Dreams are wondrous things. We move through the worlds our minds conjure for us, separate from the standard behaviors of space and time. If we are fortunate, we come to understand ourselves better, to see what hopes and fears guide us. We gain a fresh perspective on the rules of the world while our minds wander unencumbered by our bodies. And yet to discuss a dream with someone else is futile at best and, at worst, deadly boring. The experience you feel is what matters, and to give it form with words is a challenge. In this way and others, Antichamber is a dream.
Antichamber begins in an antechamber, a stark black and white room that provides the instructions you need to navigate the labyrinth beyond. It’s a traditional puzzle game in this sense. You enter rooms, perceive their challenges, and come up with solutions. It is there that anything traditional about Antichamber ends.
The game presents implausible and impossible uses of space and time. Aspects of the physical world that you take for granted, like motion and sight-lines, are themselves solutions to problems. One path, for example, leads to different outcomes depending on whether you walk or run. You might have to stare at a wall to make a hidden path appear. Other times, you must pass through doors while walking backwards, because if you can see them, they block your path. And reaching the end of one simple-looking long hallway requires barreling down it at top speed…in a bunny-hop.
The labyrinth is not only non-linear, but also non-Euclidean in a way that becomes stomach-churning if you dwell on it for too long. Antichamber’s startup logo is an M.C. Escher-esque impossible geometric figure, and that’s a good metaphor for the game that waits ahead. In one area, a shaft many stories high exists both as a stacked tower and also as a series of rooms that are adjacent to each other. Standing in the third room, you can see the second to your left and the fourth to your right—while also still seeing the second below you and the fourth above you. Elsewhere, I dropped several stories, but it only took a few steps to climb back up. Rooms tumble into one another seemingly without rhyme or reason, and if you try to double back, you only end up lost.
Just learning to move through the labyrinth is an ongoing challenge in itself, but as the game progresses, puzzles take on a more literal form. At one stage, a gun of sorts presents itself. This tool and its changing functions open up a world of new possibilities within the maze. Once you’ve acquired it, finding the exit is no longer enough. Now, the doors have locks, and you must learn how and when to open them. Doors, rooms, and what feels like segments of reality have locks to find and keys to decipher.
But it’s not chaos. Each puzzle teaches skills that will serve you well later—provided you have the wits to remember. If Antichamber teaches anything, it seems to be that every fact is worth knowing, but that in isolation, no single bit of knowledge will do you any good. Acting on small details—seeming throwaways—can make or break a solution, and many rooms have multiple solutions beyond the most obvious or most “right” answer. The maze makes you actively build on your knowledge, connecting the familiar to the foreign. It’s like learning to understand French fluently, and yet finding challenges set before you in Italian, then Spanish, then Portuguese.
Though Antichamber revels in its difficulty, it’s not out to leave you stranded. The game doesn’t want you lost; it wants you learning. Though the maze, its stark white walls, and its splashes of colored light don’t seem to offer much help, there are plenty of clues around for those who seek them. The map, in particular, is incredibly helpful. Taking a moment to back out, slow down, and learn the name of your surroundings can be exactly the insight you need. At least twice, going back to Antichamber’s antechamber and seeing what a room was called gave me the key to solving it, striking like a bolt from the heavens.
Dreams always have rules. Though they differ from the rules of the waking world, they remain somehow consistent to themselves, even when they seem to change at every corner. Antichamber visualizes a labyrinth of dreams, the paradoxes of the mind made real. It has rules, and it stays consistent to itself, but don’t expect Antichamber to behave the way the physical world does. If you find that the journey is breaking your rational brain, walk away. Get a drink, read a book, take a shower, sleep on it. Because it’s amazing how often the answers to the puzzles of Antichamber can, indeed, come to you in a dream.