When you were a child, and laid your finger on the scorching hot stove, you learned a few things about the world. Stoves are hot, hot doesn’t feel good, and you should never do that again. The environment you were born into got a little less mysterious, and you gained some knowledge to help you in your journey through life.
In Antichamber, you’re a child again, in a new world, with a lot to learn.
Antichamber begins by beating out of you almost every assumption you have about video games. It needs to, because once you reach the game’s tougher puzzles, the solutions are unlike anything you’ve performed before. Something as simple yet absurd as walking through a wall can be the answer to a puzzle in Antichamber. The first hour is overwhelming, punishing and confusing but all of Antichamber’s obscurities start to solidify as you solve each of the game’s puzzles. There is a logic to the madness.
That logic isn’t conveyed through words. It’s revealed through your actions. As you make mistakes, you learn, and build a mental list of rules for the environment. For example, running across a chasm might get you killed, but walking builds a bridge beneath you. Failure in Antichamber loses its sting, because you realize the game is trying to teach you, not punish you.
You won’t be able to solve every puzzle on the first attempt. Thankfully, Antichamber splits its puzzles up into rooms, which you can teleport to through a central hub. As you explore, the map grows, and you’ll find you have three or four unsolved rooms at a time, some with branching points you didn’t know existed. You can pop in and out of the main room by pressing the Escape key at any time. It makes backtracking a breeze, your mistakes harmless, and gives you options if you find yourself stuck on a certain puzzle.
Just when you think you’ve gotten your footing, Antichamber adds another layer of complexity by introducing a set of environment-manipulating guns. These “guns” have the ability to pick up and replace cubes in the environment. The function is similar to placing blocks in Minecraft, but since the cubes are smaller they can be a bit unwieldy when you’re trying to be precise. The guns have a long range so it’s easy to suck them back up and try again. You’ll use them to block lasers, hold open doors, climb obstacles, and much more.
Antichamber’s puzzles may look elaborate, but often have simple solutions. They require you to apply concepts in ways you might not have imagined. Sometimes in limited ways, but other times in ways that change your perspective on every following puzzle. Antichamber finds a nice balance between the euphoria of finishing multiple puzzles in row and the frustration of the ones you don’t yet understand. It does so while slowly ramping up the difficulty as you get accustomed to how everything works. The game benefits from taking breaks, and when you return so solve a trickier enigma the reward is more than worth the time you spent butting heads with it.
Unlike Portal, Antichamber doesn’t offer a strong narrative to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. The most you get are several drawings posted throughout the levels with subtle hints disguised as life lessons. As you view them, they are collected on a wall in the hub-room. Because you’re never in the hub-room for more than a few seconds at a time, I never found a reason to stop and examine them after collection.
When you get on a puzzle-solving groove in Antichamber it’s hard to stop. You get lost in it. But this concentration breaks when you reach one of the few areas in the game that causes noticeable framerate drops. These were never enough to break the gameplay, but it was disorienting during block-placement segments when suddenly my cursor slowed, and my precision dropped. It didn’t help that it occurred in one particularly frustrating part of the game where I needed to carefully line up blocks to progress.
Antichamber’s brilliance is how it teaches you its non-traditional mechanics. It doesn’t hold your hand, it drops you into its world and lets you make mistakes and play with things until you made the discovery yourself. By the end, you feel like you’ve mastered a set of rules and items you once thought to be completely alien. And all the time Antichamber says nothing, it just watches you grow.