It's been a long time coming, but first-person mind-bender Antichamber is finally out later this month, much to the delight of creator Alex Bruce.
The Australian developer's long-awaited, award-winning, Indie Fund-ed title, previously known as Hazard: The Journey of Life, is set for release on Steam on January 31 -- and he's trying not to think too much about what happens when the journey is over.
"I have been through an emotional rollercoaster in creating this game, and have had some very significant highs and lows, months at a time," he says.
"Now that release is coming up, I'm trying to avoid feeling much of anything. I'm excited that people will finally get to play the game, but I'm also trying to make sure that I don't screw up with the release too severely. There's still work to be done, and I'll celebrate once it's out there."
Antichamber has been a long time coming. Back when it won the Technical Excellence award at the 2012 IGF awards, Bruce said that the game was "only a couple of months away from release." Of course, that target was overshot somewhat.
"I have always publicly stated that Antichamber would be ready when it was done," he notes. "I always felt like I was just a couple of months away from release, but every time I would win an award or take the game to a new festival, I'd find more flaws in the design and refine some more. There was no roadmap for how to create Antichamber, and it's the kind of thing where if something goes even just a little bit wrong, it begins to unravel very quickly."
That's not a bug, it's a feature
Interestingly, one of the reasons that Antichamber took so long to get here is that its testers couldn't tell if something was a bug or a feature a lot of the time.
Says Bruce, "I'm asking the player to throw away all knowledge of how games work and then create mental models for some pretty bizarre behaviors. I once had a tester think that space wrapping around seamlessly was a bug, but had no problem accepting that a buggy physics door that flew off its hinges and disappeared into space was a feature."
With a title that is so based around weird and wacky logic, with level design that warps around you as you pass through it, it was hugely important to make sure that players would enjoy it, rather than being left utterly confused.
Indeed, I remember playing the original Hazard build back in 2010 and coming away intrigued, but with my head spinning -- it was simply too open and tricky to comprehend at times. Having now played the final build of Antichamber, and enjoyed myself thoroughly throughout, it's safe to say that Bruce has managed to solve these issues.
"It was about making sure that the world was consistent with its own internal logic and was expressed in a way that made sense to someone playing it," the dev tell us. "To understand how people think, I had to spend years watching people play, working out which expectations I needed to confirm and which ones I needed to do a better job of breaking, then rearranging the world and watching new people approach the game again."
What's really interesting about Antichamber is the way in which it successfully attempts to attach well-known phrases and sayings to each of its puzzles. These phrases regularly act as a hint as to what you need to be doing -- and yet some of them are given to you after you complete the puzzle.
Bruce explains, "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."
This isn't just limited to puzzle games, he says. For example, in games where you've given a quick time event to complete, you're given the opportunity to watch something potentially great, but never actually allowed to do something great yourself.
"None of that compares to the feeling of actually being clever," he adds. "Encountering a problem, feeling stuck while your mind races through possibilities, and then having things click together in your head."
It's not the application of a new skill that we desire, he reasons, but the learning of the skill itself that gets us going. "We love learning," he adds. "Not learning in the textbook sense, but in finding patterns in the world and making connections between things. The most fascinating experience I have ever had was going to Japan, being totally out of my depth and unable to communicate effectively, and just having to survive on a day to day basis. I practically had to re-learn how to think about the world."
As Bruce notes, by giving you the puzzle first and letting you work it out for yourself, then phrase or saying that follows it becomes an affirmation rather than a hint, allowing you to add it to your vocabulary of how Antichamber's world works. With that confirmation fixed firmly in your head, you can then go and apply it elsewhere in the game.
"This is a severe oversimplification of what's going on in the game, as it is actually riddled with hints everywhere," he admits, "but how all of that is done is a much longer story."
Fire from the chamber
With the release now on the horizon, Bruce will soon be deciding how best to spread the word. Antichamber is such a difficult game to describe to someone who has no idea what it is, and you can see that in every preview that gets written about it," he says. "People have their own takes on what it means and what makes it interesting, but they also know that in order to explain it fully, they'd have to start spoiling a lot of the puzzles and give away some of the charm."
Hence why the developer chose to show his game early and often to people. "I went through more than 15 conventions with this game and picked up 25 awards and honors throughout development, tried to get a lot of the press on my side and took on board advice from the IndieFund along the way, long before I actually signed with them," he adds. "I didn't want to rely on any one avenue being the thing that would sell Antichamber to the world. I tried to attack the problem on many fronts."
And what about when it's finally out there, the marketing is essentially spent, and any potential bugs are fixed? After all this time spent on a single game, what does Bruce plan to do with his time?
"Many people have asked me this, but my honest answer is that I'm trying to not think about it too seriously, until I have some actual results sitting on front of me," he answers. "It's easy to let your mind run wild with all of the possibilities, but I've been burned many times by expectations, and the last thing I want to be is disappointed."
In fact, what Bruce really wants to do is jump out of the indie space, and into a bigger outfit -- specifically Valve.
"Whether that's after the release of Antichamber or several years down the line, it's something I'd like to do, if only for a while," he adds. "I don't have an immediate urge to spend another several years obsessing over a single thing. I need some room to breathe and time to find some more balance in my life."