Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Worst Parts of Braid, Portal, and Metroid | Antichamber

I've never seen a game try so hard to be outside of the box...

I suppose I'll preface this brief post by saying no, I did not like Antichamber. In most respects I outright hated the game. However, I have to hope that because my reaction was so potent towards its primary M.O., the designer did what he did intentionally and by extension the game is successful in its aim in many respects.

Getting back on track though, Antichamber doesn't even seem to grasp the concept of a box. The structuring of matter that would constitute one in this game's world doesn't even seemingly exist, and as a result I was left with a game with its head so far up its ass it was choking on its own heart.

A sizable chunk of this may simply be a perfect storm scenario. I’ve reached a very cautious point with some indie titles (more specifically, genres), and it seems as if trying to finish the game in the fashion I did may have also ended up contributing to my aggravation. Most relevant here is time. I finished the game in about eight hours, but it seems some people went well over twenty in their playthroughs of the game. Had I simply walked away each time the game started to grate my nerves, I may have come away with a more positive take on it, but I didn’t. If I had to drag this game out any longer than I did, then I'd still probably argue it's a good example for games that need to be short, because my appreciation for it was notably sporadic and it got old fast.

Even had I done that, I would have been leaving the game every half hour to go do something totally unrelated to a video game. At that point I begin to question the design itself and not my own subjective variables that come dragging along behind me.

A lot of people I've heard relating their experiences with this game describe it as exhausting and tiring. I agree with the sentiment for the most part. It's not that I had a problem getting my head around with the way the world works in this game, I just didn't find any value in doing so. The game wants me to explore its world, but it also seems to revel in its own obtuse nature to the point where I don’t know if I’m at fault, the game’s technical side is at fault, or if its core design is at fault. As a result I just wind up ‘yelling’ at all three parties to make absolutely sure the guilty party is addressed in some fashion.

There's one puzzle in the game for example I had to find out the hard way was simply glitching and not just the game being its usual self. It took the better part of an hour for me to just give up and Google it only to find out that it was the game screwing up and not me. The only argument to defend that is that the game’s nature (i.e. ‘Hazard: The Journey of Life’ and all that…) and I want to punch whoever seriously believes it. Half the puzzles in the game I just accomplished by obtuse methods simply because I got lost in the game's ass-backwards design.

The inductive logic the game values so much is the primary reason I still don't know how I got past probably a third of the puzzles. While consistent with the rules it sets up, the way it means the players to use them makes for a sort of erratic synergy in applying them to the world. I never felt accomplishment or clever when I solved a puzzle, even when I did what I assume was a primary option for accomplishing the task (which I should repeat, did not happen too often).

There is something to be said for how this structure serves as a counter to the aim of giving players tutorials, but Antichamber seems to revel in taking it to the extreme.
"I have a problem with puzzle games, and my problem stems from the fact that they will often show you how a mechanic works, then ask you to apply your knowledge. That's not a puzzle. In fact, it's the opposite of a puzzle. That's homework. Like being told a maths equation, and then proving that you can do it 100 times when the variables change. Games like these want you to feel clever, and will give you all kinds of bells and whistles, achievements and sirens when you do what the designer wanted, but it's all artificial. None of that compares to the feeling of actually being clever. Encountering a problem, feeling stuck while your mind races through possibilities, and then having things click together in your head.”[1]
I see irony here considering Bruce seems to have made the game coming from the notion that tutorials were that problematic to begin with. I value kinesthetic learning more than most, but throwing me into a dark room and leaving me to defend myself from getting whacked on the back of the head isn't a solution for showing me how to turn on the goddamn light. Or---more in line with the analogy, there’s only so much to gain from showing me an equation with little to no context and expecting me to feel accomplishment if I actually figure it out. It’s just not an answer for the issue he seems to have. It’s still artificial. It just does it in a very obnoxious and roundabout way.

Any inventiveness in the puzzles is constantly undermined not only by how the game is structured, but by how non-committal and obtuse its masquerade as a puzzle game is. As a game about learning, exploration, and discovery, it works for a number of other interesting ways, but since it uses the puzzles as vehicles to these points, it's falls over itself constantly. An equivalent in Metroid (which the layout of this game's world mimics) would be getting missiles, but finding out that firing them causes them to come out at seemingly random points of the fucking map. Eventually one should work out how this comes together, but that doesn't necessarily make it creative, inventive, or even effective in its aim.

I didn't learn anything that I hadn't already gotten from dozens of other similar games. The difference here is that I'm just obtusely led to the same destinations.

I didn't explore anywhere, I just meandered until I stumbled upon some useful ability or ‘trick’ (or in many cases, brute-forced my way through a puzzle). There's a difference.

I didn't discover anything that couldn't be interpreted wildly from a bunch of other similar games either. I shouldn't hold that against this game particularly but the very little narrative it does convey via the post-puzzle signs comes off so self-serving, I felt antagonized by the damn thing in this regard.

Something I really find humorous here is that the game does so much of the same with what it has, but it will probably continue to go on receiving praise as inventive and mind-bending when it's often just deceptively conservative with how it makes the player approach things like space and perspective. Even Echochrome far outshines it in that latter category (and probably Fez too, but I'll have to wait to play that). 
"They’re useful guides, but they’re often written to be simultaneously shallow and a wee bit condescending in how obvious they are. Worse, this is the closest the game gets to a story, and it also clashes absurdly, in both art and tone, with the game’s overall design. The overall effect is not unlike Franz Kafka and MC Escher getting together to design an art museum, and then discovering at the very end the art in question is kitten posters about hangin’ on in there."[2]
For instance, a sort of secondary feature of the green gun is taught in such an obtuse way that I didn't even know the game was showing me something new for about a twenty minutes after I first did it (something I guess I should have grasped outright?). The game shows you A and B and even how to get there, but in such a way where the equivalent is being meant to see an idle bicycle through the window of a passing bus (in which the bike only turns up while the bus is passing). Also, the game has a genuine problem with its expectation in how the player is meant to access the knowledge they work so hard to acquire in the game. More to the point, even though there is a semi-effective method to recognize certain areas you're not meant to just toil away at until gaining a new ability (something I've seen people constantly do in this game), there's no way past the initial phase of seeing that you even acquire new abilities. So I can't really blame people for holding that against the game either even if I personally didn't. To those relishing in how the greatness of this game is bolstered by coming in dark...


If anything, going at the game in such a fashion will draw into question major design issues when it really shouldn't. I certainly wouldn't have had a problem with the four other guns' abilities so much had I been able to get that I'd eventually be able to use the off-kilter functions tailored to the world. The dev-rooms and dead ends also not only help obfuscate whatever semblance of focus you can eke out, but they contribute to what many would call a condescending tone stitched throughout the entire game.

My reaction to solving the majority of this game was either:

"Well how the hell was I supposed to know that?"



The former question siphoned more enjoyment out of me than anything else in the entire game because figuring out how I was expected to acknowledge a puzzle as a puzzle in retrospect was always more interesting than actually engaging the puzzle (I should note that I wasn't always happy with the answer I got by the way).

Antichamber's greatest strength is also its most pervasive failing. The tone and methodology of the world works no doubt, but in a way where I was frequently left to awkwardly question the veracity of the myself, the game, and the person who made it. Again, this equates to the biggest slight and praise I can muster for the game, so take from it what you will.
It's one thing to be stumped and another to be tricked, and these nagging feelings both have value in a puzzle game that's making a genuine attempt to test your intellect. But not knowing whether you're one or the other - or simply roadblocked - is the wrong kind of frustration, and it's all too familiar a feeling in Antichamber. Instead of applying yourself to the problem at hand, you hop restlessly between challenges, doubting which one you're supposed to tackle. 
The game's liberal structure makes this easy to do. You can always get back to the entry point with a tap of the escape key, and here there's a helpful map that fills out as you play and gives you instant, one-click access to any puzzle chamber - indicated by a handy thumbnail and a title that might give you a hint to its solution. This map is something of a double-edged sword. It makes your progress through the game practical and swift where it could have been a terminally confusing spatial tangle - but it also robs Antichamber's star attraction, its enigmatic maze, of much of its power. It soon dissolves into a series of discrete brain-teasers that might as well be accessed from a menu.[3]
The atmosphere and the freeform narrative generated by it only supplement the game's nature. It never rose to the occasion to claim the world it drops you in. It just devolves to an irritating and obnoxious game, and a good mascot for why I personally can't invest too much into indie titles to begin with. Yes, there should be praise for a single guy who can craft something like this on his own, but I'm not about to make the common mistake of letting idealistic resolves overcompensate to an end of 'we-need-more-of-this' sentimentality when in reality we probably don’t. There's such an insecurity for artistic merit among us gamers, we'll often grasp as straws to validate it for no one but ourselves. Perhaps this industry itself does need Antichamber in the bigger picture and time will certainly tell.

I however, didn't.

1. As release looms, Antichamber dev reflects on emotional rollercoaster [Link]
2. Hell Is Motivational Posters: A Review Of ‘Antichamber’  [Link]
3. Antichamber review Trick or treat? [Link]