Navigating an Antichamber of Sound and Mysteries

Jerry on 2011-10-12
Early on while exploring the first-person puzzler Antichamber, the player is asked to unlearn how everyday reality operates. Walking through a circular corridor in the same direction twice, you are led to an undiscovered room. Jumping over a hole in the ground sends you plummeting down a floor, while walking across the precipice keeps you suspended in midair.

Game designer Alexander Bruce describes the making of Antichamber as an exercise in manipulating logic and geometry. A multi-year effort spurred on purely by his own dedication to the craft of game design, probing the title's labyrinthine twists and turns could be viewed as a metaphor for the intricate problem solving gauntlet that indie game developers run on a daily basis.

In this interview from this year's PAX Prime, where the game was selected by show organizers as one of its ten featured indie creations, its architect is joined by sound designer Robin Arnott. Here, the two shed light on the trial and error approach that has led to integrating calming natural soundscapes, while working with film composer Siddhartha Barnhoorn on the Antichamber music score.

You've described the puzzles you're presenting to players in this game as primarily lateral or logical. To give me a better idea of what I'm up against playing Antichamber, how would I need to change my thinking to overcome these different forms of obstacles?

Alexander Bruce: These would be my examples. One type of puzzle I could give you is -- here's a lock, here's a hundred keys. Now, work out which key opens the lock. That's a logical puzzle. Logically, one of the keys will open the lock. The other kind of puzzle I could give you is -- here's a lock, there's no key. Now, open the lock. That's a lateral puzzle. There I need to change my thinking about how locks work in order to open this one.

The first puzzles introduced in the game are lateral ones. That's in order to acclimate players to the unfamiliar logic that's at work here?

Bruce: Yes, where it's about unlearning your preconceived notions about how reality operates, and changing your perspective. For instance, there's a door you can't get through that you only ever see closed. The solution is that your vision is affecting this door and making it close. So if you don't look at the door, it's open, and you can get through.

You can't just brute force it, and need to ask yourself how to think differently about the problem. It does seem like a lot of the rules are arbitrary at the start of the game. But that's only because you don't understand how they work. What you learn while you're playing the game is that everything is consistent. That consistency might mean that paths don't always lead to the same location, and that going forwards doesn't always lead you forwards.

There's an art gallery atmosphere to a lot of what you see in Antichamber, from the bare white walls to the deliberate lighting. It gives you the feeling that you are being invited to think or philosophize about your surroundings. Are there real world locations that you've explored that have inspired the visual experience of the game?

Bruce: If you've been to San Francisco, they have a thing called the Exploratorium, which is a factory warehouse full of experiments that you can get your hands on and play with. Some deal with perception and sound, others are interesting applications of physics and science, but really, it's just a massive space full of cool stuff to muck around with.

The main driver for the psychological side and discovery side of the game came from visiting Japan for Sense of Wonder Night. If I were in a convenience store in Australia to buy a block of chocolate, that is an extremely mundane task. But when I had to go to a convenience store in Japan for the first time ever, everything was unfamiliar and I had no idea where anything was. When I went to pay, the teller spoke a bunch of Japanese to me and I had no idea what was being said. The mundane task was fascinating because I could relate none of it to familiarity back home.

That's not an experience that's fun-oriented as much as disorienting. You're comfortable with that being a dominant aesthetic playing Antichamber?

Bruce: Exploring, discovering and learning are big parts of the game. With puzzle gameplay, a lot of people talk about finding that "a-ha" moment. I was never looking for that. I was looking for the moment of… "What the fuck?" Some people enjoy being disoriented, and some enjoy the a-ha moment. Here there's both.

How did you first become involved in the making of Antichamber as a sound designer?

Robin Arnott: I live in Austin, Texas, and Alex and I met at GDC Online. There's a wonderful video game culture scene there now, with a monthly event called Juegos Rancheros. Being a sound designer looking to get involved in indie games, I was very interested in the Antichamber booth at GDC Online.

Immediately I could see how the game was making you think in different ways and taking you on a kind of mental adventure. I knew that this was a game I wanted to work on. I really care about experimental and "ethical" game design. Ethical in the sense that [Braid creator] Jonathan Blow describes it, where a game is progressive, cutting edge and trains your brain. I'm also drawn to experiences counter to empowerment and domination. My own game, Deep Sea, I think was what made Alex realize that we had a lot in common.

You've mentioned that the game concept clicked with you immediately. As you have spent time with Antichamber, how would you describe your priorities for the audio changing to better meet the needs of the project?

Arnott: I knew that I could help bring an emotional context to the mental experience of the game. The first series of tests took some gameplay that I'd recorded and threw in some really trippy, reactive sound design. When something weird happened on screen, the audio reacted with crazy distortion to accentuate the feeling of alienation. At that time I didn't understand Alex's vision of the game as well as I do now. We're now trying to avoid anything remotely antagonistic in the sound design.

I've done research specifically for this game on how certain ambient soundscapes make people feel, and the focus now is on beautiful, naturalistic sounds. You're not being told to hurry up or even being rewarded for being quick. If you wait to think, you'll hear rain splashing on leaves and distant waves. The sounds have a meditative component and allow the player room to make mistakes. It takes about 50,000 years for the genome to adapt to changes in our environment, so we still respond to sound the way we would have thousands of years ago. For example, think about how calming birdsong is, the appreciation of which is no longer directly functional to our survival.

One of the great things about living in central Texas is that the climate is nearly identical to sub-Saharan Africa, where we evolved our appreciation of beauty. In Texas, I can wander around and record ambient sounds that directly resonate with us on a physical level.

How do you view these sounds complementing the music score that is being written for Antichamber?

Arnott: The music styles Siddhartha Barnhoorn likes to write in when no one is paying him to write are these abstract, spacey pieces that are ambient and gentle. You wouldn't necessarily know it from his film scores. I've worked with him a few times before and knew that there was very little work needed to adapt the music he loves to compose to the feel of Antichamber. There's also a symbiotic relationship between the sound effects and the music in the game.

As an independent game developer, by now you're accustomed to feelings of uncertainty and apprehension. That must add to your appreciation of sensory stimuli that lend a sense of comfort.

Arnott: Experiencing failure is an unavoidable part of the creative process. I think it should be embraced. Antichamber's development is a particularly good example of integrating the expectation of failed ideas into the process itself. Alex gives me room to fail, and in that failure my understanding of what Antichamber wants to be grows.

You've stated that before the game is released and after you have featured it at independent game showcases, your intention is to add the ending. What's left to implement for the game to behave as a fully formed storyline?

Bruce: The Sense of Wonder Night build had an ending, but it's not going to cut it for these standards anymore. There's a narrative element that has been missing from the game that will act as a linear thread throughout everything. It's kind of like how in Mario you've got "Your princess is in another castle."

It's irrelevant for 99% of the game, but it alerts you to the fact that something's there. More specific to what I'm doing, it's closer to the G-Man in Half-Life, where you keep seeing this vague figure around the place and you're wondering what is the deal with that guy. Eventually it resolves itself. That element that piques your curiosity and gives consistency to the narrative has yet to be implemented. I now know how every part of the game will play out.

The Sense of Wonder Night is hosted by Kiyoshi Shin of the IGDA each year, showcasing experimental game titles. What are your observations about the selection and the intended purpose of the annual event?

Bruce: Sense of Wonder Night is not aiming at an audience that thinks it's dumb to hear about games that won't sell. I don't think that every game concept should be justifiable from a commercial perspective, either. My game started out as an Unreal Tournament 3 mod, and you cannot sell them.

Because of Sense of Wonder Night, I got to speak with the president of Epic while at the show and found out about the Unreal development kit before it had been announced. At that point I knew that I could go commercial with it. However, it would have gone nowhere had it not been accepted to Sense of Wonder Night in the first place.

More recently Antichamber was part of a panel on indie game development at PAX, and part of the discussion touched on the anxiety and depression that independent developers routinely experience. Did you feel that the panel was able to adequately communicate this reality of the entrepreneurial enterprise?

Bruce: The talk did touch on some difficult topics, such as being depressed and sick from spending years in development. I work alone in a room by myself seven days a week, and you go through a whole lot of failure.

To me these are important issues that people need to know about if they are getting into creating games. Jonathan Blow says in the trailer for Indie Game: The Movie that he took his deepest flaws and weaknesses and put them in the game. For me, that's where the whole philosophical side of Antichamber came from. I needed to express something somewhere and I started putting it in my game.

When you expose yourself like this, though, it can be harsh if people start criticizing things about it that reflect a lot of your personality, so you also need to find a way to manage your emotions. If you're going to make a game personal, you also need to learn not to take everything personally. Because at the end of the day, it's still just a game.

This article originally appeared on: Images courtesy of Demruth.