the artistry and psychology of gaming




The Good:
+ Escher-inspired level design continually finds new ways to blow your mind
+ Top-notch puzzle gameplay supported by a host of inventive mechanics
+ Minimalist art style enhances the gameplay and is a pleasure to watch

The Bad:
– Unbearably pretentious, though it has very little to say
– Puzzle gameplay and confuse-the-player gameplay don’t get along

Go Google the works of M.C. Escher. Any one of them, it really doesn’t matter. Now imagine a game where navigating structures like those and using their quirks to your advantage is not only possible, but the entire objective of the game. If that sounds like a good time to you, go buy Antichamber right now, because that’s exactly what it is.

With gameplay along the lines of echochrome viewed through the lens of PortalAntichamber is quite possibly the most confusing game I’ve ever played. Several puzzles are essentially playable optical illusions, most of the others are based on highly abstract, vaguely science fiction mechanics, and just navigating the game’s corridors is often accomplished by exploiting technical tricks that would be considered glitches in any other game. In fact, the game is so unrelentingly unique that its biggest problem ends up being overambition, as it tries to meld logical problem-solving, mathematical impossibility, and pseudo-intellectual life commentary into one package that isn’t quite seamless. But when it works, Antichamber is a satisfying puzzle game, and a subversive, eye-opening art game.

Welcome to the most enjoyable headache you will ever experience.

Antichamber is the rare kind of game that advertises itself as psychological because it takes advantage of human psychology, rather than using “psychological” as a synonym for “weird shit’s gonna happen”. The entire first hour of the game is dedicated to messing with your head and rerouting your intuition – objects change depending on the angle they’re viewed from, entire rooms materialize behind you when you reach a dead end, and paths are hidden in plain sight by cleverly-placed distractions. It’s an utterly fascinating experience, even though it can feel like a playable version of creator Alexander Bruce’s game designer resume at times. And then you find a gun.

Not the kind that fires bullets, of course. This gun allows you to manipulate certain types of matter within the game’s labyrinthine play area. While this mechanic eventually settles in, the transition between Escher’s Mind: The Game and a much more orthodox puzzle game is not a smooth one. For the most part, the game is smart enough not to combine the two into one task, but alternating between them wasn’t such a great idea either, because you never know if you’re supposed to be advancing using down-to-earth physical logic, or the game’s trademark mindfuck moon logic. And the fact that the game’s walls are dotted with observations that are sometimes hints and sometimes empty words doesn’t help.

Let me save you an entire forum’s worth of plot analysis: it’s probably purgatory.

The game reaches its stride once again when it finally comes to terms with its newfound gameplay. The second half of the game is a series of exceptionally clever puzzles, with the mind-bending stuff restricted to quick “gotcha” moments during transit and a standard indecipherable art game ending, which is a much more complementary relationship. Additionally, the intricacies of the matter-manipulating gun are taught through several excellent silent tutorials, and are stretched to their fullest potential as more and more abilities are added. Controlling these abilities is a little overly complex, especially considering the game’s minimalism, but it’s a fair trade for such quality gameplay.

Like many art games, Antichamber is minimalist to a fault. This is both most evident and most welcome in its art style. The barebones geometric design is the only way the physically-impossible level design could be adequately conveyed, and its clean, striking appearance is yet another way the game distinguishes itself. Similarly, half the game’s soundtrack is composed of pleasant synth chords and serene ambience, which is another perfect fit. I’m less enthusiastic about the other half of the soundtrack – soundscapes like birds chirping and waves crashing – because they seem to be arbitrarily dropped into the game’s world, and because they don’t really serve a purpose other than raising the game’s pretentiousness even higher.

Or if none of that matters to you, let me put it this way: this game looks fucking cool.

Equally minimalist (and pretentious) are the game’s traces of narrative. The player character is a complete nonentity, the closest thing you have to an overarching goal is to track down a questionably-sentient black substance, and most importantly, each puzzle is accompanied by a piece of shallow philosophy. This works in the game’s favour initially, when it’s still focused on breaking down your preconceptions, and you start to think you’re in for a deep, important message. But as the game starts to feel more like a game, the quotes become increasingly hollow, until they’re on the level of those laughable inspirational posters you find in morale-less office buildings. In short, while Antichamber’s gameplay is designed to make smart people feel dumb, its narrative is designed to make dumb people feel smart.

But that comment about feeling dumb is not a complaint. If you’re looking for something to confound you, surprise you, and maybe even teach you something about how you think, Antichamber is the game for you. While its self-indulgence may prevent it from achieving perfection, it’s still a solid puzzle game and a memorable showcase of technical wizardry to boot. If nothing else, it’ll give you a newfound Escher appreciation.

Score: 7/10

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