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Antichamber (PC): Meaningless and Frustrating Abstraction (Detailed Review)

There is a rule that I make sure to hold to every game when I review them. That rule being that their quality as a game is greatly determined by how well the game succeeds at accomplishing what it set out to achieve. To clarify, this means that my judgment usually comes as a result of comparing what the game was intending to be, to what it actually is. Oftentimes what the developers themselves say is also taken into heavy consideration as well. As a result, games that suffer the most are ones where there is no clear idea of what it was trying to accomplish. Without a goal to work towards, the entire process by which a game is created falls apart.

However, there are a few select instances where poor quality comes not because the developers did not know what they were doing, but instead because they did know, and chose to make poor decisions knowingly as part of their overall goal. Antichamber is a game that is one of those rare instances where poor quality is intentional. The reason can be noticed when one looks a little deeper into Antichamber’s premise.

Antichamber is a puzzle based game played in a first person perspective where your surroundings all have a strange looking M.C. Escher esque look to them, and the puzzles are based on psychological trickery and by subverting the laws of reality and typical gaming conventions. This, at first, sounds like a unique and interesting idea for a game. When one realizes just how Demruth went about accomplishing this however, it sounds a lot less appealing. Antichamber is a game that is designed to make no sense and completely screw with you. It is intentionally designed to be annoying, tedious, and frustrating and it does so in a way that you will be screwing yourself over a majority of the time.

Antichamber succeeds at what it is trying to accomplish, but this is one of the few cases where goal itself is what drags the game as a whole down. Antichamber reeks of pretentiousness. It is pretentious not just because it sacrifices an enjoyable game for the sake of an artistic statement, but also because it tries to pass off its own faults as some type of high art and blame any frustration on the player themselves for approaching it the same way they approach any other game. Ultimately, I do not see what makes Antichamber so special in that it is allowed to get away with its myriad of flaws when practically every other game is not.

Before I start dissecting everything wrong with Antichamber from top to bottom, I will startwith what it did right. The art direction is certainly interesting, even if it’s just a bunch of white rooms with weird designs that one would expect from an early prototype. Also the background noise helps build the game’s strange atmosphere, but it would be a stretch to say resembles music in any way,

However, that is pretty much all there is to Antichamber. Antichamber is a one trick pony whose only redeeming factor is that it is weird and surreal, a trick that wears off after about 10 minutes. It has been frequently debated whether games can be art, and Antichamber is, but for once that is not a good thing. Antichamber is like an abstract painting; It may look nice and there could be many things to admire about it, but all you can really do is look at it. The difference is that Antichamber could have been more had they decided to design the game to be enjoyable instead of as annoying as possible.

You need to stand on that tiny yellow block, using first person jumping controls.

The gameplay of Antichamber is done in a first person perspective that is, at first, based on exploration and looking for weird ways that the developers slipped the solution behind you. This brings me to my first complaint regarding how the game is set up. The puzzle solutions are wacky and your only way to get the answer half the time is through sheer trial and error. At first it is not too bad, seeing as how you are basically given nothing but your own movement to solve puzzles. The solutions are still abstract and obnoxiously out there, but the gameplay itself means that you only need to think outside the box. One puzzle that I will admit that I liked was one where you fall down a hole and it looks like you are stuck and cannot move forward, yet it turns out the solution is that you simply have the mouse pointer turned upwards and just need to re-center the mouse in order to get a proper view of your surroundings. This puzzle was incredibly out there, but at least it was easy enough to figure out on your own.

The earlier puzzles of Antichamber are rather hit and miss. They are a bit too trial and error based, but they are doable without a guide and the game does a good job at teaching you its own rules. However, the further you go on, the more illogical and annoying the puzzles become. Eventually you will get a hold of a gun like device that allows you to move and place various blocks, and what you can do with these blocks increases with each upgrade. Ignoring the fact that basing the rest of the puzzles in the game on blocks takes away from the idea of being a “subversive” game in the first place, this is also where the puzzles start to suffer from horrendous design.

The first major example of this is when you get a hold of the green upgrade, which allows you to store multiple blocks at once. The solution to one of the puzzles in the game is to somehow know that forming a square out of blocks will fill in the hole in the middle with a new block, and you need to absorb duplicated blocks in that manner. There was nothing in the game that indicated this before you came across the puzzle that required it. What is probably the worst aspect of this game’s design, however, is that there are puzzles based on reflexes and reaction time alone.

For example, there is a puzzle where you need to collect 3 rows of blocks in quick succession because the 3 rows will trigger a door to open. The problem is,I have tried this several times where I have absorbed the three blocks and got to the door, and was holding the forward button, only for the door to open half way for about one second and not give me enough time to pass through it. Apparently Antichamber is not good enough with knowing that you know the solution to the puzzle, and it also requires you to have insane reflexes as well. I kind of had this impression that puzzle games were supposed to be about methodical thinking and planning instead of reflexes.

Even worse is that Demruth thought it was a good idea to include platforming segments in a first person game. The big problem with first person jumping puzzles is that you can almost never tell where you are in relation to whatever it is you need to jump on. You lack just about everything that would allow you to accomplish such a thing in real life, such as a sense of balance or awareness of your body. These things are absent in Antichamber, yet somehow the game still expects you to make tricky jumps that involve standing on top of tiny blocks that would realistically be smaller than your feet, and making jumps that require incredibly precise timing and reflexes, in addition to an understanding of the game’s awkward jumping mechanics seeing as how the jump button is the space bar which is place obnoxiously far away from the WASD keys which are used to move.

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Probably the most obnoxious aspect of Antichamber is how it offers you certain advice pertaining to the game’s puzzles on signs. Normally this would not be a bad thing except that these give you the advice you need AFTER YOU SOLVE THE PUZZLE! These hints may have made these puzzles remotely doable if we had access to them during the puzzle, but because of the game’s terrible design choices, the only solution to most of the puzzles you will have is to just look up a walkthrough, which defeats the point of a puzzle game where the challenge is in figuring them out themselves.

I have stated at the beginning of this review that Antichamber succeeded in what it accomplished in terms of how it was trying to be an abstract and surreal experience that takes advantage of the player’s lack of familiarity with the game. Yet if I want to be technical, Antichamber does not even succeed at doing that seeing as how it eventually does become just another puzzle game with its block puzzle gimmicks and it design flaws that are certainly not subversive in any way. The creator of this game has said himself that he recommends avoiding walkthroughs for this game because it would ruin the experience. I would suggest doing the opposite and looking up a walkthrough of the game instead of playing it. Trust me when I say that you will get just about everything you can out of this game by looking it up. In fact, you will probably get more out of it seeing as how you can experience the weirdness without the frustration.

Ultimately it is regrettable that Demruth decided to take this route with his game. I am convinced that he is capable of making at least a decent game if he aimed towards it. Instead, we end up with a game that tries too hard to be artistic and subversive, and just ends up being pretentious. In fact, pretentious would be an understatement when regarding Antichamber. It is a game with no plot, but happens to have a bunch of weird events happening, which is likely supposed to have some deeper meaning, and I would not be surprised if people say the reason I dislike this game is because I “don’t get it.” Those people are the only ones I can think of possibly recommending this game to, otherwise Antichamber is nothing but a waste of time and money.

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