It’s not often that I get something as ineffably incredible as this. It took me some time to even figure out where to begin with this review. I don’t know if you noticed, but most game reviews these days have a fairly same-y structure. Introduce something about the game, often its developer or publisher, talk about the story for a bit, move into gameplay and then touch on visuals and the like. While I’ve tried to avoid that format as best I can, it’s pretty hard to stay away from something that you know so well, and I think that’s why Antichamber is so incredible, really.
When you first start the game up, you’re immediately placed in a large, empty room that doesn’t look too dissimilar from a black-and-white holodeck from Star Trek. In it you will find all of the instructions you need to get started as well as the options, a map of the game and a marked exit behind a glass wall. Anytime you feel like you are stuck, you can simply tap the Escape key and return to the starting room, look at the map and try a different approach.
Most games place you in a unique and unfamiliar world. You, as a temporary immigrant, must learn the rules and boundaries of this world in order to complete some kind of objective. Teaching a player how to interact within a foreign environment is never easy. You can never assume to know what knowledge your audience has beforehand, and it can be difficult to make assumptions about what they will do and how they will choose to use the freedom you do give them. Beyond that, creating a concrete goal for the player and communicating that quickly and effectively such that they have sufficient motivation to finish your game is equally challenging.
The simplicity of it all is really quite staggering. All at once you are given the only real tutorial you need to get going, you are given your ultimate goal, and shown on your way. It’s not something I see done very often, if ever. Right away I knew I had something special on my hands.
The game is completely impossible. By that I don’t mean it cannot be finished. Nor do I mean it’s impossibly hard (though at times it really does seem like it). No, I mean the structure and level design are almost completely nonsensical.
There are staircases that lead to nowhere, rooms that completely change depending upon your perspective, and entire puzzles that revolve around looking through portals and teleporting to somewhere else completely; very little beyond that game’s core instructions are consistent. Every room, every puzzle is, in essence, a world unto itself.
Scattered throughout are small black signs with an image, usually of someone engaged in a relatively mundane activity, that shifts to reveal a message, an aphorism that serves as a kind of clue to help you progress. Because of the twisted nature of the game, however, it is not uncommon to encounter a room or puzzle you’ve already finished. Some of them don’t even really seem to be tied to anything in-game and amount to pretty decent life advice.
Color is the only other method of communication between player and game. Colors establish consistency between otherwise inconceivable contorted rooms and hallways. They also serve as a kind of general clue to help guide the lost and confused. Different colored blocks will require different “block guns” acquired throughout the game manipulate properly. I say properly, because if you’re clever it’s often possible to solve puzzles for which you are, in theory, not properly equipped.
A fair portion of the time I felt as if Antichamber kept trying to tell me something; as if there was some core credo hidden amongst the challenges and nifty quotes that populate the warped corridors. After some thought, I think I can best describe Antichamber as something of a cross between Journey and Portal--though not quite as good as either.
In many ways, the lack of communication, the lack of characters or any other guidance, allows the mind to wander between intense puzzle-solving sessions. I often found myself wondering why I was there, and what my purpose was. After some time, I began reflecting upon the little messages, upon the strange artistry that the solutions to some of the puzzles require. There’s elegance here. A minimalist elegance. It revels in the beauty and the plasticity of human thought, and it challenges us to find some connection, some pattern within everything.
Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it. I don’t know that I’ll ever be sure again.
Dan Starkey is the latest addition to the ScrewAttack Reviews Team. Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Internet, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist. You can follow him on Twitter, or add him on Facebook.
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