Artychamber

A few tips for game designers:

Number one: Make your game fun.

I know this may seem obvious, but some developers seem to disregard it, thinking ‘fun’ is beneath them, or that it will distract from the shiny lights. Case in point, TRON: Evolution.

Number two: Make your game interesting.

I find it odd that so many military shooters have come out over the past few years. You’d think that cow would be out of milk by now. But no, people keep selling them, and more people keep buying them, and I just don’t understand it. Oh, look, guns and explosions. How exciting…

Number three: Try not to annoy your player.

Going back to TRON: Evolution again, forcing me to watch the same annoying cut scene over and over without the option to skip it is a recipe for broken monitors.

And number four: If you’re making a puzzle game, try not to make the puzzles breakable.

Not to say a puzzle can’t have multiple solutions, in fact, it should be applauded. But when one of the solutions is as simple as a button press, you know you broke it.

Which brings me to a game I bought nary a week and a half ago, called Antichamber. And it didn’t take me long to realize just how drastically I wasted that seven bucks.

WTF!?

The funny thing about Antichamber is that it does seem interesting. At least on the surface.

The entire world is based on non-euclidean geometry. M.C. Escher-style shit. Kinda like this:

Belvedere by M.C. EscherAscending and Descending by M.C. Escher

Escher tricked with perspective, and created images of things that at first glance would look pretty darn realistic.

Waterfall by M.C. Escher

Then you took a closer look and noticed that the waterfall was being fed by itself. It’s an object that would be impossible to build in real life. It would also be impossible to model in a 3d environment, with any kind of computer software.

This kinda stuff was used to great effect in Inception. Which is a film I still highly recommend. But oddly enough they focused exclusively on the Penrose stairs, instead of showing us a few more aspects of paradoxical architecture.

Perhaps Antichamber could show us all sorts of different ways one could apply these concepts.

Well, no. Instead, the most we get involving non-euclidean, M.C. Escher, paradoxical architecture, are the Penrose stairs, which we see twice. Once near the beginning of the game, and once near the end.

In fact, it’s not really a non-euclidean environment. It actually reminds me of the portal maze from Prey expanded out to an entire game, and done well.

All the more confusing aspects of level design are courtesy of strategically placed portals that allow the levels to be constructed in a way that would otherwise be impossible. Stairs that go up and up and circle on themselves, or a path that leads back to itself, at angles that make no sense.

It’s pretty interesting design… which I like, for the most part. Then we have the parts of the map that lead to other parts of the map, with no warning and no way back. Which aren’t intriguing, but annoying.

If you’re like me, you like trying for 100 per cent completion. Solve every puzzle, as it were. And you like to explore every nook and cranny. But if you try that in Antichamber, the game will literally flip you off.

For instance, you might find a path that ends with two doors, each locked by a puzzle. So you try one puzzle, and follow the path, to see where it leads, planning to return to finish the other puzzle. Well, in these situations, the game responds by flinging you to the other side of the map with no way back.

Thankfully this is alleviated somewhat by the map room, which you can return to at any time by pressing the escape key, and will allow you to teleport to any location in the game on a whim. But it’s still a pain in the ass.

There’s no point to it, it feels like the game is tricking me, or telling me to fuck off!

Damn, you’re a fucking retard, why did you solve that puzzle? Couldn’t you tell? You’re supposed to solve the other one! You idiot!

Fuck you, game.

But of course there’s one saving grace to this aspect: It’s relatively well implemented.

Unlike in Prey, where you can break the visuals by walking backwards through a portal. In Antichamber, walking backward through a portal doesn’t cause the world to blink out. There are maybe one or two exceptions to this, which the developer might want to patch.

There’s also a bit of a visual fuck-up when using the bricks through portals. For instance, you might send a few bricks down a hall, then proceed down that hall, when they suddenly blink out of existence. It’s bizarre.

But with the exception of the brick problem, you’ll rarely notice the portals exist, and this is primarily because most of the portals only trigger when you’re facing the right direction.

Much of the level design is based on looking at, or not looking at, a particular location. Like the ‘Don’t Look Down’ room, which has a hole in the ceiling, containing the words ‘Don’t Look Down’. Because if you do after reading the sign, the floor will dissolve and you’ll fall down a pit. This is because looking at the sign causes you to get transported to a room with a floor that dissolves when you look at it, which is pretty cool.

Of course, the fall doesn’t kill you. The game doesn’t have fall damage, because Portal didn’t have fall damage either, so now no puzzle game can have fall damage. Q.U.B.E. does the same thing, and it’s even more inexplicable.

Also of note: the walls that dissolve when you look at them are emblazoned with a giant eye, which I find a bit creepy. But that might be intentional.

Then there’s one of my favourite elements: the curly-transporter windows.

Basically, if you look through them, you’ll see a completely different room. And if you move up to it, and have it fill your field of vision, you’ll be transported to that room.

Pretty fucking cool, if you ask me. Though, as a puzzle element, it doesn’t see much use.

Regardless, the world is definitely Euclidian, which is primarily because it’s a 3D game. It has to be rendered using the math inherent to Euclidian geometry. Of course the developer could have written a brand new engine that would render using non-euclidean mathematics, instead of borrowing the Unreal Engine. Which it doesn’t even make good use of.

No shading or anti-aliasing. Just stark white walls with thin black borders. It looks like we’re walking around wire frame models.

There is a bit of lighting in the game, with no visible source. But some areas are coloured differently, and the light shines off your little gun. But it’s not a very impressive effect, and as I said, there is no anti-aliasing to take advantage of.

It’s as if the designer made this game for a PC from the 80s, so he jacked down all the visuals to get it to run.

But you know, good visuals aren’t important. I’ve always said, graphics don’t matter, gameplay matters.

Some of history’s best games had terrible graphics. Super Mario Bros, Deus Ex, Silent Hill. Especially Deus Ex, even for its time it had terrible visuals, but was one of the greatest games to come out in the late 90s.

So how is Antichamber’s gameplay? Shit.

I mentioned before that the game has puzzles. And some of them are pretty clever to be sure.

Most of them are based on the matter gun. A tool that can hold, place, and manipulate tiny bricks that litter the map.

When you first receive the matter gun, it can only collect and replace bricks. But as you progress, you can upgrade the gun, which is where the problems begin.

One puzzle that really pissed me off required the green gun, which is your first upgrade. You are given eight bricks, but need ten to open the door. The solution is actually quite simple: You place the eight bricks in a three by three square, and the middle will fill in, giving you a ninth brick. The problem? You are never trained on this function!

Every other function of the matter gun is introduced to you through puzzles that follow the gun’s acquisition. This function is not, in any way, shape or form. We are told about every function of the gun in-game, except this one. We just have to know that the gun can do this. I was stuck on this puzzle for ages, till I decided to just look the solution up. And boy was I pissed.

I don’t like it when a game hides crucial information from me. There is no way to know that making a square of bricks would create more bricks, unless you were just dicking around and ran across that little function randomly, which I wouldn’t. It wouldn’t even cross my mind to try to make art with the damn thing.

A lot of the puzzles are also exclusively contained in small sections of wall, and don’t really fit with the rest of the game. After being trapped in a maze that keeps folding in on itself, you’re left wanting during the moments when you’re just shuffling bricks around a glass case.

The game sorta begins to fall apart after a while. After getting the yellow gun, you’re immediately thrown into a new puzzle called, Climbing the Tower.

Basically, you’re presented a series of puzzles, one after the other, that progressively lead you up, level by level, through this tower that runs through the middle of the map, ostensibly. It’s seven levels high, and some of the puzzles are relatively interesting, to be sure. But then it ends with a pretty simple puzzle: You need to fall down the centre of the tower, then climb back up, using the bricks, then fall back down again, and climb back up.

That’s not a puzzle, that’s just boring and tedious. I could see doing it once, but twice is unnecessary. Especially considering it was tedious enough the first time.

But once you complete that little puzzle, you are given the final upgrade to your matter gun: The red matter gun! Or as I like to call it: The BFG aimed at my CPU.

Yes, the final upgrade completely breaks the game in multiple ways. Are you surprised?

Here’s the thing: This is, ostensibly, a puzzle game. But once you throw in the BFG, most of the puzzles stop being puzzles, and become shit you do because you’re bored.

Let me explain to you what the guns do.

The blue gun is what you start with, and it can collect and shoot bricks.

The green gun gains the ability to draw with the bricks, and has a secret that you need to magically know to finish the game.

The yellow gun lets you command the bricks to travel along a path.

And the red gun breaks the universe–I mean, it lets you create walls of bricks. But, it does so by some weird math.

Here’s how it works: You fire a few bricks at a wall, and it becomes a second wall. But it actually shoots out more bricks than you originally had in the gun.

So you can fire a few bricks at the wall, then suck them in, then fire them again, then suck them in, and basically you end up with an astronomical number of bricks very quickly, which is where most of the problems start.

For instance, some of the puzzles involve having the right number of bricks on your person.

Not really a problem now, is it?

Other puzzles involve carefully controlling how bricks move. Fuck that! With the red gun, it’s no longer an issue, just flood the area! Puzzle solved!

For instance, one puzzle in particular requires you to carefully maneuver a series of bricks down a corridor, without touching the walls, because that would destroy them.

At least, that’s what you’d do with the yellow gun. With the red gun, just create a floor of bricks, and flood the entire area! There we go! Puzzle solved!

Suddenly, all challenge has disappeared.

But of course this brings me to the second problem: You have to be careful spreading around bricks, because if you spread too many, the game will crash.

That’s right, if you use the gun for it’s intended purpose, the game crashes because of it.

There is a workaround, but here’s my point: It shouldn’t do that!!!

I’m sure it’s because the position of each brick needs to be recorded, and eventually they run out of address spaces. But, shouldn’t the game be designed for such an eventuality? Filling a whole room with bricks when you have a gun that can do it so easily? They provide the gun!

Perhaps adding an extra digit to the address would fix the problem? Or, maybe you cap the gun’s capacity, or have the gun short out when the environment reaches the max brick number. Apparently, you can hold millions without a problem, it’s the bricks in the world that cause an issue.

It’s just bad optimization, pure and simple.

I get the feeling the designer never bothered to actually play test the thing. The more I play Antichamber, the more glitches I end up finding. For instance, there’s the maze that ends up rolling back on itself. In certain areas, you can try shooting bricks at a wall, but the brick’ll just disappear. Instead they’ll appear at another part of the map, because you were shooting through a portal that won’t carry the bricks.

Then there’s the tower section, where you can easily fuck up the visuals by throwing a few bricks around. You shoot them through a door, then walk through the door, and the damn things disappear. You can also prevent the portals from triggering, by walking into the bricks, which messes up the visuals even more.

See, when you give the player the ability to mark their territory, as it were, you have to account for that when designing the level. You can’t assume they won’t use the tools you gave them.

If you impaired their abilities, that would be fine. But for some reason, that doesn’t happen in Antichamber.

There is one area where I know I should have been able to completely fuck up the visuals, since the door out of the room leads back into the room. But the game is designed as so you don’t have any bricks when you reach that area.

For some reason, that doesn’t happen in any other part of the game.

The whole game just feels shoddy and thrown together. So little effort went into a concept with such great potential. It was just squandered. And that’s what bugs me the most.

It feels more like a test bed, or a tech demo, rather than a game. And just to support my argument, I think it’s time to talk about the story: There is none!

I find this the most irritating part of the game: There is no story. You’re dropped into the game with no explanation, and are expected to give two shits.

The character you play as is non-existent. Literally, there are parts of the game where you end up looking through a portal, at the location you are at, but no one’s standing there. You can see your influences on the environment through the portal, but you can’t see yourself.

You can’t even see the gun you’re carrying. It’s bizarre, and perplexing.

I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

The closest we get to any kind of story is through the presence of the fuzzy black cube.

WTF!?

You see that thing a handful of times in the game, but it’s not until the very end that you actually encounter it, and end up sucking it into your gun.

Then the world dissolves and you end up in a white void that circles back on itself, ad infinitum. Your goal is the one thing that’s not white, which looks like a giant eye, where you shoot the black cube, and then the game’s logo forms, and the credits roll.

If you call that an ending, you’re a cunt.

That’s not an ending! That doesn’t give us closure! That doesn’t give us anything! I don’t feel satisfied after watching that! I’m not even sure what happened!

It’s actually one of the biggest ‘fuck you’s a game has ever given me. It’s as if the developer couldn’t be asked to write a story, so he just strung a bunch of levels together, and pissed off for lunch!

In fact, I could write a better story in two minutes. For starters, we’d actually have an opening. You’d wake up in the map room, and there’d be a short sequence of the player standing up. Then the game would proceed exactly as it does. And then, at the end, the player would be trapped in a room with stark white walls. They’d slowly fade to black, then we’d see one of the walls drop off. You walk outside into a brown industrial warehouse, and looking behind you see a massive structure, filled with cubes moving about, from side to side, and back and forth.

Basically, that’s the world you were in, and it kept shuffling around in confusing ways, solely to mess with you.

It would certainly fit!

How does the black cube fit into this? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s the primary monitoring system.

Or it’s an alien, trapped as you were. Now, you’re both free.

Another solution: You were in the holodeck on the Enterprise-E.

See, it’s not that hard to come up with a decent story. You just have to try.

Which actually brings us to the biggest problem with Antichamber: No one tried.

Oh yeah, they could have made something halfway compelling, but they just didn’t. Instead they made something that feels more like an acid trip than a game.

Perhaps they thought if the game was “arty” they could avoid any sort of criticism. Which the game is. It’s very “arty.” Assuming that word has any sort of meaning. The art gallery early in the map is interesting. But it appears to be less of an art gallery, and more of a demonstration of how 3D objects can phase into each other in the computer when there’s no collision layer.

It has a bit of an abstract feel to it. Like a post-modern, Picasso-type piece. Which might actually be part of the problem. There’s a good chance the developer thought not making the game interesting was okay, since he could just make it look arty and pretentious.

That way anyone who criticises the game would be laughed at by people with monocles and posh british accents.

Oh, ba ha ha ha. Such a peasant. Not seeing the genius behind a boring game with no story. I scoff at thee.

Well fuck you. Antichamber is shit, and the emperor’s naked.

I probably wouldn’t have been so brutal if I didn’t pay seven bucks for it. It might be worth one or two bucks, three if you’re being generous. There’s enough appeal here to warrant that. But buggy design, puzzles with gaping holes, shit graphics, and no story make the game worth much less than I paid. And I bought it during the Steam Summer Sale. It normally costs twenty bucks!

Yeah, fuck you!

I wish this game had better design, I wish it had an interesting story. And the problems would have been so easy to fix, if the developer acknowledged, knew about, or bothered to pay attention. And it really annoys me, since the game won so many goddamn awards.

I think they cheated.

So, yeah. Antichamber sucks. It’s a terrible game, and they ripped me off!

And the worst part is: I bought it over Steam. So from now, till the end of time, it’ll squat in my game library like a turd in a jar of caviar. Sitting alongside games like Half-Life 2 and Portal. Which it doesn’t even deserve to share a postal code with.

Soundtrack’s nice though.

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