The booth at PAX East displaying Alexander Bruce’s mind-boggling psychological exploration puzzler was impossible to simply walk by. Trapped in a maze of white designed to look like an endless M.C. Esher drawing, players must follow the writing on the wall to navigate their way through. There is a catch, though: that writing is offers only vague nuggets of wisdom, not functional directions, and more often than not heralds the approach of a puzzle that proffers no hints for solving. It’s enchanting, incredible.
“It’s obviously very dense to try and learn – so the beginning of the game tries to make players unlearn all those pre-learned conventions you pick up from how other games work,” said Bruce. “There are new kinds of rules in play, and they don’t always follow themselves.”
The start of the game’s framework is a set of geometry puzzles. The first puzzle required me to pick up blocks and strategically place them to prop open trigger-activated doors.
“After thinking laterally for so long with these geometry puzzles, throwing a simple logical puzzle at the player will throw them off,” Bruce added. “It makes it intentionally harder to complete simple puzzles by reprogramming the way you think about them.”
The world of Antichamber is splashed with random blotches of colors. “If the player was distracted by textures and structures and all that, they wouldn’t be focusing completely on the puzzle at hand” said Bruce. “If you spend twenty seconds looking at a model, that’s twenty seconds you spend forgetting what you just did five minutes ago. I want people to understand the basic mechanics of the game, and in order to do that I had to remove all distractions.”
Bruce made the first prototype for the game back in 2006. After working on a handful of triple-A titles he decided to return to this private world of crazy puzzles, building a game around them. Rendered in the Unreal 3 engine for the Make Something Unreal competition, Bruce was determined to make something no one had ever seen before. “Most people will use the Unreal with the standard models and shaders. I decided to make a simple world and start subtracting colors – I wanted people to walk through an empty world then see something, stop, and say – ‘What the hell is this’?”
“I love watching people play the game,” he said. “Someone will do something that seems completely random, and when I ask them why they did it, they have this whole rationalized answer. It’s fascinating. They pick up valid rules about the world.”
Bruce is determined to short-circuit the hardwiring of gamers who have become comfortable within certain genres. “Other times I get an FPS player who is used to running through the world gunning down everything, so I change the rules and put them in a maze where they have to slow down and take in everything around them. If they make a wrong turn, they get sent back to the start. It’s a behavior breaker, it’s conditioning – like Pavlov’s Dogs,” he added with a smirk.
Antichamber, Bruce hopes, will release later this year.