One of my favorite finalists at IndieCade 2011 was a surreal first-person puzzle game called Antichamber, developed by Alexander Bruce. Set in world of which M.C. Escher could have been the architect, the game presents players with puzzles that challenge many preconceived notions of perception, and even raises some philosophic questions. Visually, the game isn't quite like anything I've seen before, and the modified engine on which it's running is not one I would have guessed.
Based on Antichamber's strikingly minimal visual style, accented with vibrant colors, I was more than a bit surprised to learn at IndieCade that the project was developed using a modified version of Unreal Engine 3. "It started off as a mod. At one stage, I wanted to submit it to 'Make Something Unreal,'" said Bruce. "If we think of what the engine was traditionally made for, you can get to the stage where you're kind of like 'Everything looks like an Unreal Engine game!' You know, they've all got the same shaders, and they've all got the same lighting, etc. They're just using this really good tech to do the same thing."
He explained that Unreal Engine 3 typically requires the developer to illuminate the game environments by placing strategic light sources throughout each level. Preferring to use one light source and then subtract from the areas he wanted to be darker, Bruce coded his own subtractive lighting functionality. It's what gives the game its unique visual style.
"I kind of screwed up in how I implemented it," Bruce admitted. "But that was more interesting, in itself. It gave me these interesting color-bands around the place, and I'd effectively given myself a subtractive palette. So if you see a really vibrant red, that's actually because I've subtracted away blue and green. If I turn lighting off, this whole world is just white. If I turn post-processing off, you can't see anything at all. It gives me a style that's completely unique, and I can just start putting down these simple sturctures--really visually popping."
Besides being visually compelling, the style is also supportive of the game's mechanics. According to Bruce, it effectively removes "things that were getting in the way of the player's understanding of the world," letting the player focus on the most important details, "which really helps, given the bizarre nature of all the mechanics."
Stay tuned tomorrow for our hands-on impressions of Antichamber and our video interview with Alexander Bruce.