Sunday, April 21, 2013
The world of Antichamber is one of the most imaginative spaces I've ever explored in a game. It twists in, on, and around itself, like a four-dimensional Moebius strip. You can turn down a hallway and find yourself walking endlessly in circles. Doors at the bottom of stairwells lead to the top of those same stairwells. Walking backwards down a hall might lead to a different place than walking with your eyes straight ahead. The whole setting is in a constant state of flux, changing, shifting, and turning in ways you can never quite wrap your head around.
What makes Antichamber fascinating is that it could only be done in a video game. It's about exploring non-Euclidean space, something which by definition cannot exist in the real world. The concept has been touched on in other media, most famously in the (wondrous) works of M.C. Escher, but only in a game could you actually interact with these kinds of nonexistent locations.
Hardly any games outside of Antichamber have tried to offer this kind of experience. Silent Hill made an admirable stab at it in the first game, and a somewhat half-hearted attempt in the second, but neither developed the concept in any meaningful way. It was just an arbitrary, confusing thing that happened in the last level because someone thought it would be clever, and while it was, there was always so much more that could be done with the concept.
What makes Antichamber great is that it's never arbitrary. Every single area has a consistent internal logic to it. It's always there, just out of reach, begging you to figure it out every step of the way. It's never obvious, and trying to comprehend the rules of each area can be bewildering, even frustrating. But in the end every puzzle is just an invitation to more thoroughly explore the rules of the system, and then apply those rules in mind-bending, creative ways.
It only works because the presentation is so perfect. It's not just the sterile, white walls and only occasional swaths of color – it's all the non-diegetic elements as well. Booting up the game leads straight into gameplay, with only a single preceding logo and no title screen. The credits are brief, and afterwards it immediately cuts to the desktop. There's no heads-up display or even a pause menu. It's true minimalism, the kind which strips away any and all non-essential elements to expose the systems underneath, and it compliments the core design of Antichamber magnificently.
There's not even a story. There's zero narrative justification for the existence of the antichamber or your presence within it. There's an eerie dark blob of negative space you occasionally see floating out of reach, and while it's certainly unsettling, nothing about it is explained in any way. The gorgeous, ambiguous ending only raises more questions.
Some may be put off by this absence of a narrative, but I think it helps the game overall – it lets you appreciate it less like a movie and more like a painting. There's a weird kind of artistic conscience to the way the puzzles, the systems, and the presentation all interact. It's fascinating.
Antichamber is a game I've wanted for a very long time. Seeing it made with such care and attention to detail is sheer euphoria.