Antichamber Review: Lost in an Unreal World

It’s very rare that video games really do what they’re good at doing.

The medium of interactive entertainment is confined by no rules of reality. Oftentimes this translates into things that are incredibly obvious: the ability of characters to shrug off mortal wounds, impossibly high jumps and fast actions, and the ability to carry an arsenal of machine guns and rocket launchers in your back pocket. Most games squander their potential for bending the real in totally pedestrian ways, concentrating on empowerment and violence at the expense of intellectual challenge.

Then there are games like Antichamber, which exists in a reality without the limitations of space or physics, which can alter the rules at any time to amazing effects. It’s a game that puts players in a space that defies the rules by which we live our lives, and uses those rules to challenge our thinking and force a new logic on our minds. As a 3-D puzzler, it’s often brilliant; as a video game and an alternate reality, it deserves to be experienced.

Platforms: PC (Reviewed)
Developer: Alexander Bruce
Publisher: Demruth
Released: Jan. 31, 2013
MSRP: $19.99

The start of Antichamber is devoted to letting you know that the rules as you understand them no longer apply. One of the first things you do is attempt to leap a gap well beyond your ability, which drops you into a new room marked by a pair of staircases, one going up and the other down. A message on the wall, hidden behind a small chalk portrait, suggests you need a shift of perspective of some sort (as they all do), and after a few moments spent walking up and down the staircases that don’t seem to go anywhere, you’re left scratching your head. Until you turn around and try going somewhere else.

It’s these little tricks that make Antichamber feel so remarkable as you’re playing it. Scattered about are clues to the various puzzles, all of which suggest a new way of thinking to attack the problem before you. The staircases never go anywhere, and figuratively banging your head against the wall — the way you might in other games. Instead, you might find that turning your back on something and then turning back reveals a new path, or that moving with a certain speed creates a bridge or a gap you didn’t know was there. Antichamber continually reveals hidden things, often first letting you fall before showing you how to get back up again.

But the game is rarely frustrating, to its credit, because it really could have been. As you navigate its hallways and stumble around puzzles for which you often have no baseline in experience from which to draw, the game easily could have created a number of situations where its solution would not be something you’d think of easily, and then laughed at you for being too dumb to figure it out. Instead, it guides you gently forward, leaving you a few clues and slowly building up the experiences you need to get through all of its puzzles. The world might not have rules you’re used to, but it does have rules, and as you learn each one, you’re able to apply it to greater problems.

As time goes on, you get a tool to help you in the form of a gun that’s able to collect special cubes and reposition them in other places. This adds a new layer to the puzzle-solving already at your disposal, but it’s a two-edged sword, because there’s a time in the early going of Antichamber when it’s just you and your wits, and the gun has a tendency to constrain some of the puzzles. Before long, though, things open back up again, as you’ll continually pick up upgrades for the device that change its capabilities and require a new way of thinking. And this is really where Antichamber excels: it’s constantly asking you to redefine your thinking.

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