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severalog

A chamber, made

J. Harry Caufield

So, Antichamber. I finished it recently. Spoilers may follow. It's not a monumental challenge, but I'm fairly sure it's not intended to be one. It also hasn't lost much of its spark for me despite an original release date of more than a year ago. Games get spoiled so easily these days. Portal, this game's obvious inspiration in both design and technical matters (despite not sharing the same engine, but that's just a technicality in the grand scheme of things) certainly didn't have such a stable shelf life. That may just be due to cake and lies.

Yes, Antichamber. I won't describe the details and I'll assume you've either tried it out already, are planning to play it, or will never do so. It's a minimal game with an ambient background. The visuals are predominantly white or a few colors at a time. The soundtrack is a collection of chirping birds, rushing wind, and distant thunder. The goals are straightforward: go where you haven't been, open closed doors, collect new equipment and learn all the neat things you can do with it. Every stage is summarized in a tidy aphorism, the presumably obvious lesson gently restated in a single sentence and a napkin-sketch cartoon.

Antichamber is ostensibly about life. That's an ambitious goal and probably a bit too much for any one creative work to concern itself with. Instead, I think it provides an excellent example of minimal gaming. It's certainly not minimalist gaming, though that's a popular and valuable trend in and of itself.

Rather, Antichamber deconstructs modern gaming into some of its most dominant elements: confusion, movement, and surrealism. All three of these elements are particularly well suited to gaming as they benefit from interaction. A film can confuse us, make us feel like we're moving, or even present impossible images (indeed, every film is made of impossible images, or it would be theater). Only an interactive experience can make us feel like the world isn't responding to us in the way it's supposed to. It's also the only way to simulate control over one's own movement and to do it in a way that's realistic enough to be convincing and responsive but unreal enough to retain a patina of fantasy and unlimited possibilities.

The paths in Antichamber are circuitous but eventually require pursuit of a floating, dark, ghostly mass. The mass sounds like strangers congregating in an art museum lobby* and looks like a glitch.** By the end of the game, it's fully within the players control, ready for release until just the last few moments. Before that point, the ghost does many of the same things the player does as far as opening doors and wandering around an illogical maze goes. We could almost recursively view this black mass as the game's player or even just the concept of a player. Players make games what they are, but they'll all have different experiences in the process.



*Or, um, maybe an antechamber. Anterooms are pretty critical to congregating and to the hanging of coats, though neither happens in Antichamber.

**It's kind of like this recent art project.