Monthly Archives: February 2013

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.