Games  |  Features

Two Games That Undermine The Concept of Games

December 12, 2013  |  8:00am

The only way to beat Alexander Bruce’s Antichamber is to go backwards.

Getting stuck in this game leads to walking in circles, just as it does in more straightforward adventure games like The Legend of Zelda or Portal. But in Antichamber, going in circles is the game. That’s how you win.

You start in a hallway with two sets of stairs; one goes up, one goes down. It doesn’t matter which set of stairs you choose; both lead nowhere. No matter how many stairs you climb, you end up back at the foot of the stairs again. It’s a trick, and that first trick teaches you the key to winning this game, insofar as the game can be won at all: Do not trust Antichamber, because Antichamber is not what it appears to be.

The way to “beat” this set of endless staircases is to turn around. Turning around will not take you back down the hallway that you used to get to the stairs; it will take you to a new room entirely. In most videogame—and in, y’know, actual rooms in real life—turning around will take you back to the place you just were. In Antichamber, going backwards often results in discovering a totally new area.

This is no grand emotional statement about how the true value in life is re-evaluating your chosen path. Antichamber isn’t a commentary on real life; it’s a videogame about videogames. Bruce’s game doesn’t just count on your expectations about how real-life spaces work and subvert those assumptions; his game also relies on the player’s expected knowledge of videogame paths. As a player, I trust that the developer wants me to take a particular path, and that this path will hold my hand and sign-post me to the end. In Antichamber, Bruce makes it clear that he knows the path I’m used to taking as a player … but he has a better idea. A weirder idea.

A player’s “reward” for beating sequences of a game is usually a feeling of progress or power. Antichamber provides no such sensation. There are no enemies in these white, empty hallways; I eventually find a pair of guns that shoot blocks, which I can use to solve puzzles, build bridges and stop automatic doors from closing. But as I said, this isn’t like a Zelda or a Portal, in which puzzles unfold in logical sequence and require the use of the tools provided. In Antichamber, the hardest part is finding the puzzles in the first place. I spent most of the game exploring and re-exploring old ground, trying to figure out what I was even supposed to do in these mysterious white hallways besides wandering around … and then, eventually, I would trip over a new room, often by accident or by doing something bizarre.

There are no points, no scores, no power-ups, no health packs and no save points. Nothing can kill me in Antichamber, except maybe my own boredom. I can always return to the first room of the game by pressing the “escape” button. Within that first room, a map of places I’ve visited appears by itself out on the wall, but this map offers little in the way of guidance since it only tells me where I’ve already gone. “Winning” the game requires me to find all of the rooms, and finding the rooms requires me to behave against type.

For example, I found a set of stairs that built themselves in the air as soon as I stepped on them. This took me to a new area. Soon, though, I could go no further. I went up and down the invisible stairs in confusion. What else was here? What was I missing? Surely these stairs were supposed to take me somewhere that mattered? Eventually I realized that the stairs would only build themselves if I stepped on them … so I stood on them and I jumped. The stairs disappeared underneath me—or, I guess I could say I fell under the stairs. Either way, I had found a new area to explore. Ordinarily, falling in a videogame is punished, not encouraged. Voluntarily jumping into nothingness always felt like the “wrong” choice—but it was the choice that brought me forward. Or … well, it was a choice that brought me somewhere else, at least.



Theoretically, I explored these rooms to get to the “end” of the game, but that wasn’t my motivation from moment to moment. I just wanted to see more of these rooms. I didn’t really care about the game’s ending, per se. I felt delight at the discovery of each new room, since each had forced me to follow a counter-intuitive path, like a window that changed its appearance each time I looked through it. That sounds like an analogy, but it’s not: the game has literal windows that change each time you look through them (and also change the contents of the rooms around them, each time, as well). I wandered through the same rooms again, and again, and again, until I got so bored that I had to force myself to look at my surroundings in a new way: to walk backwards, to jump into an abyss, to look into a window over and over until it produced a new result.

For whatever reason, I never felt frustrated. I suppose the game was trying to trick me, but I never felt like it was laughing at me; if anything, I felt like the game and I were sharing a mutual laugh over the useless skills that other games had taught me, the skills that I had to unlearn over the course of Antichamber. Predictable solutions—like, just shooting as many blocks as I could at an impasse, or trying to move in a straight line through obstacles—always led me to a dead end or produced unsatisfactory results. I was never going to see all the content if I wasn’t willing to have a little imagination.

I’m not sure what genre of videogame that is, but I think Davey Wreden’s The Stanley Parable is another of its kind. Like Antichamber, The Stanley Parable has no intention of fulfilling the player’s expectations of how a game behaves. In my first play-through of Stanley, I gave the game the benefit of the doubt and did absolutely everything it told me to do; the game’s voiced-over narration explains which path to take, and I did what I was told. The result is a boring, cliché videogame narrative that takes only a few minutes to complete: the protagonist, Stanley, has been mind-controlled by a mysterious machine, and when he discovers this, he turns the machine off and escapes to the real world. The game ends with Stanley outside, finally “free” of having been told what to do … the irony being that I, the player, have done exactly what I was told to do by the narrator in order to achieve this result.

Antichamber doesn’t offer an ending like this to any player who attempts a straightforward path, but its dead ends as just as boring as Stanley’s story played straight. The charm of both games is offered when the player figures out they have to go off-script. Just as I want to discover all of Antichamber’s new rooms, in The Stanley Parable I want to discover all of the pathways that the narrator does not want me to see. That narrator tells Stanley where to go throughout the game, but if I take Stanley off-path, the narrator begins to yell at me, telling me to return to the path, exclaiming that I am “ruining” the game’s story. But “ruining” the story is the story here, since the story the narrator wants me to enact is quite a boring one, and I’d much rather hear him get upset and see the scaffolding. Much like Stanley in the “straight” version of the game, I’m turning off my mind-control device. I’m ignoring the instructions, and I’m ignoring what videogames have “taught” me to do in the past. The results are their own reward.

The Stanley Parable

Much has been made of satirical videogames in the past two years, since notable games like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami have offered commentaries on personal choice and player guilt. The “lesson” of these games is that the player will do whatever the game tells them to do, no matter how reprehensible; in both stories, the only winning move is not to play. But is that a fair satire of videogame conventions? These games attempt to make virtual murder into an aesthetically pleasing act, with high scores, pounding pop music and a feedback loop of power and control—then they condemn the player for having bought into the system. But how can one play a game without buying into the system created within it? At least in Hotline Miami, the developers of the game blame themselves as well; Spec Ops pretends not to be complicit in its own manipulation.

Now, when videogame players hear “satire,” they think of these games and others like them (including failed attempts at this same type, like Duke Nukem Forever and Far Cry 3). These are games that require the player to do something terrible in order to “win” and then claim to be a commentary on how awful videogame protagonists are—or how awful videogame players are? It’s not entirely clear who the butt of the joke is, which is why these games feel disappointing instead of insightful.

One problem with these games is that they aren’t very funny. (Satire doesn’t have to be funny, of course, but it doesn’t hurt.) More importantly, satire should punch upwards, not downwards, and that’s exactly what Antichamber and The Stanley Parable have managed to do. Rather than mocking the player, both games instead mock the typical behavior of videogame developers—particularly those who tell boring stories with straightforward pathways and expect the player to be impressed, mentally stimulated or challenged.

The point of a game, according to these mainstream developers, is to feel powerful and rewarded, so in satires like Spec Ops and Hotline, the player is shamed for feeling powerful. Stanley and Antichamber care less about rewards and more about fun; instead of shaming the player for wanting to feel like they’re “winning”, these games break down the concept of success by encouraging the player to laugh at a typical videogame feedback loop. The rewards in these two games are more jokes (Stanley) or more beautiful and strange arenas to play in (Antichamber).

Instead of promising to explode videogame narratives and then delivering yet another story about, say, the anxieties of fatherhood and/or zombie apocalypses, these two indie PC games have quietly delivered a smart unpacking of videogame conventions. Antichamber and The Stanley Parable have both been quite well-received since they came out in January and October of this year, respectively, although no one has known exactly how to describe them, nor what genre would encapsulate them. No one has even tried to call them “satire,” that I have seen, but I think that classification might fit them better than it fits a Spec Ops or a Hotline.

These games don’t end with a manipulative twist that attempts to make the player feel as though the game has “pulled one over” on them. Instead, while playing these games, I felt as though I was the one pulling one over on the game; in Antichamber, I felt like I was discovering hidden passageways that I wasn’t “supposed” to be in, as though I was using the game’s glitches to cheat—but of course these “glitches” were well within what was allowed. In Stanley, I felt joy at getting to finally do something that I didn’t even know I had always wanted to do: I got to go off-path in a cliché videogame narrative, without it resulting in automatic death or redirection back to the narrative. Instead, going off-path gave me the “reward” of jokes, and even made me feel powerful and in control—more powerful than I had felt in videogames that are supposedly about player power and choice. In hearing the narrator yell at me to return to the game, and in ignoring him and continuing to do whatever I wanted, I finally felt the real sense of rebellion against the system that games like Grand Theft Auto only dream of offering me.

These two games give the player the sensation of “breaking” a videogame. These days, that’s exactly what I want to do, since I’m sick of doing what I’m told and getting a boring result as my “reward”. The key to satirizing videogames isn’t to make the player do something they don’t want to do; all videogames make us do stuff we don’t want to do already. Antichamber and The Stanley Parable have figured that out: They’re laughing with us about how depressingly straightforward these other narratives have become, as opposed to laughing at us. Maybe that’s parody, maybe that’s satire … or maybe it’s just a relief.

Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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