First posted on 23 October 2013. Last updated on 23 October 2013.
To say that Alexander Bruce is a tenacious indie game developer is no exaggeration. His game, Antichamber, has been in development since early 2009. Originally called Hazard: The Journey of Life, the game has undergone a number of major and minor revisions since its initial annoucement—an iterative process which Bruce simply attributes to be part of his game design philosophy. Even prior to its commercial release, the game has already garnered numerous accolades and awards from the games industry, including the Tokyo Game Show, the International Festival of Independent Games, the Penny Arcade Expo, and the Independent Game Festival. The game has also been well received by both critics and fans, who have praised the game for its innovative design and creative puzzles that challenge the fundamentals of conventional first-person puzzle platformers.
We are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to interview Alexander "Demruth" Bruce. In the interview, Bruce speaks of his early gaming memories, the development history of Antichamber, the balance between minimalism and immersion in game design, and what lies in the future for him as an award-winning indie game developer.
- What were your first gaming memories? What inspired you to pursue a career in the games industry as an indie game developer?
- I have been playing games since before I could talk. Games were just something that I was always interested in, so when I was getting out of high school I decided to study a university degree in computer science (among other things) so that I could learn how to program.
Throughout my course I started modding Unreal Tournament 2004, which got me a job in the games industry working on engine and tools for PS3 / XBox360 games. Although I learned a lot while I was there, working at a big company wasn't very satisfying to me. I had my own ideas that I wanted to explore, so developing them by myself was a natural fit.
I didn't go independent because it's what everyone else was doing, or because of the stories of people striking it rich. I went independent because I had a game that started winning awards back in 2009, and I wanted to see it through to completion. It took several years to actually fulfill that properly and end up with something commercially viable.
- The initial idea for Antichamber was born out of a programming mistake you made when coding an earlier game. What was the game? What was the mistake?
- It wasn't so much a mistake as it was me implementing something very naively, and then ending up with something more interesting than I was trying to make in the first place, and running with that.
There's a screenshot in Antichamber in one of the reward rooms that is dated back to 2006 of the very first prototype I made, where I was trying to make Snake (the old Nokia phone game).
Programming it in Java was too much setup work than I wanted at the time, but I knew how to mod Unreal Tournament 2004, so I tried to make Snake in that. I didn't know how to model a snake in 3D, so I made a floor full of elevators that would fall when you stepped on them and then come back after a delay.
Although this was a fairly broken version of Snake, it did give me a much more interesting geometry system I could explore further. If you ignore the very terrible old website, this is all still documented and available here: http://demruth.com/OldWebsite/dynamicGeometry.htm
- Antichamber was originally called Hazard: The Journey of Life. Why did you change the name? What was the genesis behind the new (and more cryptic sounding) name?
- Antichamber ended up as a very different game to where it started. The original geometry system was used in an arena combat game that was all about traps and killing the players, which I called Hazard. When I ran into issues trying to run this game over a network, I then changed direction and made a single player exploration game that ended up being about life and philosophy, which is where the subtitle came from.
It didn't really matter what the game was called at that time, as it was a student project that wasn't really going anywhere.
After a couple of years of serious development and a bunch of awards, it didn't make sense to have put so much effort into every last detail of the design, but leave it with a name that no longer matched what the final game was going to be. So in mid 2011 the game was renamed to Antichamber to fit what the game would be once it was released commercially.
- Antichamber challenges many of the conventions in both classic and contemporary puzzle platformers. In what ways does your game challenge these conventions? To what extent are you making a statement with your game about the current conventions in game design?
- I have been playing games for a very long time, and if I was going to design games myself, I wanted to go in a different direction to what other games were doing. I'm pretty bored of most games these days.
The idea of challenging conventions came about because there were a number of things in other games that frustrated me. For example, it doesn't make sense to put all of this effort into making a game "immersive", and then throw in a menu that pops up over your face and completely breaks you out of the experience.
Likewise, I didn't like how death was used in other puzzle games, because it led to a whole lot of cheap puzzles. There are a whole lot of games where the "puzzle solving" is really just executing a series of tasks without getting killed or within a certain time limit, and I hate that.
I didn't want to just blindly follow conventions. I wanted to understand why those conventions existed and if they were even right for the game that I was creating. Removing death and menus from a game leaves you with some pretty big gaps in your design that need to be filled. Combining these gaps with the unusual geometry system I was exploring called for a whole lot of unconventional solutions to get back to having a complete, functional game.
This is part of why development took so long. There was no roadmap for how to effectively create a game like Antichamber. It just took a lot of experimentation, playtesting and refinement.
- You describe the geometry in the levels in Antichamber as non-Euclidean. To what extent are you referring to the lack of spatial congruity between the different rooms in the game? What other non-Euclidean geometric axioms does the game deliberately try to explore?
- The whole "non-Euclidean" aspect of Antichamber is really just referring to the fact that space doesn't follow the normal navigational rules of our world.
If you look around on the internet, you can find a variety of people complaining about how games like Antichamber, Portal, etc. aren't "real" non-Euclidean geometry, but I don't really care about that. Search YouTube for "non-Euclidean level design" and you'll find results from a couple of years ago where people were using this term to describe the maps they'd made in America's Army, Portal, etc.
People already had a good idea of what "non-Euclidean" meant in games, so I was just jumping on board with this accepted term for unconventional spatial relations. There are a lot of situations in Antichamber that are impossible in regular 3D worlds.
- Antichamber is a game of exploration: exploration of both the game space itself and the rules of the game. How worried are you that the game may too easily frustrate a player who fails to grasp enough of the game's core mechanics early on to continue? How do you encourage the player to experiment with verisimilitude to discover the game's own internal logic?
- I'm not worried about people getting frustrated at the game. To some extent that's the point, as you're not really getting frustrated at the game, but rather at your own inability to shift into the right mindset for solving the puzzles.
People respond to foreign logic in different ways. Some people are very curious about rules and systems that they don't understand, and naturally want to work out what is going on. Others just get frustrated and give up. I made the game for the former group of people, not the latter, as there are many other more straightforward games available that they can go and play instead. Antichamber was never designed to be for everyone.
With that said, the point of taking the game to so many conventions over the years was to keep putting the game in front of various people to see how they responded to it. What I ended up with in the final game is what people responded to best at festivals.
I watched thousands of people play throughout development and kept molding the game around what people were doing or what they expected to happen next. By the time the game released there was a pretty good chance that people were playing as intended and that the game was still subtly guiding them in the right direction, even if they thought they were doing completely unusual things that no one else had done before.
- It is not an exaggeration to state that the development of Antichamber has been a lengthy iterative process. What is the development history of the game? How much of the final game has changed from your original vision?
- Antichamber didn't really have an "original vision". I made a bunch of prototypes from 2006 – 2008. When I was in my final year of university in 2009, I created Hazard in 6 months of my spare time as a way of drawing together my earlier prototypes into a more complete experience. This version of Hazard was a complete mod, created in Unreal Tournament 3.
Though this version was received well in Make Something Unreal and a couple of other competitions, there's a big difference between what people expect from a mod versus what they expect from a standalone game, so the next 3 years was spent getting the game up to a commercially viable standard.
In order to be taken seriously as a standalone game, I had to ensure that it flowed correctly, had proper art, had complete sound design, ran well on a variety of hardware, was marketed correctly, was worth the price people paid for it, etc. When you're one person all of this takes quite a long time to understand and get right.
- The graphics in Antichamber are very minimalistic, devoid of any frivolous detail that may distract the player. How do you balance between minimalism and immersion?
- Through a whole lot of playtesting and refinement. Almost all of the detail in the game, whether it's a splash of colour, a staircase, a window or a bend in geometry is there because the game required it to be there for the puzzles or the flow, or to draw the players focus around correctly.
If I added an unnecessary detail to a wall, players were then going to pay way too much attention to it and think that it was a puzzle, while forgetting knowledge about the real puzzles they were supposed to solve. If I got line of sight wrong, players were constantly forgetting about what was behind them, or weren't being tempted by what came next and would lose interest. If key areas were important and needed to be memorable, I'd add details to them that differentiated them from other areas in the game.
- The game is deliberately cryptic in its philosophical and metaphysical messages. What key messages do you want the player to understand by the end of the game?
- I'm not actually going to answer this question. There's more than enough in the game for people to read their own interpretations of it, and my intent no longer matters.
- To what extent do you see your game as a piece of art? Why?
- I don't really discuss the whole "games as art" angle. If people play Antichamber and they think that it's a piece of art, that's fine, and it's not something that I shied away from throughout development. The debate itself is fairly pointless, though.
- The game hints that there are rooms in Antichamber which are yet to be explored. What future updates, if any, are you planning for the game?
- I've learned not to comment on what my plans are for future development. Otherwise I risk setting false expectations for things that may never eventuate. All that really matters is what actually gets done and into people's hands.
- What can we look forward from you over the next 5 years?
- I have no idea. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be one of those developers that disappears for a couple of years then maybe shows up with another game at some stage in the future. Five years is a long time, and I'm pretty sure that my previous answers to "where are you going to be in five years" would have been nothing remotely close to where I actually am today. I go where my circumstances take me.