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Puzzling (Mis)adventures: Volume 6 - Quantum Conundrum and Antichamber

Puzzling misadventures #6
Puzzling misadventures #6
It will take you about 12 minutes to read this feature.

So you loved Portal (who didn't?!) and now you want to know where to find something similar. The short answer is: nowhere! The longer answer, however, is that there are clearly some games that found obvious inspiration in Valve's unique puzzler-physics sim-shooter-platformer-thingie (that's for all those people who incorrectly refuse to call it an adventure). In our latest quest for puzzles outside traditional genre boundaries, we've ventured into the home of a mad scientist in Kim Swift 's Quantum Conundrum and the mind-blowing, reality-shifting hallways of Alexander Bruce's Antichamber. Although on the surface both owe a debt of great gratitude to Portal, the two games quickly seek to find their own identity in providing a different experience entirely, for better or sometimes worse.
 



Quantum Conundrum


It's perfectly understandable to think of Quantum Conundrum as a Portal clone. Understandable... but also perfectly wrong, at least in several ways of great importance to adventure gamers. The comparisons are inevitable and not without merit on the surface. Developed by Airtight Games, it's the brainchild of Kim Swift, one of the co-designers of Narbacular Drop, which later morphed into the superb Portal at Valve. And indeed, Quantum Conundrum shares the same basic formula of trying to escape an impossibly large building by running around and solving a sequence of linear environmental puzzles using special physics-altering abilities. But that's where the similarities end, as while Portal was very much a character-driven, largely cerebral quest, this game has virtually no story at all, and is very much a platformer, albeit one stacked with head-scratching puzzles. 

The premise is simple: You are a mere child visiting your mad scientist uncle, but as soon as you arrive, you discover that Professor Quadwrangle's latest experiment has gone horribly wrong, trapping him in some kind of inter-dimensional limbo. He still maintains some kind of vocal projection capability from beyond, so he's able to communicate with you throughout, though this proves to be both a blessing and a curse. His instructions are to fire up the generators in each of the mansion's three wings, but to do that, you'll first need to master the "inter-dimensional shift device", a glove that bestows you with unique new powers the further you proceed. And you'll need them all, often in split-second conjunction, if you're to overcome the 50-odd obstacle courses that stand between you and your goal. 

That's really all there is, story-wise. Unlike Portal, whose narrative felt like an eerily sinister, disconnected puzzle waiting to be pieced together, in Quantum Conundrum what you see (or... well, hear) is what you get. The ongoing dialogue serves merely as a launch point into the many puzzling challenges that await. Voiced by John de Lancie (Star Trek's Q, who also seemed to take perverse delight in playing mind games), your uncle is part guide, part reluctant companion, part nattering annoyance. He'll offer an occasional nudge in the right direction, particularly when you encounter a new element to contend with, and at times spurs you on with his personal brand of caustic encouragement. All too often he's simply background noise, however, distractedly musing on his own odd predicament in mostly unamusing ways.

Once away on your physics-defying errand, the heart of Quantum Conundrum is the gameplay itself, and for the most part it delivers. You'll encounter pressure plates to trigger and lasers to block or bypass, plus giant fans gusting heavy wind, conveyor belts, angled springs, magnetic walls, and of course giant chasms filled with deadly yellow "science juice". Time is often limited, as swaying drinking birds press door-opening buttons routinely on schedule. But time isn't the only thing that's short; so are you. As a kid, you can't jump very far or reach very high or carry anything too heavy. Which is a problem, as just about everything of use in the mansion is too big to climb or lift without help. 

Enter the IDS and its special powers. With the glove on you're personally immune to any changes in physical laws, but you'll quickly gain the ability to make tables, chairs and even safes light enough to carry and throw, then later turn them heavy and dense enough to withstand any pressure. Eventually you'll learn how to slow down time to a virtual crawl and defy gravity as well. This sounds like they'd make life a whole lot easier, but with great power comes great inconvenience (this is Uncle Quadwrangle we're dealing with, not Spider-Man's Uncle Ben). You can only use one power at any given moment, and to do even that you'll need to continually find their respective coloured batteries in each new area. 

With only the "fluffy" power available at first, challenges are pretty straightforward as you ease into the game, but the more you progress, the tougher the obstacles become. Large metallic heads on the wall called DOLLIs spit out boxes or furniture at regular intervals, and quickly stringing powers together becomes a strategic necessity. Since triggering one ability instantly disables the previous one, you must figure out how to use them in rapid-fire succession to work cooperatively. Breaking glass panes is a simple matter of throwing an artificially-lightened object and then turning it heavy mid-flight, but you'll be tearing your hair out at times wondering how to make your presence felt in two places at once or traverse laser-protected territory without any apparent means of transport. Some levels can be quite challenging, especially as the goal is rarely immediately clear, but that makes it all the more satisfying when you finally nail the solution. 

But that's just the start of your worries. Even when you do figure a puzzle sequence out, it's no small feat to carry out your plan, as Quantum Conundrum's platforming stages can be very difficult in their own right. I can count the number of tricky jumps in either Portal game on one hand; here there are many levels that require more fingers and toes than I've got – or at least, the same few jumps will take that many times to finally stick successfully. Without pinpoint control, dying is a frequent and inevitable occurrence, and though you're near-instantly restored to a point just prior to death, the many "things you will never experience" listed on the loading screens stop being funny long before you see the last of them. 

One of the culprits is the first-person perspective itself. It's always hard to gauge distance when you can't see your feet, let alone when you're altering any or all of gravity, time, and density halfway through your leap. But jumping isn't the only problem. You'll also need to make tricky throws with no means to measure angles, create your own gravity-based roller coasters, and perform precision timing to switch powers on the fly (sometimes literally). Occasionally you'll need to coordinate elaborate environmental setups in order to succeed, like arranging three crates on separate conveyors to form a bridge at the exact moment you need them. Botch your jump or mistime any aspect of the sequence, and it's back to the beginning to start all over.

The game works with either a gamepad or mouse/keyboard on PC, and while I preferred the tighter cursor control of the latter when trying to catch or target moving objects (a constant requirement), more than a few times I mistakenly hit the '1' instead of 'Q' or '3' instead of 'E' under duress, which caused a drastically different result. There's nothing quite so maddening as thinking you're about to reverse gravity in mid-jump, only to realize you've suddenly made everything weigh a ton. It's certainly not that I couldn't remember what power was what button. For some reason, the game shows all four key commands on screen at all times (even when you currently can't access them all) in big, bold print, with no way to turn them off.

Then again, it's not like there's a lot else filling the screen. Quantum Conundrum's graphics are presented in a sparse, slightly cartoony way, which looks pleasant enough but quickly grows tiresome due to drab design and relentless repetition. Between puzzling levels you'll wander through the same hallways lined with scattered furniture, suits of armour, and wall paintings (although I got a kick out of the four-part framed picture of a dachshund), just to get to the same electronic doorlock you've seen a million times before. The levels themselves are only slightly more varied. Once you've seen the first few mechanized chambers, you've pretty much seen them all, just reconfigured for new challenges. The only real bright spot is the intermittent appearance of Ike, a little green creature that serves no apparent purpose other than to look cute. 

Each power comes with its own distinctive aesthetic – fluffy turns everything a pale white, heavy a rusty metal, anti-gravity a faded green, and slow-mo a scratchy film-like yellow. This makes it abundantly clear which ability is currently active, but further deprives the game of much of its already limited visual appeal. The music is just as recurringly bland.  It's a cheesy, simple synthesizer score, which is harmless enough at first, but offers nothing to the atmosphere and quickly becomes monotonous.

It's a shame that Quantum Conundrum is so repetitive, because the puzzles can be great fun to work through, and the platforming, for all its excessive frustrations, offers a welcome change of pace. But if it were going to steal one more page out of Portal's playbook, perhaps it should have been brevity. There just aren't enough new powers, environments, or even traps to adequately fill its ten or so hours of gameplay, and padding playtime with countless deaths just isn't a replacement for tighter design and more rewarding variety. If you're content with a "more of the same" gameplay philosophy, there's lots to enjoy here. For others, the novelty will wear off before the game comes to its disappointingly anti-climactic ending. Still, at its affordable budget price, it's easy to recommend the game for what it does well, as its many clever puzzles will surely give both your brain and your (virtual) legs a run for your money.  


Antichamber


If an engineer were to fall into a lucid dream state, I imagine the result might be something like Antichamber. Full of stark white backgrounds punctuated only by austere structural lines and geometrical shapes with the odd splash of colour, this unique puzzler from independent developer Alexander Bruce is akin to falling asleep and finding yourself trapped inside a 3D maze-like blueprint. That doesn't sound so hard to escape. But like any dream subverts reality to its whims, so too does Antichamber begin living up to its name by continually distorting the rules. Just when you think you've mastered the latest paradigm-shifting perspective, the game pulls the rug out from under your feet and sends you tumbling further down the architectural rabbit hole.

If that sounds weird, it's really just scratching the surface of just how mind-bending the game can be. In its core setup and mechanics, Antichamber shares more than a few similarities with Portal. Players are set adrift in a spartan environment with no introduction, direction, or option except to explore. Teasingly, the final exit you seek is clearly labeled within sight, but getting there will naturally be far more convoluted and challenging. Controls are handled simply through the standard WASD-mouse combo, a jump button representing the most demanding action you're ever required to perform, and never difficult ones at that. Later you'll acquire a series of "guns" with increasing capabilities, but there are no enemies in sight – only puzzles, puzzles, and more puzzles.

Unlike Portal, however – and most other games, period – Antichamber immediately begins turning your expectations upside down. Whereas Valve's acclaimed puzzle series gives you a set of tools to master in a world of intuitive parameters, Antichamber delights in making things up as it goes along. That's not to say it's illogical; far from it. Each obstacle, each element, each solution is intricately connected. But each room has its own unspoken conditions that must first be recognized and understood before you can move on. Before asking how you can solve the newest puzzle before you, you'll need to answer the most important question: What the hell is going on??!!

Like any game of exploration, the joy of playing Antichamber is in discovering its environmental mysteries on your own. But it's so unusual that a little context will surely be helpful. Very early on, for example, you'll find a pair of different coloured Escher-style staircases that both lead back to the start. How to get to the end, if there is an end, or whether you should even be going there is for you to find out. Elsewhere, giant eyeballs may bar your entry to new hallways, while floors can appear where none were before and viewstands can transport you to mirrored opposite rooms (or transport the rooms and leave you in place – hard to tell with Antichamber). There are invisible passages through seemingly solid walls, speed-sensitive guardians, and force fields that zap you of precious coloured blocks you're carrying. Patterns become a little more familiar once the guns are introduced, as you can shoot the blocks you collect into pressure slots or block lasers in fairly predictable (if still often difficult) ways. But "predictable" in Antichamber is a very relative term.

Once in a while you'll encounter some unsolicited neon messages that may tell you to jump or not look down. But remember: this is Antichamber, so don't be surprised if these turn out to be anti-helpful. The only other guidance you'll get in your travels is a series of pictograms with vague text messages that wouldn't be out of place in a book of "Confucius say" axioms. Occasionally these may yield a subtle clue to the nearest puzzle ("When you return to where you have been, things aren't always as remembered"), but they're usually so cryptic that they serve as little more than motivational platitudes ("Failing to succeed does not mean failing to progress"). Each of the hundred-plus pictograms is stored and displayed on a great black wall back where you started. On another wall in the same room, a ninety-minute timer ticks down from the moment you first begin. What happens when it runs out? I'm not telling. (Small spoiler: don't sweat the possibility of game-over punishment.)

The final wall in the starting room begins to fill out with a 2D reconstruction of the Antichamber maze the farther you progress. This is a great feature for everyone, not just for those who become easily disoriented. It's very easy to get lost in this game, particularly with its navigational dead ends, one-way exits, and the odd unexpected long-distance commute. Not all puzzles can be solved with your currently equipped gun, which can be frustrating if you don't realize that at the time, so a quick return to the interactive map lets you instantly move to another previously visited location. The map even indicates which rooms have been solved already, avoiding any unnecessary backtracking if/when you start forgetting what room hosts which unsolved puzzle.

While much of the structure is depicted in black and (mostly) white, primary colours are an important element of this game, not only in providing a very welcome splash of visual variety but also in solving the puzzles themselves, though the connection isn't always immediately obvious. (NOTHING in Antichamber is immediately obvious.) Real-world physics periodically come into play (or at least, as close to "real-world" as you're liable to find here), and movement is crucial as well, as you'll need to carefully observe how the environment reacts to your actions. There's the odd timed jump required, but even these are more a case of figuring out what to do when, rather than having trouble performing them once you do.

At no point is your character ever shown, and nor do you speak. Not that there's any reason to do so, as you'll never encounter anyone else along the way, and there is no omnipresent companion chattering away in your ear to keep you company. The only audio accompaniment is a soundtrack consisting of understated musical tones and some surprising sound effects like a waterfall and crickets, though there's nothing that graphically resembles either around you. You certainly won't be humming any theme songs from Antichamber after you finish, but given how long you might spend with particular puzzles that have you stumped (a virtual certainty to happen numerous times before the end), the decision to go with a restrained score was probably a wise one.

There is no "story" to uncover at all, or even a basic narrative premise to serve as a framework for understanding why you're here, where "here" is, or why you're trapped. Like that lucid engineering dream, you simply know you're there and need to get out. In a game where the exit is mere feet from where you start, Antichamber is all about the journey rather than the destination, and your enjoyment of it will depend entirely on your love for abstraction. It's a thoroughly unconventional, non-linear game that is guaranteed to make you feel frequently lost – in more ways than one – only to tease out just enough clues to help you orient yourself again before moving on and becoming lost all over again.

I'll confess, this is not my preferred style of gameplay, but even as I persevered through my own personal frustration, I couldn't help but appreciate Antichamber's bold approach and clever machinations. It certainly won't dazzle you with its cutting edge production values, and it's a game where overcoming confusion and puzzle-solving is its own reward, so story lovers would best be advised to steer clear. But if you relish the thought of facing a bewildering array of puzzles-within-a-puzzle itself, this may just be your dream game. Just don't bother pinching yourself, because it won't help you wake up until you've reached the end.


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