ANTICHAMBER / Alexander Bruce / PC
 
     Hey, we just started, I'm looking over the controls and you're timing me already. Thanks bud.
 
Antichamber is sort of the "I Wanna Be The Guy" of puzzle games. It doesn't have the brutal, unfair deaths; in fact, it (rather condescendingly) has motivational posters plastered all over reassuring the player that "failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress." At worst, goofing up a puzzle just burns up some of your time as you go back to the beginning. But there is going to be an awful, awful lot of going back to the beginning, because Antichamber does not at all play fair.

It's sort of a "high concept" art game, the concept being that you're stuck in a world where the rules of traditional (Euclidean) geometry don't apply. However, much of the game's puzzles has absolutely nothing to do with geometry, but simply arbitrarily changing game world rules on the fly such that players have to approach every new situation with a trial-and-error mentality.

The experience is thus sometimes more that of playing a fever dream than enjoying a game. The game sometimes provides "help" with its obtuse puzzles in the form of signs on the wall or floating words, but the very first puzzle makes it clear that these can't always be trusted, as it exhorts you (in Last Crusade style) to jump over a long pit that you're actually supposed to walk across. Which reduces the game to more trial-and-error; first try following the advice, then if that fails, walk back to the starting point and try doing the exact opposite.
 


You'll begin with simple movement and jumping puzzles, but about 10 minutes or so into the game you'll encounter your first "cube gun." These guns absorb blocks of their color, which can be shot back out later for use as platforms, shields and etc. You would think the introduction of the guns would ground the game in a more definable rule set, since the designer now has more to work with than making you walk backward through walls for no apparent reason ... but not really. After a point, the rules about how cubes work start shifting just as arbitrarily as the rules about movement in the world, adding yet another layer of trial-and-error instead.

A central theme of any sort of puzzle is that it has some sort of guiding logic to it. The entirety of that logic may not be immediately apparent, and it may be an internal logic that doesn't conform to the rules of the greater reality around us, but there is still some discernable thread of logic available to the player for them to work from. A poorly designed puzzle uses "dream logic", or a thread of logic so obtuse that no one could reasonably be expected to follow it. A failed puzzle has no logic whatsoever, just a matter of brute-force trial-and-error until all possible actions have been tried. I'm certain the designer (and ardent fans) would argue that there is a thread of logic to every situation in the game, but many of them are the former at absolute best, and the game sometimes completely descends into the latter. It's the spatial puzzle game equivalent of the infamous "cat hair syrup mustache" puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3: yeah, when you know the solution in its entire context it kind of makes a bizarre sort of sense, but why on Earth would anyone in the middle of that puzzle follow that outlandish chain of logic when so many more reasonable approaches are possible?

Another game this puts me in mind of is The 7th Guest. Now, of course Portal is the obvious comparison, what with the FPS engine and the block guns and the jumping and etc. But Portal's rules and boundaries are always very clear. I think The 7th Guest is just as apt, as it's another rare example of a puzzle game that doesn't explain its internal logic to you initially and has you figure it out for yourself. But the puzzles are discrete entities, and each usually makes at least some reference to an established and common rule set based in reality; for example, two puzzles take place on chessboards and use the established movement rules of certain chess pieces. If Alexander Bruce were at the helm of The 7th Guest, you'd initially play a chessboard puzzle where you have to swap the positions of a bunch of pieces. Then later on, you'd see that same puzzle, but swapping all the positions opens a pit under your feet and drops you back to the starting area. The correct solution turns out to be to put all the knights in your pocket, walk to the kitchen and fix a sandwich, at which point a portal to the next area opens in the refrigerator.

I'm left confused as to what the intended purpose of the game really is (other than Be Different and Make $$$$). In the few interviews he's done, Bruce comes off as an alright chap, nowhere near the levels of pretentious wankery of a Jonathan Blow. He says he wants to design a puzzle game where the player genuinely feels clever. But that's all at odds with the actual experience, which plays more like it's about Bruce feeling clever, condescending to the player with cheesy motivational posters after every new arbitrary puzzle and continually wearing on the player's patience. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm happy that he's chosen to do this with virtual worlds and not by locking chloroformed backpackers in an actual basement maze somewhere or something. But I think a telling fact about the game is that it's got about one hour of content if you know what you're doing, yet Bruce has estimated the playtime at more like 10 hours. So that's 9 hours or so of being stuck. Granted, I've never tried to market a game, but I'm pretty sure that's not a point I would use to do so. If the overall purpose of the game was to shake me out of my "Skinnerian rewards system" mentality, sorry man, I'd much rather some Mario Bros. than this. Mario is enjoyable; brute-forcing arbitrary puzzles is just tedious.
 
 
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