One of the ongoing themes of indie games is the fact that there are clever, even brilliant, indie game designers who seem to be pretty far up their own asses as human beings. So, is the designer of Antichamber, Alexander Bruce, one of those?
His game, that several of you requested we review, could go either way. One thing’s for sure: You haven’t played a puzzle game quite like this. A few minor spoilers are under the jump.
Antichamber is kind of the love child of Portal, Echochrome, and “exploration games” like Cosmic Osmo. It’s gorgeously designed with an austere design scheme and mixture of stark whites and bright colors, with a sketchy line. The game also uses sound design to incredibly clever effect; often the sound cues will tell you where you are in the maze.
Even better is the gameplay. Antichamber is immensely satisfying to explore and solve, and some important, and intelligent, design decisions were made along the way. The game takes place in a maze that offers a series of puzzles, ranging from the fairly simple to the utterly mind-bending. At any time, you can click Esc and you’ll be back at the central black chamber, looking at a map that you’ve laid out that will transport you straight to puzzles you haven’t solved yet, and showing you how the puzzles you have solved are connected. It also resets certain aspects of puzzles. This means you’re never stuck and can work on different parts of the game at your leisure, instead of going nuts, and often to solve puzzles you’ll have to return to them.
There’s also a useful trail of breadcrumbs, little tiles you can click on with images that will appear on your tracking wall, showing you your progress and allowing you to read the tiles in order. And here’s where the problem starts. These little tiles tend to be of a cutesy “motivational” image. When you click on them, you get a clue, phrased like a Successory. The fact that this abstract puzzle game was first called “The Journey Of Life” tells you a lot about what you’re in for.
They’re useful guides, but they’re often written to be simultaneously shallow and a wee bit condescending in how obvious they are. Worse, this is the closest the game gets to a story, and it also clashes absurdly, in both art and tone, with the game’s overall design. The overall effect is not unlike Franz Kafka and MC Escher getting together to design an art museum, and then discovering at the very end the art in question is kitten posters about hangin’ on in there.
Similarly, the puzzle design is built around two things that will annoy you at some point: Bruce is very, very fond of perspective tricks, and also very fond of using accepted tropes and basic assumptions against the player. These can make for some superb puzzles, but it also gives the game a tone of snottiness. This is a game that will flat out lie to you, and then punish you for taking what it says at face value by kicking you back to a different portion of the maze. Thankfully, as we mention, this mostly means hitting Esc and picking a new puzzle.
The gameplay itself, the part that genuinely matters, is a hell of a lot of fun, and puzzle game fans are going to spend hours on it. So, enjoy the game, but ignore the motivational posters. Until Bruce has something profound to say, only the gameplay is worth paying attention to.
Antichamber is Windows Only, and available on Steam for $20