Introducing Antagonist at the excellent IndieGames site, Michael Rose suggests that, “It’s a bit tense.” He isn’t wrong. From the laboured breathing of the start screen through to the crumpled bodies – marking your own failed attempts – that litter the game’s gloomy landscapes, Jonathan Whiting’s latest provides a wonderfully nervy experience.
At heart, Antagonist is an assault course – a gauntlet you must run through while avoiding the hulking purple enemies that spawn around you at certain points. These enemies have no human characteristics (they remind me a little of Maximilian, the red robot from The Black Hole, combined with an up-market 1980s perfume bottle) and a pretty simple objective: to catch up with you and then squash you to death.
Making things a touch trickier is the fact that the game’s primitive landscape is filled with glass-like destructible blocks that your enemies can plough through without slowing down, while you’ve been left with a feeble jump that terminates in a wobbly slide, destroying most of your forward momentum. The more you jump, the faster you get caught, in other words. It just doesn’t seem very fair.
It isn’t fair, of course – but that’s only true if you attempt to play Antagonist as a platformer rather than a quick-witted puzzle game. This isn’t about outrunning your enemies, it’s about out-thinking them. It’s about luring them into pits from which they cannot escape, or forcing them to trap themselves under low doorways. As such, each spawn point becomes a discrete episode in its own right – a set-piece with a variety of potential outcomes. Granted, most of those outcomes aren’t pleasant.
Aiding the ingenious design is a colour scheme of understated Rothko-hued sickliness, in which rotting greens fester alongside a range of too-vivid purples. It’s a simple aesthetic, but one that you won’t forget in a hurry: somehow, the game’s paint job alone manages to make Antagonist feel horribly claustrophobic.
Whiting, whose previous games include Love Letter, has acknowledged Antagonist’s debt to Hide, the almost intolerably creepy offering by Andrew Shouldice. That said, both games, while similar in their preoccupations with dread, each have a very different balance. In Antagonist, after all, you know exactly what it is that is chasing after you – and, in some ways, that means that the game has to work all the harder in order to scare you.