Dean Cleans Off His Steam List - Antichamber
When last I had time away from work, I spent a few hours with an overly artsy game that dropped me in the middle of nowhere and gave me no more to do than walk around and look at things. I've now been dropped into a game in a stark, no-intro-necessary, black-and-white, sciency tech lab where the walls aren't painted and nothing makes any noise. The screenshots on the game's storepage look like something out of a tech demo. I was begging to hope that there would be a game inside this one somewhere. Graciously, it didn't take me long to find. (For one, I did find spots of color!)
Upon entering Antichamber's first area, I find walkways that don't appear while I'm looking at them, buckyballs of strange matter that react to my movements, and passages that warp and change as I enter them from different directions. Before too long, I fell through a deep hole into nowhere, got trapped in a rear passage, and generally wondered where the hell I was going. I get the idea that the developer was looking at an MC Escher painting and wishing he could walk around inside of it. This probably isn't the right game for people who have issues with claustrophobia and vertigo.
What I ultimately found in the game was a good foil for that artsy game. Proteus was a game that put thought into its graphics and soundscapes, that wanted you to have something to look at, but its look-don't-touch scheme of interaction left the game feeling empty. With Antichamber, there's very little - perhaps deliberately little - stock put into the way things look and sound. This does take something away from the game, that a bit more art budget might have livened up the atmosphere, but in its place is a ton of consideration toward how players interact with things.
In order to solve puzzles and dig a path forward, you have to find different ways to interact with the things you find. The best game I could compare this with is Donkey Kong Country. Okay, yes, really. The DKC series was a line of platformer games that screwed with the idea of what you expect from a platformer. Say you start a level at a point on the left and progress to the right. What happens if you run back to the left? You might find a secret space behind the front door. (See David Sirlin's piece about the series.)
Finding Antichamber's secrets requires that you take the unwritten things you know about playing Portal and Half-Life and go at them from different angles. The direction you look, the places you stand, and the order that you open things up change the way you progress, to the point that you sort of blink into other spaces depending on your orientation. I'm being deliberately vague about what actually happens in the game because those secrets are probably most fun when personally discovered.
Then you find "the gun." Portal references aside, this allows you to pick up blocks that are lying around and rearrange them, solving puzzles and unlocking passageways. At that point, the game drifts into the Metroidvania genre of platforming. You hit a dead end in the tunnel you've been exploring or a puzzle that you can't solve, so you go back to where you'd been and look for other paths. Using the new toys and skills you've picked up, you find ways through side doors and expand the map. Thankfully, movement around the map is quick - just pressing the escape key takes you back to a map select area, so it's easy to scout around looking for what you missed.
The game does struggle where precision is involved. There's a couple places with limited resources and the need to drop things in exact spots. Being a little off with your shots could mean falling into a hole, going back to the area select, and spending a minute gathering resources before retrying the puzzle. I'm also not certain if it's endearing or frustrating to spend five minutes working on a locked door, seemingly making no progress, only to decide that I won't be able to open the door until I've found an upgrade for the gun. I feel like the game is either laughing at me from just offscreen or just silently watching like a father looking at his idiot son try to throw a ball for the first time.
At any rate, Antichamber was a genuine surprise for me. I started playing with a thought of wanting to just mess around for a few minutes before bed, only to enter a feedback loop where each puzzle solved would open another, and I spent two hours of peeking around just one more corner before calling it a night. The minimalist presentation detracts a pinch, and a slightly lower price point may have also been nice, but this one should be one of the first games that I come back to finish when I have the time. I'm not going to say it artistically changes the way we should look at games or some other self-important nonsense, but it definitely messed with my head in a pleasantly different way.