Review

Antichamber

The Stuff Of Dreams

Antichamber is a frustrating, brilliant maze with an otherworldly logic.

By Kate Cox • February 6, 2013

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.

Antichamber

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.

Antichamber

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.

Antichamber

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.

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  • PaganPoet

    “I live at the end of a five and a half minute hallway.”

    Like I said in another topic where this game was mentioned elsewhere, any talk about non-Euclidean spaces always reminds me of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I was really obsessed with in the early 2000s. I should go back and read it again, I’m sure there was quite a bit in there that went over my head when I was younger.

    • doyourealize

      I’d skip all the Johnny Truant notations. I was into it the first time, but the second time I read it (this was a while ago), I just couldn’t understand how the Navidson Files themselves could be so well-written and intriguing, while the Johnny areas were such a chore to get through.

      When I read that book in high school, I went around to all the desks I sat at, drew an open door and wrote, “It’s cold in there” underneath it.

      • PaganPoet

        Yeah, I seem to remember all the Johnny Truant notations being a distraction from the far-more interesting Navidson Project (or w/e it was called). Though the letters from his mother in the appendix were pretty disturbing.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      It might be best left alone in the past, though. I remember being a college freshman, and having lots of college-freshman friends who thought the book was mind-blowing. I didn’t actually get around to reading it until four years after graduating, when I was maybe 25, and it didn’t really do anything for me. It might be one of those things that you need to be just the right age for.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Kovalsky/1504237433 Peter Kovalsky

        A college friend of mine also harassed me into reading it when I was 22ish. I thought it was clever and reasonably well-written, but nothing about it mindfucked me as thoroughly as it seems to have done everyone else. I suspect this is because I had read The Illuminatus! Trilogy a year or two prior, which kind of inured me to that flavor of literary mindfuck.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          By the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already read Borges and Calvino’s complete fictional oeuvres, and after those guys, Danielizewlewywewskiliyewsy’s attempts at “daring” nonlinear, formally unconventional po-mo prose just seemed quaint.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Kovalsky/1504237433 Peter Kovalsky

          Exactly.

          Though your mention of Borges reminds me of one of my favorite things, which I’ll link to here and then no one will click on but I’ll still feel like I made some semi-valuable contribution to society:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_Emporium_of_Benevolent_Knowledge%27s_Taxonomy

    • SonjaMinotaur

      I just reread it! (skipping about half of the JT parts). And I still found the book’s structure fascinating and enjoyed the exploration of the house, yet as a whole less terrifying/ gripping than it was when I was twenty.

  • Fluka

    While this sounds lovely, it also sounds like the type of thing I need to play when I’m not stressed out from problem-solving at work.  

    Or maybe I need to play it so I can think about my work problems differently?  *Tries coding backward for a change!*  Hmm.  *Cleans up massive core dump.*

    (Also, is Kate Cox writing for Gameological now?  If so, cool!)

    • http://www.your-critic.com K. Cox

      I tried writing the review backward, too, but that didn’t help.  Neither did not looking at it, running at it quickly, or throwing small cubes at it. Alas. ;)

      • Fluka

        Hmm, maybe I should try throwing small blogs at my computer’s screen instead.  That would solve the whole “work” problem…

        (P.S., nice to see you writing stuff for Gameological! I miss your articles at Kotaku!)

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me until now to say this, but:

      This is a great article….
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      .
      OF COX.

    • Xtracurlyfries
  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    It’s odd how two people can play the same game, have similar experiences with it, and end up having wildly different opinions. Though I don’t think the game is particularly good at teaching players its mechanics, I agree with everything else in Kate’s review. Yet somehow, Antichamber just didn’t work for me. It’s far from the worst game I’ve ever played, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the worst game I’ve bought at or near release.

    My main gripe with it is that it’s so intent on being different from typical games that it forgets to be a good game. It tries to surprise the player with impossible geometry and dissolving staircases, but they’re two of only a half dozen or so tricks that the game employs. Because the game has so few tricks, they eventually start to repeat, and after a while, the “surprises” become mundane and, well, unsurprising.

    Antichamber also tries to be different from other games in the way it’s structured. It can be difficult for the player to tell if he or she is actually making progress, because the game gives limited information in that regard. Often times, you’ll spend minutes grinding away at what appears to be a tough puzzle only to realize that it’s actually a dead end. Antichamber seems to want to upend the notion of traditional reward structures in video games, but it never makes the case for why its reward structure should be considered better.

    The thing is: I want games to be daring, weird, and unique. But none of those words is necessarily synonymous with “good.” That being said, “good” is entirely subjective in this context. I think Antichamber will be up a lot of people’s alleys, if only for the sheer mindfuckery of it all. It just wasn’t up mine.

    One positive point: I love this game’s art style and sound design. You don’t need fancy lighting effects and an entire orchestra to create something beautiful.

    • doyourealize

      Nice little counterpoint here, and it strangely makes me want to play the game even more. I got addicted to the puzzles in Catherine and want to find a new game that teaches you more and more about it, and then actually utilizes those lessons in ways that teach you even more, and it seems like Antichamber fits the definition.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        I suspect you will love this game. Especially since Dark/Demon’s Souls has made you a resilient gamer (e.g. a gluttong for punishment…).

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Well. Disqus just fucking dumped my lengthy and thoughtful response to your comment. Let’s try this again:

      I actually appreciated the way that, over the course of the game, the unusual and unintuitive rules became familiar/mundane. That seemed to me to be a sign that the game was teaching me something, and that I was developing a satisfying sense of mastery over its world and rules. And I felt that, even as things got familiar, it introduced enough new stuff in the form of novel applications of old rules, new guns/abilities, and the occasional all-new ‘hapax legomenon’ room that seemed to have its idiosyncratic own rules/solutions, that it remained fresh and engaging throughout.
      As for marking progress/achievement, I found the map did a pretty good job of showing you which paths you had exhausted and which required more attendtion – and the sprawling, non-linear nature of the game’s progress, while disorienting, also meant that whenever I was beating my head against a particular puzzle, I could always walk away and try another one, which is an excellent design choice for this kind of game.

      The main thing I’m ambivalent about is that, due to the open-ended-ness of some of the puzzles (something I objectively recognize as a strength), there are times when I wasn’t sure if my solution to the puzzle was the “right” one. Which normall wouldn’t bother me, but there were definitely times I “brute-forced” my way through a puzzle and afterward wasn’t sure if I’d circumvented the “intended” solution, or whether, say, the designer had actually expected me to, say, meticulously construct a four-story staircase/bridge voxel by voxel…

      I’m also not much of a puzzle/mechanics purist, so the lack of any thematic/metaphoric/whatever content left me feeling a little unfulfilled after I was done. But probably better they leave that ambiguous/absent than shoehorn in some weak or cliched narrative that would only bring down the proceedings.

      I think we can agree, though, that the game is gorgeous. So visually striking, and a perfect style to depict the type of spaces it’s going for.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        When you mention brute force, are you referring to the walls of green blocks? I think you’re supposed to use the “fuse-lighting” mechanic on them, but I brute-forced my way through them nonetheless. It was my way of saying, “Fuck you, game!”

        As for the sense of progression, I do agree that giving players the ability to abandon one puzzle for another was a good design choice. What frustrated me about how the progression was constructed was how solved puzzles would frequently lead to dead ends or other rooms that had already been unlocked, conferring no benefit in the process. I think it’s possible to create a sprawling, non-linear puzzle game, as long as any given path leads somewhere interesting. But all too often, Antichamber would loop me right back to where I started, which honestly felt like being punished for success.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Yeah, I did that on the green walls, and also on a few puzzles where something was out of reach, just decided “fuck it” and built a tower, bridge, or staircase block by block in a tedious and wholly inefficient way.

          I think as I started to flesh out the map, and realize I had uncovered a sizable chunk of it, my notion of ‘progress’ shifted from “unlocking new spaces” to “unlock all paths”/”turning all of those big squares on the map screen into little squares,” so I still felt a sense of accomplishment for completing a puzzle, even if after a certain point it had to moebius-strip me back to another area.

      • http://www.your-critic.com K. Cox

        For what it’s worth, Alexander Bruce has said (both on forums relating to the game and also in e-mails) that if you *can* solve a puzzle a certain way, it’s *okay* to solve a puzzle a certain way.  Brute force may be the most inelegant, least preferable answer, but it’s still an answer–and it’s one I used a couple of times.  In one sense I found it unsatisfying, because I knew I had done something the hard way, and in another sense I was pleased with myself for seeing the way to a less-than-obvious answer.

        Authorial intent doesn’t really matter when you’re inside the game but it can affect how you feel about it after… so don’t feel too bad. ;)

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Yeah, I’m totally on board with the whole death of the author thing, and typically regard such puzzle-openness as a design strength. I’d definitely describe that interaction as “ambivalent” rather than “negative.” I suppose if I’m REALLY curious about potentially more “elegant” or “correct” solutions out there, I could always check a walkthrough now that doing so wouldn’t risk spoiling anything…

    • Effigy_Power

      I read this for Merve’s scathing review alone. ^_^

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Oh, that was just a taste. My actual scathing review is here.

        (Yup, I’m being shameless, as usual.)

  • Brainstrain

    I think…steam sale. I love puzzle games, but I tend to be horrible at them. Don’t want to waste too much money on a game I’ll never get more than 30 minutes into. Oh, Braid, how you broke my heart…

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Perfect screenname/comment synergy, here!

  • Aurora Boreanaz

    As Brainstrain suggested, waiting for a Steam Sale sounds good.

    This sounds like the perfect time to introduce my new non-linear comment format!

    now you can enjoy trying to figure out not just what the meaning of my words are,

    and then buying Portal 2 for the Xbox and STILL not playing it yet,

    but also in what order they’re supposed to be read!

    Instead of reading my half-literate ramblings from beginning to end,

    I hope that this will be as fun for you, the reader, as it was for me to create!

    It sounds intriguing in a brain-breaking fashion,

    I am probably not the best person to give an opinion on this game.

    but at a certain level of complexity puzzle games stop working for me.

    After playing the original Portal and loving it,

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Technically this is still linear. It’s just also a PAIN IN THE ASS TO READ.

    • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

      Fatherhood has broken your brain already?

    • Matthew Smith

      That was actually pretty fun to try and figure out…

  • HobbesMkii

    How does it compare to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas: Kirk Douglas, though?

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Slightly better, but not as good as Claymation Lego: Saw 6 3D.

      • http://twitter.com/Gerardi Matt Gerardi

        Woah there Hitler

        • Enkidum

          Can we please over-use this meme? I’m kind of in love with it.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @Enkidum:disqus: only a loser would like that meme
          johnny boy

  • dantebk

    I enjoy puzzle games, but generally I get to a point where each puzzle is just a slightly more complicated version of the previous puzzle, and I get bored, and I move on. But every once in a while a puzzle game is so creatively designed that I feel like every new puzzle is something new and interesting and mind-expanding. Examples: Braid, Portal, and now Antichamber. What an incredible game! I play an hour a day because more would melt my brain. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m comfortable saying I completely recommend it.

  • Eco1970

    Can someone tell me if this is a first-person game like Portal, because the reviewer hasn’t explained how it plays.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      It’s a first-person puzzler in the style of Portal, Q.U.B.E., or Quantum Conundrum.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      The reviewer did include pictures which show scenes from a first-person perspective with a floating, FPS-style gun at the bottom of the screen.

      Any ambiguity you felt from the images, though, could have been instantly allayed with a YouTube search for “Antichamber trailer.” BUT then you wouldn’t have been able to get in a petty, passive-aggressive dig at the writer of the review, which was almost certainly your main reason for posting this comment. Which is kind of immature and crappy. If you don’t like the format of the review, just come out and say it instead of being a passive-aggressive little weenie.

      Or, better yet, read any of the other threads when GS commenters and writers have already responded to the complaint that their reviews aren’t as gameplay-focused as other sites, and see if you have a point to make that hasn’t already been thoroughly addressed.

      • Eco1970

        Yeah, because the gameological homepage has a clear link to whichever threads you’re talking about.

        I can express my disatisfaction with the style of review (and this tendency to write reviews as if the readers have already played the game in question isn’t limited to this site, sadly) in any way I choose, mate. In return, you get to wag your finger at me and call me a weenie.

        Weenie. Weenie. Weeeenie. Great word. I remember when I first came across it as a youth, thinking how esoteric it sounded (I’m British). I wonder how commonly used it is nowadays in British English. It’s certainly not the intruiging oddity it was when I was a wee lad.