“I live at the end of a five-and-a-half minute hallway.”
- House Of Leaves, Mark Danielewski
This reviewer is glad that there exists somewhere on this Earth persons with the faculties and thought processes required to finish a game like Antichamber, and that they had the decency to upload a complete playthrough vid to Youtube, otherwise you would probably not be getting a review at this point. I’m no noob, and I swear on my impeccable gaming credentials I tried with this one, but found it trying in return, near pushed to breaking point like the Navidsons in the aforementioned house.
You unceremoniously materialise in the titular antechamber, a stark black grid of a room with the options menu cleverly integrated into the far wall, a map on the adjacent one, and a tantalising glimpse of an exit sign opposite. There is no tutorial, no explanation for your presence in this place, just a bright white hallway and the promise that something else may lie beyond.
‘Clever’ is a suitably apt word to describe Antichamber, intelligent with just a soupcon of smugness; hell, even the title is a witty pun. As you strain your synapses searching for an answer to the current problem, you can almost feel the presence of developer Alexander Bruce looking over you, wryly smiling as you fail to grasp what’s really going on. The game itself is keen to point out that there are no fail states and that every experience is a learning one, but it sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Indeed, the game initially sets out to pointedly instruct you to abandon your preconceptions of how space, movement, and even basic cause and effect should work. Cherished notions like ‘if I turn around and retrace my steps, I will arrive back where I started’ hold no currency here. You’re in Alex’s world now, and his rules apply. In a market of games where most players are mollycoddled through to the end credits, lest they lose interest and wander off, Antichamber doesn’t so much hold your hand as push you out of the nest whether you’re ready to fly or not.
The first few puzzles are purely spatial but you quickly acquire a sort-of gun which collects and places blocks of varying colours, which are used to open locks, make bridges, and various other things. None of this is explained or hinted at; unlike the comparable but contrastedly cutesy and colourful Quantum Conundrum, which looks after and guides the player as a teacher might do a student, Antichamber stands back and towers over the player, daring them to think at its level. Sometimes this was distinctly unhelpful as I was left staring at a quandary assuming there was only some mental barrier between me and the answer, only to later find out that a different gun was required and my time spent eyeballing said puzzle with a furrowed brow had been fruitless.
It toys with the player on a grand scale; often the room name will provide some hint as to how the puzzle is to be solved, but your grey matter will be seriously tested. While technically the game can be beaten in less than an hour the developers expect the average play time to be around the ten to fifteen hour mark, with 90% of that time comprised of figuratively banging your head against a white featureless wall. Every so often along those same walls you’ll find a picture with a cryptic, almost teasingly misleading comment relating to the puzzle you’ve just encountered. The otherworldly design combines stark oblique lines with garish vibrant hues, and every interaction with the player is simultaneously a taunt and a lure. Eyes of Providence set into the walls blink curiously as you blunder on though another seemingly endless corridor. Paths snake back on themselves in ways that should not be geometrically possible, while a strange unnerving sonic aura of gentle tones, whispers and animal noises permeates the space. Be assured that this is not chaos; a sense of logic is at work here, but like serial killers and MC Escher paintings, the perplexing brand of logic Antichamber invites you to intuit and adopt is all its own.
Returning to the antechamber itself with a swift tap of the escape key (naturally) is a double-edged sword; while the map provides some sense of location in this non-Euclidean nightmare, accessing it results in an instant reset of the entire playing field, and all previously solved puzzles will need their solutions enacted again. Numerous times I was torn between wanting to check my bearings and not wanting to start over from scratch. Control is mouse and keyboard only, no controllers are supported yet, which is understandable given the game’s indie origins, but there are a few tricky platforming sections which would benefit from it, and as such an update offering it would be welcomed.
This reviewer sought to bring you answers, but fears there are only questions. In many ways, Antichamber is deserving of a higher mark than I am able to give it, but I can only base my recommendation on what I experienced when playing, and any joy I felt in the solution of one dilemma was instantly replaced with the frustration of something even more taxing. Like a lot of various other media and art, I can appreciate the technical skill involved in its creation, but find it a tad too vexing for my own personal enjoyment. Maybe this dog’s too old to be taught new tricks; players more able of mind may fare better. But don’t count on it.