Much like the game itself, it’s a little hard to know where to begin when writing about Antichamber. It’s a game that bursts with originality, and yet it invites easy comparisons all the same; the amount of “It’s Portal with ____” or “on ____” descriptions floating around the internet are certainly apt. However, they also can’t begin to convey the way the game works. That’s the clever thing about Antichamber: it’s practically impossible to tell you how the game works with words, but the game itself does an excellent job of making you understand how to play.
There isn’t a menu in Antichamber. When the game starts, you appear in a room. On one wall there are some options – mouse options, graphics, that kind of thing – and a timer counting down. Another wall is glass, and through the glass is a door marked “exit.” On the other wall is a map, where you can click on a room to begin exploring. If the original Portal is considered minimalist, Antichamber sets a new world record.
“Minimalist”Antichamber is typically described as “non-euclidean,” although that doesn’t really do much to explain what sort of challenges you’ll be facing. An early-game puzzle does a much better job of setting expectations: two sets of stairs that lead to the same hallway, which loops around to show you the same sets of stairs. No matter which side you choose, the stairs will lead you back to the same place. A sign on the wall taunts “a choice doesn’t matter if the outcome is the same.” Without spoiling the slap-on-the-head moment for anyone, the solution to this puzzle is both obvious and nonsensical.
That’s how Antichamber rolls, for the most part. Its best puzzles encourage and even reward failure, as there is no real penalty for getting things “wrong” in the game. Puzzles are typically entire rooms, and failing to complete a puzzle in the obvious way typically opens up more rooms. For example, a room with a sign that implores you to not look down – and for real, who is going to not look down when told not to? – can be solved two ways, and both of them are critical to exploration of Antichamber‘s nebulous map.
The best puzzles in the game challenge perceptions on space and three-dimensional logic, forcing the player to discover (or bumble into, as is entirely possible) solutions that are unlike any other puzzle game. There is an unfortunate lull, however, around the middle of the game. A series of mechanics are introduced that, while initially interesting and certainly clever in their own right, essentially boil down to block puzzles. Remember block puzzles? It’s a bit of a shame that Antichamber, a game that otherwise has some of the most unique puzzles ever period, forces the player to spend so long staring at block puzzles on walls. Standing still and coaxing blocks around is nowhere near as exciting as exploring a four-dimensional labyrinth.
“Challenge perceptions”Thankfully, there’s enough incredible design to make up for the abundance of less-interesting puzzles. The parts of Antichamber that focus on experimentation and exploration are something you won’t see in any other game, and the presentation helps make things even more memorable. The game is mostly white, with thin black lines outlining objects. Splashes of vibrant primary colors are used for many rooms and puzzles, and while they’re certainly not “pretty,” they’re absolutely interesting to look at in contrast with the stark whiteness of the rest of the game. And while Antichamber isn’t a horror game, it definitely has some unsettling qualities: slow ethereal music, quiet whispers, and distant thunderclaps and rain add a strange and thick atmosphere to a game that essentially takes place in empty hallways.
There are some aspects that break the illusion of carefully-designed minimalism, though. Each puzzle is accompanied by a sign with some witty aphorism that serves as a clue (or punchline), but the drawings featured on them clash horribly with the enigmatic presentation. A few bugs here and there can sully the experience, and there are a few times when it’s possible to break the sequencing in the game and reveal the seams, so to speak – for example, if you try to solve the aforementioned stairs puzzle immediately, rather than experimenting a few times, it doesn’t take. These are nitpicks in the grand scheme of things, though: Antichamber‘s puzzles are greatly enhanced by the game’s presentation.
It all culminates in an ending that will probably become one of those iconic gaming moments – similar to the ending of Fez, it provides a great sense of closure while also making no apparent sense whatsoever. It could take you days, or it could take you a few hours, but either way Antichamber is a trip worth taking.