I have hundreds of games in my Steam catalog and on my shelves that have been unplayed. My Backlog. I’m trying to get through those games one by one, and then write a short review for my friends to tell them whether it’s worth playing. I am not a writer by trade. This is just me, telling my friends about a game.
I’ve been meaning to write about Anti-chamber for a while, but I haven’t finished it yet. I don’t like to write about games without finishing them because I feel like you can’t really know the whole game until you’ve experienced it start to finish. Like something at the end of the game is going to round out my understanding. I wouldn’t want to write about The Sixth Sense and go, this is a story about a child therapist and a troubled kid with hallucinations. I mean, there’d be parts of that that would be correct–but it would be missing a crucial piece. So, I try to avoid writing about games until I have finished them. But I’m going to break that rule for Anti-chamber. I have to because I’m not going to finish Anti-chamber.
There’s a couple reasons for that, but primarily they relate to the same thing–the game gets too hard and as a result it stops being fun. But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
The game starts out strong. The visual style is interesting, and the stark contrast and simple environments are cool. It doesn’t have a menu, it just drops you straight into the 3D world. There are some settings, but they are accessed by looking at a wall where all the settings are listed and simply clicking them, as if your character were making that choice. This is your introduction to the main theme of the game, which is playing with your expectations. The game repeatedly changes the way you expect things to work, and fundamentally that is the core experience of this game: things aren’t what they seem. I will spoil an early puzzle: you’re walking down a corridor and you keep making turns, thinking you’re going somewhere but the corridor is seemingly endless, when you turn around to go back the other way you find that the path back leads to an entirely different area than you originally exited from, and thus the real exit from the corridor is actually back the way you came (in a cliché way — the way backwards is actually the way forwards).
At first, it’s a lot of fun but it quickly becomes tiresome. As the game goes on you build your list of expectations. Now every time you go down a corridor you turn around to see if the way back has changed. As you learn other skills those become things you have to try in every room in every possible combination of results. It quickly becomes a laundry list of things to try, and fail and the later puzzles have so many possibilities that it takes forever to try everything.
But it’s not really the fact that you have a lot of options that makes it a lengthy trial-and-error fest, the problem is when you try something and fail you get set back very far. The game map is designed in such a way that there’s sort of a hub and puzzles branch out from the center. Many puzzles have exits which return you to the hub, so you might be trying a corridor to see where it leads only to be sent back to the beginning. The map does allow you to warp around, back to the puzzle you were working on but usually to the start of the puzzle with progress reset.
Which is a problem because a lot of the puzzles involve busy work. You figure out you need to build a bridge, but the actual act of building a bridge takes a lot of work in making the parts, collecting them, laying them out and dragging the bridge across the ravine. Then if you fall or screw up on the other side, you’ll be forced to do that all again. Maybe the game has too few checkpoints but the way it exists now it’s just way too willing to throw away the work of the player and let them start over. Often that is to the benefit of the player–if they screw something they need a fast and easy way to reset the area–but the game really needs to acknowledge that you solved a puzzle and never make you do it again. ESPECIALLY, when the puzzle is labor-intensive.
Ultimately, as the game grows in difficulty there become too many options and too many variables, and the repetition of useless activities becomes annoyingly high. I don’t know how close to the end I got before I gave up, but by the end I was working on a number of puzzles and repeatedly getting sent back to the start and finally just got fed up.
And when I say working on a number of puzzles, that’s another important thing that adds to the frustration of this game. The map, as I’ve said, is a hub with paths branching out of it. At the end of each branch is a puzzle to a new area, and possibly branching off again. Consistent with it’s theme it never explains to you which way to go, and as you get more and more branches you are free to attempt the puzzles in whatever order you wish. Unfortunately, you might need a tool from another branch you haven’t obtained yet to solve the puzzle. This caught me mid-way through the game. I was banging my head against a puzzle I had no way to solve.
The game needs a serious revamp to focus the player down the right path and to explain things a bit better. When I got the yellow gun, one of the puzzles required the alt-fire and I never had used it before. I didn’t even know the gun HAD an alt-fire or what it did, so I just tried and tried the puzzle without the tools I needed to solve it. Only by mistake and after much time wasted did I discover the alt-fire and then was able to apply it. I realize the game wants to reward you for exploring and figuring things out on your own, but there has to be a baseline level of explanation so players don’t get overwhelmed with potential. For all I know, tapping the ‘O’ key five times and then the ‘G’ key twice automatically solves any puzzle. Why not? Have you tried it?
I would say play this game only for an hour or two, or maybe only on someone else’s account. Try it out, but don’t invest too much time. It feels like an innovative sort of tech demo and it is interesting for that. But it doesn’t have legs to support a full game, and the more you play the more you realize that.