[Save State is my personal homage to the wonderful Memory Card series that used to be a feature on Destructoid! Want to be part of it? I am thinking about creating a group account for a rotating panel of writers (or whatever) to try and make Save State a regular cblogs feature. If you would like to be a part of writing Save States, please send me a PM, as this is my first attempt to gauge interest.]
Gameplay reaction videos on YouTube always seem to bother me. Usually for scary games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slender, people seem to really play up their fear. Then there are celebrities playing games and freaking out about whatever minor things are happening in the game that we are all used to by now. I never really get that kind of “I must yell at the monitor” reaction from games, but maybe actively recording yourself has an effect on that reflex. Most of my reactions are more akin to singing out the theme to Team America: World Police, like at the end of Homefront, or a choice set of words to a PvP opponent, mostly in Dark Souls.
That being said, there is one game in recent memory that blew my mind down to the base of my spine so well that I was regularly shouting at my screen the cliche “No way...nuh uhs”, but instead of being out of fear, it was something that I honestly have to call “Magical”. That game is Antichamber. Antichamber released at the end of January of this year after winning several awards related to being an indie game. Many indie games focus on trying to tell a touching story, or to try and recreate a new 8 bit experience, but Antichamber sets it sights on deconstructing a genre that Valve established.
Rooms will be shown, but I will not show or describe the solution to the room, so this one is spoiler free everyone!
For those of you who haven’t played Antichamber (yet...trust me, you definitely want to play this one!), the game is a first person puzzle based game with a voiceless protagonist stuck in a series of chambers trying to solve puzzles by using a gun that can be either orange or blue. Plot Twist: it isnt anything like Portal! Whereas Portal is all about manipulation of Physics by placing portals, Antichamber is about a complete and reckless disregard for Physics and Euclidian Geometry.
Antichamber is an incredibly strange game. The world evokes what I have learned of quantum mechanics, in that it reacts to what you do and often what you do not do. One of the first rooms you come across has a bridge construct underneath your feet as you walk, but will immediately disappear when you jump. There are rooms that completely change if you turn your back on them. There are panes of glass that reflect an entirely different section of the map when looking at it head on, but from any angle is just a wall. The entire game is basically a videogame version of The Labyrinth. One major place where the game breaks pace with Portal is that instead of being a series of test chambers that you have to progress to, it actually borrows from the MetroidVania school of thought in that different puzzles can only be solved by acquiring a new ability, so you are constantly retracing your steps to solve a puzzle, and trying to maximize the skills that you do have to ‘solve’ each room.
The game has collectables, in that it keeps track of which hint signs you pick up. Hint signs are scattered throughout each puzzle, and generally offer a reflection on how you completed that puzzle, or an amusing anecdote about the puzzle. Often times they serve as a very ineffective warning because you have already fallen for one of the game’s many, many traps. One of these hints gives tells you a variation that sometimes it is about the journey, not the destination, which couldn’t be any more true with this game. I was never concerned with beating it, I was always more preoccupied with what it was going to conjure up next.
Within the first ten minutes of the game, you will likely fall down a pit that leads to two paths. One of these leads to a room with two staircases, one going up, and the other going down, but sadly there is no staircase going nowhere just for show. There is a note by the stairs, saying that sometimes in life, you are presented with choices. On my first time, I decided to go for the ‘up’ stairs. At the top of the staircase, I found myself back in the same room. I tried the down staircase. Same outcome. At some point I came back later with a gun that lets you place blocks, and I placed on right on the steps. I then climbed up a flight of stairs, and the block was right where I had left it. Huh. Opposite the hint that I had just read was a new hint: Sometimes, your choices don’t matter. After I laughed that off, I realized that they obviously wanted me to turn around, as I wasn’t getting any further here, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a different path behind me than when I walked in. I walked into the path, and I made a 90 turn around a square pillar. Then another. Then another.
THEN ANOTHER!! But...but...
The next room is much later in the game. After solving a puzzle, you drop through the floor to find yourself in a room split into 2 parts, separated by a pane of glass in the middle: there is the ‘red’ part where you are and the ‘blue’ part, where you presumably want to be. There are two exits to the room, “south” and “east”. Being adventurous, I ventured into the east corridor, and found myself in the exact same room except I had clearly emerged from the South exit. Fine! I will take the South exit!...and I came out the East exit. Even more perplexing is that across the room from you, you SEE THE ROOM YOU ARE IN. Meaning that you are standing in, adjacent to, and across from the room you are in.
WHAT?!? That is the space time equivalent of being your own grandfather!
I did my best to capture these two moments in the clip here:
I used a word that I rarely use above: Magical. This is the videogame equivalent of being a child and watching someone pull a dove out of their hat. It starts off with that same kind of apprehension of trying to figure out where they are going with this, then after the reveal there is a moment of confusion, bewilderment, and finally excitement. That. Isn't. Possible. Unlike with a magician performing a card trick, there is no gimmick, no setup, no trap door or trick flap. It’s just...the world. Ideas like this have been used before, like the Lost Woods in Zelda games, but this was different. This isn’t scrolling onto the same page, this is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, climbing up a flight of stairs, and finding your own crumbs. And unlike Portal (it is really hard to talk about this game without bringing up Portal), this game doesn’t give you a sense of how or why. You never get a frame of reference that tells you that there is one room with a set of stairs, or a room connected by portals. The world feels infinite. Every time I climb those stairs I am higher than the last time, I just know it!
It is often talked about how videogames are a unique media because the player has control over their actions. Unlike in a book, you have the option to perform any actions, positive or negative, instead of being forced to watch them unfold as is dictated by the text on the pages. But this game touches on a completely different aspect of what makes videogames so amazing: They don’t have to play by any rules. They don’t have to use the same physics as the real world. Some of the most fun glitches to watch are glitches that abuse this! The fact is though, most games try to emulate reality as hard as they can in the name of immersion. Anitchamber completely disregards this! Why should I have physics? You know what? Why should I even use your geometry! You watch as you take six 90 degree turns around a pillar, and its just...disbelief. That can’t be right. That can’t be real!
The whole game left me feeling like I was in the movie The Labyrinth, as I mentioned above. Absolutely nothing is certain, paths can change, leading to me screaming out the same line of “Thats not fair!”. As much fun as I have had exploring Skyrim, as great as it is to ride through Hyrule, Antichamber has been one of my absolutely favorite worlds to get lost in. In a regular world you can lose immersion if something goes wrong - a giant rockets your companion into outer space, a dog is floating through the streets of New Vegas, or a car is stuck halfway through a wall...but here, you can’t ruin the immersion of being there, because our rules aren’t the game’s rules. To go back to what I was saying above, the best description I can use for this kind of experience is simply magical. It is like if Disney World collided with the Large Hadron Collider, and I was free to walk about the resulting park/science experiment.
I know this might be extraordinarily esoteric, but I absolutely love the book House of Leaves...can you imagine if someone used these principles to create a game based on that book? Dark corridors shifting, the world changing as you progress, a rumbling beast coming from impossible locations. A sense of both exploration and horror tied together in a world not bound by regular rules. I would play that game for at least half an hour before I turned on all the lights and Adventure Time! I could see it being incredibly easy to get lost in that world, because only thing that can stop you from being engrossed in it would be trying to figure out how they created it.
There has to be some kind of warp in a space where you teleport between possible combinations of what is real, right? I honestly don’t know the answer to how they did it, but that’s part of what makes it so special. I can try to come up with ways that I could think they could do it. I can try to come up with how Hollywood might produce a similar effect on a set using rotating walls and an actor, but those are effects. For all I know, in this game world, that could be the actual rules to how matter works, how geometry works, and how math works. Wrap your head around that: In this game, that could be what a corridor could really do. I can’t begin to rationalize that, and I realized the perfect analogy for it: trying to imagine how Antichamber works for me is like trying to imagine a new color. I know that some animals can see more colors that I can, but I don’t know....what colors! My mind has a limitation to what it can perceive based on what I know exists. I know if I turn a cube and look at four faces, I have seen the whole cube, but Antichamber doesn’t. It is the amazing experience to be able to walk in a world where this doesn’t exist. Where I can walk into a corridor attached to a room and come out in the same room that is opposite to itself. I honestly don’t know if the game engine cheats to give this effect or not, and as much as I want to know, I think it would make me sad to figure out how it actually works. To me, it is a chance to just get lost in an impossible maze, outside of anything in our own world.