Our November VGHVI Symposium game was Antichamber. It’s a game that had been on my radar for years (I saw an early version of it under the name Hazard: The Journey of Life at GDC in 2010); I avoided it for platform reasons when it got released, but I was happy that Dan gave me a nudge to play it.
So I didn’t come into the game completely cold, but I also didn’t know too much about the game in advance. I remembered something about the geometric oddities of the game, but I didn’t really realize the prominence of the block puzzles in the game. And I seemed to remember something about the earnestness of the game (as in the original subtitle), but I didn’t expect the messages scattered all over the game, or the charming pictures that accompanied them.
Those messages ended up being what surprised me most about the game; Roger and I ended up spending a fair amount of time arguing about them. Because, no question: those messages are incredibly trite. Trite to the extent that the natural question isn’t why I found them interesting, the question is why I didn’t actively dislike them.
But yet I did like them. Part of that is because: I do have a soft spot for that sort of thing. I like to come back to simple rules and principles, and, honestly, a lot of what the game says speaks to me. My life this millennium has not been what I would have predicted in many ways (and, of course, has been what I would have predicted in many other ways); so yes, “Taking one path often means missing out on another”, “A path may not be right or wrong. It may just be different”, “Life has a way of pushing us in the right direction”. Though, as I quote those, there’s not even necessarily a coherent message: are we worried about a right direction or not? But that, too, is okay: life doesn’t always have to fit into a coherent narrative, especially while you’re in the middle of it.
Still: I would never want to read those messages by themselves, and while those pictures helped, they don’t help nearly enough. There are a few ways to present messages like that that I would accept: one would be to have them underlying a richer narrative, another might be to leave them stripped down while adding a little more poetry to them. But Antichamber takes a third route, one which is something that video games are particularly well suited to but rarely do: it presents the message in a context of genuine uncertainty.
Take “If you never stop trying, you will get there eventually” as an example. I said above that part of me likes the messages, but that’s actually one of the messages that I don’t particularly like: it really isn’t the case that trying is enough to make something work. At any rate, if an author wanted to present that message via a story, they’d probably have some plucky hero overcoming adversity; you’d know how it was going to turn out when you started reading it, though. Or in a video game, you’d perhaps have a particularly long stretch of enemies; you’d know you’d make it through them, you just don’t know how long it would take. (And you’d probably be bored the whole time.)
I encountered that in a different context in Antichamber, though. It was towards the start of the game; the main things that I’d learned by then are that I really do sometimes hit dead ends, and that the geometry doesn’t make sense. In particular, I’d run into a situation where I went down a hall, turned around, went back, and ended up somewhere other than where I started.
And then I encountered a circular passage, with the aforementioned message in front of it. I could go in either direction around that circle; I picked one direction, went around the circle, and I wasn’t surprised to find that, when I’d gone a full rotation, I wasn’t back at the entrance. Instead, the circle continued, with a different picture and message, saying “Some choices can leave us running around in circles.” So: am I supposed to be persistent, or am I just biting my tail? (Shades of the beginnings of Enchanter.) I went around another couple of times, and I just saw that same second message taunting me, so I decided to go back.
When I went back, I did make it back to the entrance (but the game was keeping track of the number of times I’d gone around, I had to go back the same number of revolutions.) I looked around the entrance just to see if anything had changed, but nothing obvious had; I went the other direction, and had a similar experience. I think I came back to the entrance one more time, but then I decided to just keep on going around the circle, and eventually I made it out. And, when I made it out, I was greeted with a message saying “Raw persistence may be the only option other than giving up entirely.”
There are a few things I like about this. One is that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do, what the game was going to do: the ground rules were sufficiently unsettled that it could have been a dead end, it could have required some sort of backing and forthing, there could have been a secret passage on the wall (later on there are walls that you can only go through by backing through them!), it could have required me to go around the circle 20 times instead of however many (5?) it actually was, or one direction could have been endless while the other could have been finite. (Actually, I supposed I don’t even know that that last possibility isn’t the case – maybe I just got lucky!) The second is that, by throwing so many messages at me, the game avoided presenting “persistence always leads to success” as some glorious universal truth: like it said in this segment, sometimes you’re just running around in circles, and there’s a message elsewhere in the game that says “Some choices leave us running around a lot without really getting anywhere.” And if you put those two together, then it lets me get past the banality of this message and accept it on more positive terms: it really is true sometimes that I feel like I’m going through a plateau when trying to figure something out, that I don’t know if I’ll ever make it past or if I’m doing anything useful at all; and in many (but by no means all) of those situations, if I keep on pushing at things, then eventually I’ll have some sort of breakthrough.
Actually, that particular experience ended up being a pretty good mirror for my experience with the game. Because I’d frequently have situations where I really didn’t know what to do: I’d be pretty sure I couldn’t advance on most of the places I could reach, I’d have an idea of two or three places where it seemed conceivable that there was a puzzle I could pass if I thought about it enough, and I’d also suspect that I was wrong about a few of the places in the first category (i.e. that I actually could progress even though I was pretty sure I couldn’t), I just didn’t know which. So I’d spend time wandering around (and that wandering around is more/differently stressful in this game than in most other games, because of the difficulty of forming a mental or physical map), and eventually I’d find a way to progress.
I’d both progress on the puzzle and progress on a conceptual level, e.g. my understanding of maps in the game improved. But my understanding of it as a puzzle game also improved: in particular, it now feels to me like there are two sorts of puzzle games mixed into Antichamber, one involving messing with your understanding of space, and one about playing with blocks. (Combined with a third sort of meta puzzle game about your experiences!) And, as it turns out, I’m not completely sold on either of those puzzle games. The problem with the “messing with space” puzzle game is that there aren’t any real ground rules: there’s nothing in the system that means that the way to advance in one situation isn’t to go up and down a hallway five times, stop in the middle, face one wall and try to back through the other. That’s a contrived example which is much worse than anything the game did (or at least anything the game did that I actually figured out!), but the point is: I was at the mercy of the game designer a little more than I liked.
The block puzzle game was much more under control, though even there I was a little disturbed that I couldn’t reliably predict in what situations I’d create a chain disappearance of green blocks. But there I ran into a different problem: some of those block puzzles seemed to want a pretty long and potentially tedious sequence of actions, and some of those actions required excessively fiddly controls. I’m sure it’s mostly just an artifact of my gaming setup, but puzzles that involve tracing out sequences with the middle mouse button held down are not something I particularly enjoy: not being a PC gamer, I have a motley collection of mice around, and pressing down a scroll wheel while being asked to guide things ended up actually breaking the mouse I’d been using.
At any rate: I gave up eventually. I was most of the way to the end, I think I’d even unlocked the last color of blocks? But I didn’t feel like working on red block puzzles, I didn’t feel like trying to figure out more spacial puzzles, and I didn’t feel like looking things up in walkthroughs. So I took stock, decided that I’d enjoyed the experience I’d had so far but that it was time for that experience to come to an end.
Which is a pretty unusual reaction for me: I’m a fairly strict completist. But the thing about Antichamber is: I felt that the game supported me even in that choice! To quote a few more of the game’s messages: “Life isn’t about getting to the end”, “Live on your own watch, not on someone else’s”, and “If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, try doing something else”. Right then, following those messages felt like a better choice for me personally than following messages about persistence, and I appreciated the game for being open to that interpretation, for giving me several pleasant and instructive hours and then graciously letting me go.
This post has not been revised since publication.