A stranger to single player gaming tries out an indie and AAA release back-to-back.
I feel something of a fraud for commenting on the gaming industry when I haven’t bought a game this year. I’ve taken note of my game-buying behaviour over the past two decades and know that I commit to just one epic multiplayer game at a time, shunning single player experiences for their lack of everything that makes multiplayer games brilliant. To remedy this (and also because they were new, on sale and had received good reviews already) I decided to make two impulse purchases in Antichamber and Bioshock: Infinite.
Antichamber was something I’d kept an eye on for some time. I wasn’t a massive fan of Portal but became intrigued by a similar spark of originality in Alexander Bruce’s labour of love. He spent six years developing “a deeply psychological experience that will make you question everything you know about how a game works.” That quote is as true as it is pretentious and I really did find myself recycling all of the now redundant responses to gaming situations that I have accrued over the years.
The game has no characterisation, no ‘death’ and no direction in the traditional sense. Pithy signs scattered across the world constitute our glimpse into the game’s soul. At times you may feel like someone is mocking your eventual success after an apparently impossible but actually simple puzzle. At others you might breeze through a daunting area and read the sign in a way which points to your understated genius. Maybe this has more to do with my own gnarled psyche, but I felt closer to the cheeky, non-existent sign-maker in Antichamber than I did to the protagonist in most AAA titles. As for the pink cubes, I can imagine David Attenborough exploring their habitat in a future, surreal documentary.
As you soon find out, “failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress.” Relearning the weird set of rules in Antichamber is just that – a new set of rules and certainly not complete anarchy. It has been suggested that those without first person shooter experience will find the game easier, unhampered as they are by established preconceptions about the genre. My own fascination with Antichamber coupled with first hand experience watching my girlfriend give it a brave go, lead me to believe this isn’t entirely true. Half of its charm derives from just how different this is from what we’re used to.
I must have been fairly excited to jump straight from one single player game to another, especially considering the general doom and gloom surrounding new releases of late. I would never have dreamt of comparing Antichamber to a game like Bioshock, but that was before I knew you could tell a story without anything actually happening.
Rather than have a massive moan about the dangers of pre-purchasing and madness of DLC, I feel inclined to discuss the game itself, which must be a good thing. Bioshock: Infinite has a metric fuck-tonne of characters to Antichamber’s zero, but it still isn’t overly reliant on individuals because the biggest star is always the set itself. Irrational Games have always put huge emphasis on getting the atmosphere just right and before joining to create System Shock 2 they had already worked on the excellent Thief. Having played the older games, the lineage is undoubtable and the 15 years in between have been put to good use.
Antichamber could be considered a more efficient success. It can make you think without drawing any topical or literary reference. It can even make you laugh at your own misfortune, when every time you end up on the wrong side of a Perspex chamber and can’t quite reach that elusive, green gun. It does all of this and still maintains an eerie level of polish.
Infinite could never rely on such wit and cleverness because it’s so steeped in lore and it has this expectation of being objectively ‘impressive’. But impressive it is. While Antichamber flourishes on being different, Infinite stays with the tried and tested but manages to set the bar even higher. It doesn’t shy away from the sensitive issues of race, religion and nationalism and I found it refreshing to see such a stark treatment of the most deplorable side of humanity. The world could learn a lot from Elizabeth’s candid morality. The world depicted is a fascinating one which splices past and future imaginings of America and brilliantly brings them to life. Perhaps most memorable are a series of anachronistic tunes forced into 1912, including Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Girls Just Want to Have Fun and God Only Knows. Really cool.
I wasn’t expecting this at all, but the two games share a similar sort of ending. Antichamber’s is simplistically nihilistic while Infinite’s is close to mind-blowing. As over the top as it must sound to anyone that hasn’t played it through, Bioshock has left me with a new appreciation of existence itself. It doesn’t allude to anything I wasn’t aware of before, but the experience and ultimate reveal give a unique visual representation of ideas and theories which we normally leave to the scientists. For a moment you are impossibly connected to everyone else playing the same single player game as you are. It’s spookily meta.
To humble Bioshock a bit, I have to say that its gameplay was not as slick as Antichamber’s. I came close to smashing the screen to bits owing to the endless reloads but refrained because of the promising story. Back to my efficiency point, they both took a similar amount of time to finish despite drastically different development costs, size of teams and ultimate cost to me. If I knew that every game I bought was going to offer the kinds of treats hidden in these two, I would be a much poorer, happier individual.