Sunday, 24 February 2013

On Antichamber's Nature Music

I want to talk about Antichamber's nature soundscapes, which play in various forms and styles that correspond to certain places in its universe. I think Antichamber's nature music is important; I'd almost argue that the Antichamber's nature soundscapes make Antichamber. They're a crucial part of its narrative framing. Let me explain!

During the first few moments of the game (essentially before you get the staff), Antichamber sort of acts as horror. It plays with your senses, predicting your movements and manipulating your actions though distorting your sense of space and time, and there's nothing you can really do about it. You start to feel helpless, incapable of escaping this abstract, invisible force that seems to be omnipresent. If we isolate the projection that receives my input from the existence of myself as a player, we can say Antichamber is a true depiction of one's madness as a living hell, where one is moving and acting without purpose or context in an endless fervor and confusion. It's creepy and disturbing. 

The nature music plays an important part in this. We can modify the structuralist method a little(1) so we can fit it into games, and find a key contrast between its music and the nature of my input. See, playing through Antichamber's early moments is an exercise in helplessness, confusion, and distortion, which can all imply stress and franticness; but it's nature music implies the opposite: calmness, patience, and thoughtfulness. But that doesn't mean it's ludonarratively dissonant! Antichamber isn't contradicting diagetic elements with mimetic ones, but rather mimetic elements with aesthetic framing (the music). So what we get instead, is something that feels very disingenuous. The nature sounds tell me to be calm while I run around the same circular path for the 15th time. It's contradictory and confusing, another way that the environment fucks with me. All this adds to the idea of Antichamber as horror.

But then, of course, you get a staff, and everything changes. It's amazing how much a little more control can turn things around. Now, Antichamber's nature music plays a much simpler role. Because I have the staff, I feel much less helpless. I'm now more of an actor onto the world, which means that the nature music no longer feels like a contradiction, but rather a simple device used to frame the nature of my actions in its intended fashion. Now, Antichamber truly feels like a calming and tranquil experience. 

But regardless of the little control I have, the nature of this environment hasn't really changed. It still has the tendency to manipulate and confuse, yet the game's mood has totally flipped over because of the nature soundscapes. This is why the nature music is so important. It takes an Avant-Garde nightmare and turns it into a lax puzzler, thereby setting a very large part of the game's mood. 

Something else that I find remarkable, is the disconnection between what the nature soundscapes suggest of the environment, and what it actually is. Antichamber is composed of white doors and hallways, rectangular rooms and maps, but the nature music, obviously, depicts forests and jungles. Yet the game relatively brings across the same feeling! This is another kind of disconnection, and seems to strike right in the face of those who believe that deep immersion and engagement relies on consistent aesthetic portrayals that properly correspond to a sense of reality. Antichamber shows us that all that's necessary is a proper assortment of ideas, moods, and rules to create an meaningful experience.

(1) Structuralist criticism finds parallels, contrasts  and patterns within text to find meaning. This is me clumsily trying to apply it to games. I hope it worked a little. 

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