Barely 30 seconds in and Antichamber has lied to us, suggesting we jump over a gap that not only looks impassable, but is. The solution, we find out when we work our way back up, is to walk off the edge and watch as a bridge forms beneath us. It’s just the first of many little tricks this game pulls. This is a world where staircases end on the floor they began; where you can fall four floors and find yourself staring through a window at where you just stood; where you turn your back on something, look around, and find that it’s gone.
The clue’s in the name: this is perhaps best thought of as the anti-puzzle game. Rather than learning a set of mechanics and then using them to solve increasingly challenging puzzles, Antichamber’s opening is a struggle to make sense of a world that makes no sense at all. The only help you’re given are some chalk drawings dotted about the place, which, when clicked on, reveal nuggets of fortune-cookie-like wisdom. (“The end may come before we were ready to get there,” one intones.) Some teach you lessons about the preceding trap or puzzle, while others refer to the next one, but neither kind is especially helpful and both frequently come off as smug.
Developer Alexander Bruce clearly delights in messing with your head and thrills in letting you know about it, especially in the early stages, where a fresh migraine awaits around every non-Euclidean corner. The only mechanic is there are no mechanics, besides a jump button, which you’re rather wary of using after the opening. Each chamber has its own rules, and so before you can consider a solution you’ll have to establish what the problem is. It’s frighteningly smart stuff.
Despite a bold start, Antichamber can’t resist eventually becoming a videogame, introducing a gun-like tool that sucks up and fires off coloured blocks. Each room’s rules are now underpinned by a consistent set of mechanics: using blocks as keys to open doors, to hold moving objects in place, or to fashion rudimentary ladders. There are four guns in all, each new one collected opening up previously inaccessible paths.
It’s a Metroidvania game, then, one that falls foul of its own design as you struggle to find your way back to a specific place in a world with an elastic interpretation of ‘back’. You can fast travel using the map in the pause menu, but doing so resets a puzzle to its original, unsolved state, and strips you of your supply of precious blocks. It’s a world that’s all too easy to get lost in, and if that sounds like faint praise, it’s with good reason. Antichamber is many things – a remarkable technical achievement, a smart subversion of its genre, a game that plays you as much as you play it – but you’re more likely to respect it than enjoy it.