue.
Antichamber could have been an even bigger hit than it was, and I would go so far as to argue that if it was advertised as a block-puzzle game it wouldn’t be as much of a hit as it is now. Is that harsh? Maybe. But I can’t deny that I really have no urge to return to the game for another playthrough, not even to show the game off, because I really don’t feel like there’s much there to show off anymore.
It’s a shame, really. Antichamber was one of my favourite games for a while. I would say I considered it GotY material back when I first played it. And that first playthrough is still valuable to me.
But on reflection… maybe the game just isn’t quite as deep as it seemed. Maybe, in a bit of a twist, the vision of the game itself was a bit too short or narrow to be everything it could have been.