Puzzling misadventures #6

Puzzling (Mis)adventures: Volume 6 - Quantum Conundrum, Antichamber


If an engineer were to fall into a lucid dream state, I imagine the result might be something like Antichamber. Full of stark white backgrounds punctuated only by austere structural lines and geometrical shapes with the odd splash of colour, this unique puzzler from independent developer Alexander Bruce is akin to falling asleep and finding yourself trapped inside a 3D maze-like blueprint. That doesn't sound so hard to escape. But like any dream subverts reality to its whims, so too does Antichamber begin living up to its name by continually distorting the rules. Just when you think you've mastered the latest paradigm-shifting perspective, the game pulls the rug out from under your feet and sends you tumbling further down the architectural rabbit hole.

If that sounds weird, it's really just scratching the surface of just how mind-bending the game can be. In its core setup and mechanics, Antichamber shares more than a few similarities with Portal. Players are set adrift in a spartan environment with no introduction, direction, or option except to explore. Teasingly, the final exit you seek is clearly labeled within sight, but getting there will naturally be far more convoluted and challenging. Controls are handled simply through the standard WASD-mouse combo, a jump button representing the most demanding action you're ever required to perform, and never difficult ones at that. Later you'll acquire a series of "guns" with increasing capabilities, but there are no enemies in sight – only puzzles, puzzles, and more puzzles.

Unlike Portal, however – and most other games, period – Antichamber immediately begins turning your expectations upside down. Whereas Valve's acclaimed puzzle series gives you a set of tools to master in a world of intuitive parameters, Antichamber delights in making things up as it goes along. That's not to say it's illogical; far from it. Each obstacle, each element, each solution is intricately connected. But each room has its own unspoken conditions that must first be recognized and understood before you can move on. Before asking how you can solve the newest puzzle before you, you'll need to answer the most important question: What the hell is going on??!!

Like any game of exploration, the joy of playing Antichamber is in discovering its environmental mysteries on your own. But it's so unusual that a little context will surely be helpful. Very early on, for example, you'll find a pair of different coloured Escher-style staircases that both lead back to the start. How to get to the end, if there is an end, or whether you should even be going there is for you to find out. Elsewhere, giant eyeballs may bar your entry to new hallways, while floors can appear where none were before and viewstands can transport you to mirrored opposite rooms (or transport the rooms and leave you in place – hard to tell with Antichamber). There are invisible passages through seemingly solid walls, speed-sensitive guardians, and force fields that zap you of precious coloured blocks you're carrying. Patterns become a little more familiar once the guns are introduced, as you can shoot the blocks you collect into pressure slots or block lasers in fairly predictable (if still often difficult) ways. But "predictable" in Antichamber is a very relative term.

Once in a while you'll encounter some unsolicited neon messages that may tell you to jump or not look down. But remember: this is Antichamber, so don't be surprised if these turn out to be anti-helpful. The only other guidance you'll get in your travels is a series of pictograms with vague text messages that wouldn't be out of place in a book of "Confucius say" axioms. Occasionally these may yield a subtle clue to the nearest puzzle ("When you return to where you have been, things aren't always as remembered"), but they're usually so cryptic that they serve as little more than motivational platitudes ("Failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress"). Each of the hundred-plus pictograms is stored and displayed on a great black wall back where you started. On another wall in the same room, a ninety-minute timer ticks down from the moment you first begin. What happens when it runs out? I'm not telling. (Small spoiler: don't sweat the possibility of game-over punishment.)

The final wall in the starting room begins to fill out with a 2D reconstruction of the Antichamber maze the farther you progress. This is a great feature for everyone, not just for those who become easily disoriented. It's very easy to get lost in this game, particularly with its navigational dead ends, one-way exits, and the odd unexpected long-distance commute. Not all puzzles can be solved with your currently equipped gun, which can be frustrating if you don't realize that at the time, so a quick return to the interactive map lets you instantly move to another previously visited location. The map even indicates which rooms have been solved already, avoiding any unnecessary backtracking if/when you start forgetting what room hosts which unsolved puzzle.

While much of the structure is depicted in black and (mostly) white, primary colours are an important element of this game, not only in providing a very welcome splash of visual variety but also in solving the puzzles themselves, though the connection isn't always immediately obvious. (NOTHING in Antichamber is immediately obvious.) Real-world physics periodically come into play (or at least, as close to "real-world" as you're liable to find here), and movement is crucial as well, as you'll need to carefully observe how the environment reacts to your actions. There's the odd timed jump required, but even these are more a case of figuring out what to do when, rather than having trouble performing them once you do.

At no point is your character ever shown, and nor do you speak. Not that there's any reason to do so, as you'll never encounter anyone else along the way, and there is no omnipresent companion chattering away in your ear to keep you company. The only audio accompaniment is a soundtrack consisting of understated musical tones and some surprising sound effects like a waterfall and crickets, though there's nothing that graphically resembles either around you. You certainly won't be humming any theme songs from Antichamber after you finish, but given how long you might spend with particular puzzles that have you stumped (a virtual certainty to happen numerous times before the end), the decision to go with a restrained score was probably a wise one.

There is no "story" to uncover at all, or even a basic narrative premise to serve as a framework for understanding why you're here, where "here" is, or why you're trapped. Like that lucid engineering dream, you simply know you're there and need to get out. In a game where the exit is mere feet from where you start, Antichamber is all about the journey rather than the destination, and your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on your love for abstraction. It's a thoroughly unconventional, non-linear game that is guaranteed to make you feel frequently lost – in more ways than one – only to tease out just enough clues to help you orient yourself again before moving on and becoming lost all over again.

I'll confess, this is not my preferred style of gameplay, but even as I persevered through my own personal frustration, I couldn't help but appreciate Antichamber's bold approach and clever machinations. It certainly won't dazzle you with its cutting edge production values, and it's a game where overcoming confusion and puzzle-solving is its own reward, so story lovers would best be advised to steer clear. But if you relish the thought of facing a bewildering array of puzzles-within-a-puzzle itself, this may just be your dream game. Just don't bother pinching yourself, because it won't help you wake up until you've reached the end.

Puzzling (Mis)Adventures

Our regular round-up of puzzle-platformers and other puzzle-centric games

Mar 3, 2017
Jan 11, 2017
Quadrilateral Cowboy
Nov 2, 2016
Apr 13, 2016
Mar 23, 2016

About the Author
Jackal's avatar
Jack Allin
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Fat Guybrush Fat Guybrush
Mar 9, 2013

Im home alone, sick and tried Quantum Conundrum! It started alright but then everything started to look the same, the game demanded perfect platforming skills, the uncle started to annoy me so bad and the story never seemed to start! After the puzzle where you have to rotate a mechanical arm to get a motor running i gave up. No motivation to see more identical rooms and hear unfunny monologues!

Gabe Gabe
Mar 18, 2013

Misadventures Grin well said Jack.

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