Played on: PC
Release Date: April 7, 2016
Time Played (Steam): 16 minutes
Paid: $0 (Free to play)
Minimalism is a popular concept in video games. One of the most commonly-used forms is in minimalistic art styles; many indie games in particular often opt for a clean, simple look to make their user interfaces and gameplay screens uncluttered and easy to understand. However, minimalism can also be applied to other aspects of a game, such as the narrative or even the gameplay mechanics. In some cases, this can lead to phenomenal results. Take the various games that Telltale has made over the last few years; the player’s opportunities for interaction are typically limited to following button prompts, yet the rich narrative carries the experience. Instead of picking and choosing, though, Antenna opts for minimalism in basically every aspect. That’s not to say that it feels cheap or cobbled together; this is not some shovelware that was just thrown up on Steam Greenlight one day and left to die. However, there’s also very little to grasp onto when it comes to doing a proper analysis of it.
Antenna is divided up into a series of short sequences that all have to do with communications. The plot of the game (if there really even is one) seems to centre around them, though it’s communicated in such an abstract, show-don’t-tell sort of way that it’s hard to glean any real sense of meaning from it. You have to tune radios to reproduce signals, construct antennas, and explore environments where the limits placed on how far you can travel seem to be linked to the strength of a Wi-Fi signal. However, all the while, I was just asking myself, “Why?” I kept waiting for some big reveal; some reason why I was doing all this. Spoiler alert: it never came. Fine, I get that one could argue that “games are art, so this game is art, and it’s all open to interpretation.” Very well. My interpretation was that any story that the game was trying to tell was (ironically) communicated so ineffectively that I gleaned nothing from its presentation of it.So, how are you expected to navigate this invisible narrative? Through equally minimal interactions, of course! The game is bookended with sequences of short QTE-esque button prompts, the difference being that there is no time limit placed on the prompts in Antenna. This is probably a good thing though, because they have you pressing (and occasionally holding) keys all over the keyboard, clicking the mouse, and sometimes even scrolling the mouse wheel. Honestly, I don’t hate QTEs in games as much as some people do, but here they just felt unnecessary. The specific keys to press and actions to perform just seemed arbitrary, and it felt like a cheap way to encourage player interaction.
The middle section of the game involves some basic sidescrolling gameplay with a strange robotic insectoid. Credit where credit is due: the design of the thing and the way it moved was pretty cool. Anyway, the sections with it once again just felt kind of bland. Your only options with it are to walk or sprint left or right. That’s it. And that’s all you have to do. There’s no challenge or skill involved. The problem with this is that there’s nothing else going on to justify it. Other games will use sequences of simple player interaction to tell a story using the environment or some other feature while the player moves around. Here, you’re just walking across bland, lifeless screens that have little personality to them outside of “generic field” and “generic factory”.Throughout the game, there are a few different puzzles that spring up to add a bit of variety. These include the aforementioned radio tuning, as well as one where you have to match up sound tones. However, these ranged from feeling unnecessary (radio tuning) to outright annoying (tone matching). With the radio tuning, all I really ended up doing was mindlessly spinning my mouse wheel until I heard a hint of the desired audio stream; it was then a simple matter to fine-tune the signal. As for the tone matching, here’s the “puzzle” described as simply as possible: there are four tones that play in sequence; two are the same, and the other two are unique. As each of the unique tones plays, you have to use the scroll wheel to adjust the pitch of the sound so it matches with the other tones. Here’s the catch, though: each tone only plays for a set amount of time, and you can only adjust the tone while it’s playing. This meant that the entire puzzle ended up turning into a waiting game as I waited for the tones to loop back around to the one I was actually trying to adjust, hoping that maybe THIS TIME I’d get it in the right spot. In case it’s not already obvious, I found this to be extremely tiresome.
If there’s one area where I feel that Antenna succeeds, it’s in its visuals. It uses a dark, Limbo-esque aesthetic that has everything cast as a silhouette. It’s very clean and evocative. Not only that, but the object designs and animations are quite nice as well. As I alluded to before, the robotic insect that you get to crawl around as is of particular note. Also, some of the other features (such as the various antennas that you unfold in the QTE segments) have a complex, futuristic look to them that greatly appeals to me; I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, though. I’d be lying if I said that the art style didn’t draw me to the game in the first place, and I definitely think that it’s where the game most succeeds.Unfortunately, while games are art, it’s rare that art alone can carry a game. And for Antenna, I find that it’s very much not the case. The game was incredibly short, but that felt like a mercy. Having played a number of brief games lately, I’ve started to notice that the best ones are those that either:
- Leave you wanting more.
- Tie everything up so succinctly that there’s no reason for them to be any longer.
- Stick with you afterwards because of their emotional impact.
Antenna does none of these, though. Its lack of plot or personality made me feel like it was constantly keeping me at a distance, and its gameplay was dry enough that not having to deal with it anymore almost felt like a blessing. I feel like I’m maybe being a little bit too harsh here, though; I didn’t hate the game. It was just that the experience ended up feeling so bland and inconsequential that I barely even wanted to continue with it. Whatever its intentions, I just found it impossible to connect with Antenna.