I’ve been playing Antichamber.
I have not finished Antichamber, not just yet. I’ve hit more than a few walls, to be sure, and broken through some of them, sometimes literally, but I’m not finished, but I still want to talk about a mechanic that is appealing to me at the moment.
It’s also a bit of a spoiler, and because Antichamber is one of those games which is best experienced, I’m inclined to put a spoiler warning here. I have issues with spoilerphobia, enough that I should write an essay about it one of these days, but in the short term, I’ll suggest that if you haven’t played Antichamber for more than an hour and a half, you might want to not read on.
Alright. Not having a specific rulebook, I’m going to cite the game itself for this one:
“Go by your own clock, and not someone else’s.”
… which is to say, that you start the game with a huge ticking clock: an hour and a half countdown, with a vague exit in sight and no real clue how to get there, in an environment which really, really penalizes you (albeit not harshly) for rushing and not paying attention to your surroundings. It’s POSSIBLE to finish the game with a ten-minute speedrun, but an average human will get, I don’t know, a quarter of the way there, maybe, by the time the clock runs out. At which point…
Nothing happens. It hits zero, and the above message appears. You’re not actually being timed. That’s the mechanic.
And it is, in its way, a corker. Obviously, its power comes from acknowledging that you COULD be timed, that, in a way, it makes SENSE to be timed. This is a game, it has rules, and there’s no reason one of them couldn’t be to do with speed. You are taunted by this potential from the very first second of the game, haunted by it every time you’re forced to return to the antechamber. It’s not presented as an optional challenge, it’s just there. A time limit. It takes advantage of one of the metarules, the notions burned so far into our collective subconcious that we don’t need to be told they are true, because it is assumed that they are: when time runs out, the game is over. It works for basketball. It works in Minesweeper. It works in chess, if you play that sort of chess.
But Antichamber isn’t about that. The conceit of the game is that you are in a world where the rules as you understand them don’t really apply; physical space doesn’t necessarily constrain you. You can go through a door, turn around, and find that the door you came through isn’t there at all, but instead a stairwell which takes you down for miles before leaving you back in the very room you just left. The interaction of things in physical space, that’s a metarule as well. Nobody flips through a rulebook saying “Waitaminute, if I’m facing north, and then walk through a door and turn to the right, am I going to be facing East, or am I going to be two floors down facing South and upside-down?” No, we just assume things fit together according to physics as we know them, even though they don’t HAVE to. Even in a game like Portal, where the physics get twisted, they get twisted in a consistent sort of way.
When the timer hits zero and nothing happens, that’s the game telling you, “Hey, man, this isn’t like those other games. Did I not mention?”
It’s an invitation to slow down, a reminder that it pays to explore, an apology for misleading you and a subtle admonishment for your making assumptions, all wrapped up in one. But really, it’s a joke, one ever-so-slightly at your expense. “You believed that I was really timing you? Don’t be so silly.”
Some folks get mad at things like that, but me? I laughed.