Antichamber is the best game I’ve never finished—at least, not yet, and not from lack of effort. It’s a first-person puzzle-platformer like Portal or QUBE (you even get a gun that allows you to manipulate cubes), but it’s also a work of brain-bending art, the video-game version of a riddle wrapped in a nutshell twisted around an enigma, which is all the more impressive given that there’s no story, no enemies, no antagonists, or even narrators, just exploration.
The architecture of the game’s puzzles, what with their geometry-defying tricks and deceptions, suggests a collaboration between Escher and Euclid. Cel-shaded graphics keep things neat and simple, with long white corridors occasionally showing a glimpse of pastel blue, green, yellow, or red to subtly hint at where, in this non-linear maze, you should be going next. In fact, every bit of the design is smooth except for the puzzles themselves, most of which are wrapped around deciphering or appreciating the Zen-like sayings embedded in wall plaques.
For instance, an early puzzle talks about the power of choice—do you take the red stairs or the blue stairs?—only to then reveal that neither choice matters, as both defy common sense and lead you in an infinite spiral. If you think about it, there is a third choice, and a staple of Antichamber’s gameplay is its insistence on loosening one’s logical core. Most impressive is the way in which developer Alexander Bruce so quickly teaches us to accept new rules (of perspective, of gravity, of reality), which makes some of his deeper misdirection pay off even more, as the rug abruptly disappears from under your feet.
“A dead end will stop you only if you choose not to move through it,” reads one plaque; another states, “A window of opportunity can lead to new places if you’re willing to take a closer look.” Despite the childish illustrations that accompany these hints, and the somewhat obvious after-the-fact solutions, the game grows exponentially more complex once you find a cube-manipulating gun. (There are at least four, each with its own skill. Blue simply collects and deposits a cube, whereas green can “draw” a series of cubes.) Areas that were once inaccessible must be revisited, but though there’s a handy map available in the central hub, the game never once tells you where to go. (To be fair, would you trust it if it did?)
Admittedly, such headache-inducing puzzles and visual effects aren’t for everyone, and getting stuck on a room like “Too Many Lasers,” in which you must find a way to manipulate 12 cubes so as to block a wall of multidirectional lasers, can be frustrating, especially when a single wrong move will force you to use the ESC key to reset the entire thing. Not knowing what to do and the subsequent joy of discovery is the appeal of Antichamber, but not being able to figure it out is the Sword of Damocles that hangs over such an unforgiving mechanic. Still, while this may spark the occasional feeling of unfair play (especially when you get stuck trying to solve a puzzle that you don’t yet have the required skills to complete), that’s ultimately part of the game’s charm. As one of the plaques puts it, “Failing to succeed is not failing to progress,” and the simple beauty of Antichamber goes far beyond the cerebral appeal.