You could almost imagine what would happen to Alexander Bruce if he worked for a big publisher and had a media minder during interviews; he would probably be bound, gagged and zapped every time he speaks. But this isn’t because anything he says is inherently negative or controversial – this indie developer from Melbourne isn’t here to flame bait – rather, Bruce is refreshingly honest, open, and unafraid to challenge popular opinion and, whether or not you agree with him, it’s clear he’s onto something good.
Two years ago at age 22, Bruce was in his final year of university and doing bits and pieces of programming work for Big Ant and the now defunct Transmission Games. On the side, he was making a PC game called Hazard, now known as Antichamber.
“No one knew what the hell I was doing,” he says.
“But I kept trying to make my ideas work. The result was that I entered a very early version of Antichamber into competitions such as Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show and Make Something Unreal, run by Epic Games. I was successful in both of them and began the long road to where I am now.”
Successful is one way to describe Antichamber, which is perhaps the most successful unreleased game we’ve seen in recent times. This year it was the winner of the PAX10 Showcase, won the Freeplay Award for best game, took out awards at other competitions in categories ranging from technical excellence to level design, writing, art and game design. In 2009, while in its infant stages of development, Antichamber won the Game Connect Asia Pacific award for Best Independent Game and has been a finalist in many more competitions. But none of these successes came by accident.
At this year’s Freeplay festival, anyone who sat in on Alexander Bruce’s talk on Antichamber would have easily walked away with a few ideas about the kind of person that he is. Yes, he has strong opinions, no, he is not afraid to voice them, yes, he is very intelligent and analytical, and double yes, he is incredibly driven.
“Back when I was working on [Antichamber]in 2009, before I’d won any awards at all, I was looking at the finalists of Sense of Wonder Night in 2008, particularly The Unfinished Swan by Ian Dallas, and I was wondering: ‘What makes him different to me?’” says Bruce.
“In searching for the answer to that question, and to the question of what makes any successful developer different to me, I slowly discovered that the answer was nothing. Every developer I asked this question of had simply put in a whole lot of time and effort into getting to where they were, and I’m doing the same thing. I’ve received as many awards as I have because I’ve not stopped aiming for anything less than that.”
Bruce is quick to note that hard work isn’t the only thing that had led to his game’s success – he has coupled his drive and determination with an ambitious idea to create a game that is visually striking, has unfamiliar mechanics, an unconventional theme, and an unusual soundscape. That all these elements come together to form a cohesive gaming experience worthy of awards in design, art, sound, and overall excellence is no accident, Bruce says. “At the end of the day, someone had to come up with all those ideas and do all of that work.”
It is evident that Bruce is proud of his work on Antichamber, and so he should be. For the past two years he has poured himself into the project, turning down job offers from studios he once wanted to work at because he is determined to make the game he wants to make and do it justice. He openly admits that he is now too invested in making Antichamber; job offers at big companies can wait.
So what is the most successful game that has never been released? Last year Kotaku interviewed Bruce after he took out fifth place in the worldwide Unreal modding competition; at the time, the game was described as a “philosophical first-person single player exploration puzzle game”. This description still rings true. With stunning visuals and mind-bending levels, Antichamber is an Escher-like puzzle game where you traverse a series of chambers to explore knowledge, not space. It’s a shooter where there’s nothing to shoot, and offers a deep and enriching experience without a conventional narrative or characters. If it sounds like an impenetrable, abstract art game, it isn’t. Well, not quite.
Watch the video above. Seeing the game in action explains it far better than words can.
Like so many games that don’t fit within the cookie cutter mould of an AAA action fantasy, Antichamber isn’t for everyone – it doesn’t try to be – but it is only as inaccessible as people are willing to allow it to be. Bruce believes that part of the joy in playing is learning – if a player is willing to let go of what they know about video games and experiment, then they’re a step closer to understanding the game and experiencing the joy it has to offer (which isn’t to say that anyone who doesn’t like Antichamber simply doesn’t “get it” – the game won’t appeal to every gamer, and Bruce is okay with that).
During play-testing, Bruce has found that players are often hesitant to try new things on their own and are constantly seeking guidance and reassurance about what to do next. This is not an unusual response to Antichamber, with even seasoned professionals often turning to the game’s creator during demo sessions to ask what they’re meant to do. In most cases, Bruce won’t say anything. He wants people to figure it out for themselves – learning is part of the game. “The more unfamiliar someone is with something, the more questions they’re going to ask about it because they don’t want to get something wrong and look stupid,” he says.
“But the resistance to failure ends up making them fail even more… I’m not going to train people who’ve never played a game before how a video game works, because that would be at the expense of the experience for everyone else. Unless you’re designing really casual games, Facebook games or extremely mass market iOS games, re-introducing the most basic fundamentals of a game to make sure that everyone can get it is almost always going to be detrimental to the experience.”
Bruce believes that games stopped being inherently cool and interesting a long time ago, so much of the curiosity to figure out how things work has diminished. Cue the in-game tutorial, which he sees as a way of getting the lessons out of the way early and not necessarily the best way to teach a player.
“Tutorials are kind of a way of saying ‘bear with me for five minutes so I can show you what would have taken you half an hour to work out yourself,” he says.
“I have no issues with this approach when it’s used for the right games… for example, if I’m going to go off and play something like Chess or Go, it’s understandable that I need to at least understand the basic rules of the game before you would even want to play against me. Otherwise, the amount of frustration that would come out of me trying to do the wrong things would far outweigh the amount of enjoyment we would get while I was figuring out the rules for myself.” The problem that Bruce sees with many tutorials is they exist as a default solution to teaching the player how to play, and so players are increasingly expecting for there to be tutorials and resisting things that are different. He believes there are far more elegant ways to teach players how to play -- taking them out of the game to go through a tutorial is a method that Antichamber eschews.
“[One of the reasons that tutorials]can be bad when executed incorrectly is that learning is fundamentally interesting, and to take that away from people is doing a huge disservice to the experiences that the player could have had," he says.
"I've played games that have shown me half an hour of how to do everything in the game, and by the time I get to any of the gameplay itself, I'm already exhausted.”
Bruce likens the tutorial to being told by a teacher exactly how something needs to be done -- it takes away the sense of discovery and the reward that comes with figuring something out for yourself. For him, there is nothing interesting about this way of learning.
“With Antichamber, it makes sense to tell you the controls, but it makes no sense to tell you what kind of game you're about to play, when figuring that out is the entire reason the game exists,” he says.
“Curiosity and discovery are the driving forces behind the game, so the entire process of figuring it out is designed to be interesting and stimulating, to the point that where you finally think you've figured everything out, you actually realise that you've still only experienced a third of everything, and it continuously gets deeper still.” “I know that that sounds weird in text, but the reality is that Antichamber is interesting to people for exactly the same reasons that Braid, Portal and LIMBO were interesting to people. Though the mechanics in each game were different, the fundamental structure behind them all was the same. They all acknowledge that learning is more interesting than being told how to do something, and design it into the game itself as one of the core experiences. When you get to the final puzzle, it's a test of whether you can apply everything that you've learned. In essence, everything before the end of the game was a tutorial for how to win the game.”
Bruce continues to work away on Antichamber, announcing breakthroughs on his blog and his Twitter account. He has since brought on a sound designer to assist him with development and will be showing Antichamber at upcoming game festivals. There’s no set release date for the game, although it’s clear that it isn’t something that Bruce is going to release until he’s happy with it. Whether it be ready next month or next year, this is definitely a game worth keeping an eye on.