Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Frustration with Anti-Chamber

Wow, for a minute there, I actually thought I could overcome the challenges and mysteries of Antichamber without relying on a guide. Turns out I was wrong. What started out as a joyful and mind-bending exploration of Alexander Bruce's astounding first-person puzzle-platformer turned into exasperation. Whether the fault is my utter lack of patience or the game's shifting puzzle mechanics is still undecided.

Before treading over my own problems with Antichamber, I should say I think the game is a stunning accomplishment and well worth your time. You can find it cheap on Steam or, if you prefer, it will likely appear in one Indie bundle or another at some point in the near future. Without a doubt, the game consistently surprised me and evoked more than a few bouts of excited laughter. Check out the trailer below for a minor taste of the game. Really, stop there and play it. This is a game best experienced with zero expectations.

While playing the game, I made a comment on twitter that captures nicely my immediate assessment of the game: Playing Antichamber is like playing the role of Sarah in 1986 classic fantasy film Labyrinth. Without revealing too much of my fanatical obsession and appreciation with Labyrinth (seriously, it's an amazing movie!), the film portrays Sarah's coming-of-age by manifesting feelings of "unfairness" and "hidden truths" physically within the ever-changing form of the titular maze. Walls appear in the maze where there were none before, optical illusions obscure pathways and traps, and the ruler of the land cheats when he pleases. Yet when she comes to accept all this, the maze becomes navigable.

Antichamber recreates the same arc almost perfectly. Early on, puzzles exist not necessarily to impede, but to impart some important lesson that will remain true - until it doesn't. Placards on the wall tell you things like "Sometimes going backwards can open doors" or "When you absorb your surroundings, you may notice things that you didn't see before." Experimentation can lead to stunning shifts in perception and reality and accidentally stumbling into new territory is a frequent occurrence. For the first three-quarters of the game, Antichamber is magical.

Then the game slows down precipitously as progress demands precision, and not just in thought. At some point, you gain access to various "guns" that absorb and dispense colored cubes. Every new gun acquisition opens up whole new areas to explore, but too often progressing demands minute control over the game objects and the world itself. Moving those little cubes, while timed, through a tiny maze, with a small pointer and a poor view can be absolutely mind-numbing - especially when one slip-up can force you to redo your hard work.

While you can always return to the starting room easily if, say, you fall through a hidden trap, in later portions of the game, where you spawn and how you navigate the rooms matters greatly. Messing up can mean backtracking again, having to redo these same precise movement to overcome frustrating puzzles you have already solved. The "world map" itself fails to convey the spatial relationships very well, an immensely difficult for both this game and Fez, another mind-bending puzzle that suffered from these same problems. When I know for certain I have the answer, but the difficulty lies in executing the actions, Antichamber  loses its magical ambiance and, sadly, brings back home to the mundane world, where David Bowie is not a goblin king and video game walkthroughs are a few clicks away.


  1. I had a similar experience with The Walking Dead. I almost gave up at various points throughout the early episodes because of some of the rare bugs and horrendous QTE events. I am glad I saw it through to the end, but I find myself still a little bitter at having to replay so many of those moments.

    It almost seems like an odd bit of lazy design taking into account how much effort was put in to making the dialogue and other interactions more engaging. Having to repeat a precision QTE after hours of dialogue trees might convey a sense of urgency or emotional state, though ultimately is meaningless when there is no consequence to failing. Lee dying from a zombie (or human) attack, just reloads to seconds before to do it all over again. Given the finality of every other event and choice in the game, I would have been incredible having the fail states of those action events (specific to Lee) carry on through the game. *SPOILERS* Imagine if Lee could have been bit in episode 1, and had to carry the secret throughout the rest of the other episodes. Maybe the virus spread very slowly in his particular case, only to manifest itself in the last episode where the "arm" choice comes into play. Much of the dialogue and story beats could remain the same, but think about how it would feel to carry that all the way through to the end.

    I had similar problems with Fez and its god awful map. If not for the soundtrack in that game, im not sure I would have finished it.

    Also, I think more (all) games should have David Bowie. Especially the one from Labyrinth. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yc4efBM_9JM

  2. Ah, yes. I also had some difficulty with the first or second episode of The Walking Dead. I was playing on the train though, so I blamed myself for that error. Still, hammering up against technical problems are so much more frustrating.

    I didn't mention it in the article, but I actually hit something like this in the very first puzzle of Antichamber. I thought it was just not "getting it", but I looked it up online and it was clearly just not working for me. I had to quit and come back. It was almost too much.

  3. I'm curious. Did you finish Antichamber, Jorge? It looks as if you did, maybe, from what you wrote, but what with the writing that you had used a guide, I am unsure.

    I ask mostly because I want to know how other people feel about the ending, which I won't spoil here. I finished the game today and I haven't see too many other people writing about it other than to comment on the colors and non-Euclidean geometry in the game. The general trend has been "it's frustrating".

    Related to that is the problem with taking screenshots or video of the game without spoiling any of the puzzles. I took some of both as I played, but haven't decided what to show on my own blog. A single shot of certain doorways or even some passages can give away how to solve things. Even writing about how some of the tools -- I'm choosing to call them "tools" other than "guns" because they gather in additional to placing -- work can spoil solutions that require an understanding of the various ways they can be used.

  4. I actually have not beat it, no. I used the guide very sparingly, just to give me a little push. But after the frustration with the precision puzzles, I haven't gone back in a week. I'd like to though, so no ender spoilers for me. I think think the game has far more interesting things to it apart from its frustration.

    In regards to screenshots, I would avoid putting anything up without a spoiler warning. I almost didn't put the trailer up in my post either.

  5. I go back and forth on games like Antichamber. The difficulty spikes, bugs, and general rough edges can be frustrating, but I really enjoy being able to experience such a singular vision. Games from small (in this case, basically one-man) teams convey an extremely different vibe than most huge studio productions.

    All that being said, I can really only play it for about an hour before needing a break. The speed, FOV, and general weirdness of the world makes my stomache spin.

  6. This was an awful experience. I couldn't make it through the first part of the game. Too many loud flashy colors and pointless visual effects. Not worth the money.