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Antichamber: Science in an Inconsistent World

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There’s a point, early in Alexander Bruce’s Antichamber, when I realized that there were no rules it was not willing to subvert, no mechanic too obtuse, and no path too unlikely. I was walking around in an endlessly looping room, taunted by a single sign- the only point of reference. “Some choices can lead us running around in circles.” The sign is actually not the same every time you pass it- Bruce is actively playing with our reasoning process. Antichamber, even more so than other puzzle games like Portal, delights in being one step ahead of the player. It’s very much a lesson in how the scientific method can lead one astray if misapplied. One of the three generally held tenants of causality is that there is no possible alternative explanation. The Antichamber player sees the sign and realizes that:
1) All signs in the world can be clicked, changing their state from icons to text. This is knowledge acquired from prior experimentation, and is at this point a fully developed theory
2) Some pathways in the world loop back on themselves. This was learned from the immediately previous room, in which players had to figure this out in order to pass through the room.
3) The apparently circular room could be finite in length or infite.
To test this last hypotheses, the player switches the sign from icons to text by clicking it, with the following operationalization: if I come around again and find text on the wall, then I am passing by the same place, and the room is infinite. If not, then I am passing by a series of identical signs, and the room is finite.
The hypothesis that the room is infinite is supported by this process, since the sign appears to stay changed once the player manipulates it. However, there is an alternative hypothesis- less likely, but not impossible. It could be that there are a series of signs that all reflect the state of the others, and that changing one changes them all. This allows for a finite room that appears infinite given the expected hypothesis test. This is in fact the way that Bruce crafts the room. The way the player realizes the truth is actually through the consideration of an alternate hypothesis: the room is finite, but only when walking one direction, and the sign is a ruse. This is confirmed by the gradual change in width of wall panels as the player walks counterclockwise around the room.

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What is interesting here is that the scientific process almost breaks down in a world where physical laws are inconsistent, leading to the need for a new kind of reasoning. It almost becomes impossible to form reasonable hypotheses, because the world does not need to follow a consistent logical framework. There is definite logic to be found, but the rules are oftentimes on a room-by-room, or mechanism-by-mechanism basis; it is very difficult to build a generalizable model of the ‘physics’ of Antichamber. For this reason, playing the game hinges on the ability to rapidly form and test hypotheses about the nature of the world. The author knows this, and actually subverts our expectations about the scientific method and what it will tell us in order to produce a more surprising experience.

Heavy Rain & Player Agency

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I’ll be posting various thoughts and writings here. The following is an excerpt from something I recently wrote for a game narrative course.

The primary difference between Heavy Rain and an overtly choice-driven game like The Walking Dead is the nature of the bulk of interactivity. In Heavy Rain, interactions are generally carried out in the form of viscerally appealing movements that directly correspond to character actions, as opposed to cerebral moral decisions that by their nature branch the story. For example, during the prologue, players are tasked with moving the joystick to the side at a certain rate in order to set down plates without breaking them. There is zero apparent story implication for whether this is done correctly, nor is this necessarily compelling gameplay in the classical sense. The plate moving sequence is not a ludic puzzle, and it is not a branch point for the story; it can be read as one of two things. The first is as an attempt to create a sense of embodiment on the part of the player, and to increase the player’s investment in the controlled character by having them emulate mundane actions using a natural interface. The second is to give players a chance to subtly influence the tenor and details of a given scene. It is as if the player is given access to a set of different takes, and gets to mix and match them realtime in order to produce the one they prefer. This can be contrasted with The Walking Dead, which generally pares down interaction to either gameplay that is compelling on its own (i.e. shooting zombies, hunting for puzzle pieces, etc.), or moral decisions that influence the storyline. In Heavy Rain casts the player almost like the director, as opposed to a particular character. As the player, one possible goal is to experience the pre-crafted story in the most cinematic way possible- as interactor, your goal is often to make sure nothing ridiculous and immersion-breaking happens (for example, walking into a wall during a dramatic moment), so that the story can play out as if it were a well- directed film. The multi-character approach of Heavy Rain also leads to a reading of the player as director- you are able to engage yourself primarily at a physical level that provides neither satisfying gameplay nor narrative consequence in order to change the outward appearance of a given scene. By contrast, in The Walking Dead the player follows a single character closely, but without the literal interaction details. Essentially, this means that the player experience is closer to that of an adventure game; the player inhabits or role-plays the main character, and their main goal is to provide moral and ethically consistent behavior for the character. This is the task of a screenwriter or original author- answering the question: ‘would this character do that?’
In addition to this difference in core gameplay, the way Heavy Rain is presented- camera angles, splitscreen segments, and other filmic qualities- leads to the sensation that one is controlling how a film takes place. This outward focus on ‘cinematography’ both lends the game credibility as an interactive film and limits its potential as a new kind of narrative-driven game. That is to say, there is a concept that the proceedings are being filmed in some way, which at times can be read as an extra-diegetic element. In contrast, The Walking Dead casts on the player partially as story author and partially as protagonist, allowing the player to focus on important character moments without worrying about whether the nuances of the stage direction (animation speed, timing, ordering of some dialogue) are appropriate. Heavy Rain actually allows control over its characters at a more granular level- the interactor can have a character get dressed, turn the television on and off, brush their teeth, juggle, etc. The game hopes that, when all of these small interactions are taken in aggregate, the effect will be feelings of immersion, embodiment, and visceral agency. In short, The Walking Dead tries to be partially a game and partially a story- authorship tool in which the goal is to navigate difficult situations while maintaining a consistent character, while Heavy Rain can be read as a guided film, with the player taking the role of stage director as opposed to script author.