After hours spent wandering the confusing, colorful halls of Antichamber, I’m left clutching a glass of wine in my living room, The xx’s soothing album Coexist playing through my PS3. Indeed, Antichamber – a first-person puzzle game — is so mentally taxing that I’m tempted to just turn off all the lights and lie down.
I exaggerate, of course, but the exhaustion is ultimately a good thing. After my session with the game ended, I recalled the other games that have been occupying my time lately — Dust 514, Hotline Miami and Sly Cooper, for the most part — and realized that none of them left me with this sort of blissful weariness. Playing through Antichamber was less like enjoying a game and more like writing a college research paper: often interesting, sometimes frustrating and requiring all of my attention to finish. And I’ll be damned if, after solving its most taxing challenges, I didn’t feel awesome.
Where Antichamber sets itself apart from your garden variety term paper is that it’s consistently fun. Fist-pumpingly, curse word-emittingly, eat-it-you-stupid-game-ly, I’m-the-king-of-everything-ly fun. And with its complex but logical level design, innovative challenges and subtle sense of humor, it can also teach other puzzlers a thing or two.
Antichamber starts with no title screen and little fanfare, dropping you into a room with only a fast-travel map and game controls written on the walls. Your goal sits in front of you behind a glass window: a large EXIT door. The game assumes you understand the basics, starts a timer and sends you on your way through a maze of puzzles, a mental Metroid. The intro is simultaneously minimal and intimidating in the information it withholds from you. This delicate balance between what you know and what you don’t know, what you expect and what you don’t, is the meat and potatoes of how Antichamber is designed. You dance with the game, and you trip over your feet while it dashes around the room laughing.
You notice it when you realize something isn’t quite…right with the level design. You take a staircase, round a corner…and suddenly you’re back at the bottom of the staircase. You see another room through a window, and move in to take a closer look. When you step back from the window, you’re in the new room. A maze leads you around in circles where you thought there was an exit, a staircase appears out of thin air, a bridge materializes to guide you across a chasm…and then disappears abruptly. It’s a new kind of difficulty.
Later the game gains some real “rules.” There are blocks you can move around with a gun that all behave in certain ways, and certain objects and icons signify consistent level design features. But for the most part, Antichamber breaks its own rules constantly. It simply does what it wants with its level design. Where the beauty lay in this is that the game still makes sense. Puzzles feel logical even if the environment feels random, with subtle clues that lead you in the right direction. Little sketches pepper the walls of the levels with fortune cookie-like phrases to guide you. There is method behind the madness of Antichamber, and it always appears when you’re feeling the most lost.
Antichamber’s fine gameplay is complemented by its unique graphics. Flashy yet functional, it’s monochrome interspersed with bright colors and a cel-shading filter. What’s great is that the choice use of color is not only cool, but integrated into the game’s puzzles. Rooms in those aforementioned portal windows are colored differently. A pool of light on the floor in a dark maze suggests an exit, and weird swarms of spheres change to warmer colors when they are agitated by the player running.
I wanted desperately to find something wrong with Antichamber. I was going to complain about the game’s timer, until I realized that it lets you keep playing after it runs out, therefore screwing even more with your head. I wanted to think, “Oh, this solution wasn’t obvious enough,” or “the lack of a map is confusing.” But it seems too trite to criticize a game that deliberately subverts conventional design principles with conventional design criticisms.
Despite my best efforts to prove otherwise, Antichamber is an incredibly unique, well-constructed game. It walks the same paths as games like Portal and Braid while adding side streets that lead into brave new territory for game design. There’s simply nothing else like it available on Steam or any other platform.
However, I’m glad not every game is this mentally draining. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go blow up another jeep in Dust 514.
Jon lives in North Carolina. Gifted with a Game Boy while in utero, his childhood was full of games. He started writing when he was 11 and now devotes the majority of his time to either activity, usually accompanied by beer and food. You can read his tweets, mostly about said beer and food, at @TYBasedJon.