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Antichamber

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Original author: 
Kyle Orland

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It's easy to write about games that can be compared to other games. "It's like Call of Duty, but in space," or "It's like Gran Turismo, but all the cars feel like they're made of styrofoam" or "It's like the tabletop game Labyrinth, but you're controlling a monkey in a plastic ball." The games that are the most fun to write about, though, are the ones where you struggle to come up with any suitable comparisons.

Sure, you can draw some links between Antichamber and games like Portal. Both games involve wandering through a sterile laboratory and trying to find your way out. Both involve using a gun that doesn't shoot bullets, but does help you find an exit indirectly. And both take place from a first-person perspective. But Antichamber's similarities to Portal—and to most other games—end there.

Understanding Antichamber means forgetting your understanding of pretty much everything you know about how the physical world works. First to go is the idea of object permanence that you developed as a baby. Turn around in Antichamber, and the hallway that was there a second ago can easily be a totally different room. Then the game starts to mess with your ideas of depth perception—you can fall for miles, only to end up just a few feet below where you started.

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IGF JE.jpg[The article was written by Ben Abraham and appeared originally on Gamasutra.]

On the same day caucuses around the U.S. line up to vote for their preferred candidate in the 2012 presidential election, two candidates squared up to debate the best practice in game design and whether it's better to build or buy a middleware engine.

In a GDC 2012 session moderated by thatgameocmpany's Kellee Santiago, Alexander Bruce of Antichamber fame and John Edwards from thatgamecompany debated whether game design is best served by licensed middleware or a custom made solution.

Alex Bruce began the debate with an opening statement aimed at those that create their own tech: "Building your own engine is like building your own Photoshop." His argument rested on the fact that developers need to balance an artist's needs with the practicality of engineering.

Instead, Bruce prefers to start with something (in his case, the Unreal engine) and then add, subtract, bend and twist it until it does what he wants. There are numerous precedents for this -- Team Fortress Classic, for instance, was built on Half-Life, which was itself built on top of the Quake engine.

The advantage, said Bruce is that "engines are about optimization" which means he can spend more time and energy worrying about other aspects of the design.

He was also realistic about his abilities -- sure, plenty of developers do well with homemade tech, but Bruce said, "I would not be where I am" without using a licensed engine.

He also learned about the dangers of internal engine development from one of his previous jobs: "I worked for a studio that burned itself to the ground thinking they could do everything cheaper, faster and better... but didn't allocate the resources to do it."

Bruce finished his statement by encouraging developers to prioritize how they want to invest their development time: "Technology is getting faster, but we are never getting any more hours in our day."

John Edwards then stepped forward to defend internal engine development, and conceded that he and Bruce "agree on all the points, but [not] on the conclusions." Edwards' conclusions were influenced by three problems that come with licensed engines: "Pay to pay," "leaky abstractions," and "avoiding the hard problems."

When developers and studios decide to buy a licensed engine, he said, they first pay for the engine before they even begin to make content for it. Once developers purchase this shiny new tech, "some interesting psychology takes place in the face of all these possibilities... with all its features unused, the engine is hungry... like a small child, starving for food," distracting developers from the core design of their game.

"Then you wake up months later... wondering what all these normal maps and bloom are doing in your text adventure."

The second point of trouble with licensed middleware is what Edwards called "leaky abstractions" -- when you use a licensed first person shooter engine, it becomes harder to make a game unlike a first person shooter, for instance.

The third and final problem is what Edwards called "avoiding the hard problem," noting that developers can often become distracted by fancy tech with exciting bells and whistles.

"If technology were the hard part, [games like Braid or Castle Crashers] wouldn't have taken three years to make!" said Edwards. "Engines can give you the illusion of progress."

Santiago later questioned both debaters, asking whether they had any regrets about their particular approaches -- suggesting that Bruce could have collaborated with an engineer.

"Yes and no." was Bruce's enigmatic reply. "Only once I got to knowing what my game actually was." The process of tinkering and twisting the engine was quite integral to his development process. "The game would not have ended up where it was if I had someone build an engine from scratch."

Edwards referenced the recently-debuted Indie Game: The Movie, which he felt exemplified how his company makes games, in that developers place themselves in the space where "there are a lot of unknowns" and a lot of creative uncertainty.

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demruth IGF.jpg[In the latest in our "Road to the IGF" series of interviews with 2012 IGF finalists, Gamasutra speaks with Alexander Bruce about his 2012 IGF Technical Excellence Award nominee Antichamber.]

Alexander "Demruth" Bruce's Antichamber is a game about discovery, set inside a vibrant, minimal, Escher-like world, where geometry and space follow unfamiliar rules, and obstacles are a matter of perception.

The game was a finalist for the Nuovo Award at the 2011 Independent Games Festival, back when it was still called Hazard: The Journey of Life and "only a couple of months away from release."

Twelve months later and with some work still to be done, Bruce's game is back in the competition, with a new name and new recognition as a finalist in the Technical Excellence category.

What background do you have making games?

Does this work like a resume, where if over a certain amount of time has passed since some of the work that you did, you don't have to list it anymore? I sure would like to forget about those cancelled titles that I mentioned in my Road To the IGF from last year!

On a more serious note, I started making games when I was 20, went through a university degree and worked in the industry for a year. Throughout that entire time, I felt like I didn't have enough experience at anything that I was doing, because I was always surrounded by people who had been doing this stuff for years. So in 2009 I came to the conclusion that if I was going to stand out at all, I'd have to do things differently.

I think I've succeeded at that, because G4TV tried to describe the game at PAX by saying "it's like an Escher painting meets Bastion, then someone did some heroin and threw paint on a wall." That's both one of the best descriptions and one of the most ridiculous descriptions I've ever heard.

This mindset of continuously pushing things to be different was something I addressed when I spoke at the Nuovo Sessions at GDC 2010. I'm sure that a lot of what I said at the time probably sounded naive and idealistic, but that mindset drove me through two years of hell trying to make everything work cohesively. It's also why the game has done a pretty decent job of standing out the further it has progressed. When people responded to earlier versions with "oh this is like Portal. You should make these things like this though, because in Portal...", I didn't want to embrace that. I wanted to get the hell away from that, because Portal already exists and is fantastic.

All of that is a very long winded way of saying that I think the important insights into my background are a relentless desire to explore in new directions, and being completely driven in trying to make what I'm doing work. The trailer for an upcoming documentary titled Ctrl+Alt+Compete had an amazing quote in it related to that kind of determination mindset, where someone said "If I didn't get paid to do this, I'd probably figure out how to get paid to do this. I want to be an entrepreneur."

How long has your team been working on the game?

For a whole year longer than the couple of months I said I had remaining last year! Making games sure is hard.

Since last IGF, I ended up practically redoing half the game, implemented the entire soundscape, changed the name, and was exploring concrete plans regarding distribution. In my mind, polish is the process of refining or removing all of the reasons that someone who is within your audience would have reason to stop playing, and when you view things that way, even small changes can have a huge difference for the feel of the game. I'd say that things are paying off, looking at the honorable mention I got for the Grand Prize.

At the end of the day, I'm not trying to make a good game. I'm trying to make an exceptional game, because this has my name on it. With that said, though, the risk of changing anything else too radically anymore is outweighing the potential benefits, and I'm reaching that point where I just have to stop and release it into the world. I said at PAX last year that I wanted the finished game at PAX East, and I'm still aiming to do that. Maybe not the release candidate, but it'll be close.

Antichamber's development been extremely iterative, and it has gone through a number of substantial changes (at one point it was even an arena combat game!). How can you afford to change the design so rapidly?

Nothing that led to here has happened rapidly, make no mistake about that. I've been messing around with the ideas that spawned it since 2006. All of the changes that happened were very calculated, and I'd probably been thinking about them in the back of my mind for months before I finally decided to actually execute upon them.

I think the difference between how I work versus how Stephen Lavelle or Terry Cavanagh work, is that I keep all of my focus centered around a single thing. We're all going through the process of throwing ideas at a wall, but I'm just more interested in working out why one particular thing didn't stick before I move onto the next one.

This is the second time that Antichamber has been nominated in the IGF. How do you feel about previous finalists that re-entered their games?

This will be the last time that this is ever an issue, given that the rules are disallowing it next year onwards. But I actually don't think that games that re-enter after being nominated previously have any advantage at all over games that are new to the IGF. If something is good, and it's new, I think it's way easier to respond positively to that than it is to something that is great, but that you've seen before.

None of the games that were renominated (I know of Gish, Miegakure, Fez, Faraway and Antichamber) were nominated in the same categories, which means that they had to stand out even more without relying on what they'd been selected for previously. I'm actually really happy that Fez was nominated again this year, despite the fact that I'm competing directly against it!

I know that there are a lot of people who are vocal about what the IGF is or should be, and I know that Brandon [Boyer, IGF chairman] gives a lot of thought to this issue, but at the same time there are other competitions that exist as well. Sure, they don't all have the reptutation that the IGF has, but if your reasoning for entering the IGF is to try to get your big break and have the world know about your game, I really don't see why you wouldn't take other competitions seriously as well. If you can get through a couple of those, who knows, maybe you'll also work out all of the things that need to be fixed in order to improve your chances of getting into the IGF. That's what I did.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I've played several, though I think the ones that stuck with me the most were when I played At a Distance and Way at IndieCade with Chris Hecker.

When we were playing At a Distance, we were constantly speaking back and forth about what we were doing and where the other player had to go, and conquering the game was really easy because of that. When we were playing Way, though, our inability to communicate directly like this left us pretty screwed on a particular puzzle.

Way is all about puppetry, and if you're really expressive with your character, you can say quite a lot just by waving your arms around, shaking your head, etc. But I don't think Chris or I solve problems socially like that. When something didn't work, both of us would just sit back and stare off into the distance and think "what is the other person not understanding about what I'm doing, and what is the most effective way that I can purposefully animate my character to express that?" As a result, a lot of the time our characters just stood around on screen doing nothing. Other people found it hilarious and pretty painful to watch.

Chris Bell (the designer) ended up taking over Hecker's computer and started waiving his characters arms all around the place, shaking his characters head furiously whenever I did anything wrong, etc. and I could instantly understand what he wanted to say. Within about 30 seconds, the level was solved, and I felt incredibly stupid. But... that's the beauty of a good puzzle!

This is a game that seems to demand more from the player than most. What should an Antichamber player gain from playing the game?

I wouldn't say that Antichamber is more demanding than other games. Often times the puzzles require you to do a lot less than puzzles in other games. They're just a very different kind of puzzle than what people are used to. People who are naturally really good at thinking outside the box end up blasting through the game relatively quickly, while people who are used to games that more directly tell them how everything works and expect them to just execute upon that knowledge are the ones that end up finding it more difficult. In any case, it's introducing some new concepts into games, and forcing players to think differently.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I don't think there's much point in labeling everything as "the indie scene". Personally, I just have the work that I do, a group of friends who all make stuff that I find interesting, and then a whole lot of other people that I'd really like to meet.

[This article was originally posted on Gamasutra, written by Frank Cifaldi.]

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Next up in our series of chats with this year’s Independent Games Festival finalists is Alexander Bruce, creator of ‘psychological exploration puzzle mindfuck’ Antichamber – which is up for the Technical Excellence award. Here, he talks about competitions and conferences, being tired of alphas and unfinished games, and answers the most important question of all.
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