It’s an exciting time of year for the gaming industry. We always get some big AAA titles just before Christmas rears its relentlessly festive head, and this year new consoles from Sony and Microsoft are dominating headlines across the world. Some huge and highly anticipated games are either released or close at hand, so you’d be forgiven for missing Superliminal‘s quiet Steam release on the fifth of November.
It doesn’t look like much on the store pages, to be fair. It’s hard to convey what Superliminal achieves through words and still screenshots, because so much of what makes it compelling is based on perspective and your position in the game’s world. So what exactly is it all about? Put simply, you’re undergoing a sort of dream therapy at the Somnasculpt Institute, wandering the halls of your subconscious, guided by the soft Scottish tones of Dr. Glenn Pierce and his AI assistant. Dr. Pierce is trying his best to guide you – even when the therapy seems to be going extremely wrong – and the AI is a cold, impartial agent of chaos.
So it’s easy enough to draw parallels to Portal – the granddaddy of narrative first person puzzle games – and The Stanley Parable, because the overall tone is so similar. The narration flutters between good-natured wit and casual snark, there’s rumblings of a dark underbelly beneath all the cheerful colours. Puzzles are tackled by manipulating your perspective – pick a huge object up from far away, and it’ll shrink to the size you see it when dropped. Tiny world elements can be turned into gigantic versions of themselves when picked up close and turned to a certain angle, crashing back down to earth with thunderous noise.
The size manipulation mechanic is Superliminal‘s puzzling core, and most of the time, it works well. There are particularly fiddly moments here and there, but the game never lingers for too long on one theme, electing instead to find new ways to challenge the player’s use of perspective. Changing object size goes from the focus of the puzzles to a tool you use to solve larger ones, all the while Inception-ing yourself further and further into a distorted dreamscape.
One particularly strong sequence uses otherwise innocent objects placed brilliantly to create an ominous atmosphere. It almost seems like Superliminal is going to take a sharp left turn into the realms of horror, but once you reach the end of the level you’re rewarded with a frankly ingenious punchline that breaks all the suspense perfectly. I’m still thinking about how funny it was, days after seeing it for the first time. This dalliance with traditional horror doesn’t last long – it’s a short game, and it moves quickly from one theme to the next – but it’s impactful nonetheless.
It’s all representative of the loss of control. Superliminal explores the larger concept of perspective affecting everything, and as the dream unwinds around you, puzzles become increasingly abstract, oftentimes turned entirely on their heads in subversion of what’s already been established. Figuring out the solutions feels massively satisfying, even if they were just hidden in plain sight all along.
Your time with Superliminal may well be quite short. Save for a few finicky object placements, you can race through to the end in just a couple of hours. There’s an included challenge mode which restricts the amounts of moves you can use to clear a puzzle, along with a developer commentary mode to provide detailed insight into the process behind creating the game as you play. As it is, the game is a brief yet marvellous tour of the tip of the iceberg – there is serious potential in this concept, should they choose to further explore it.
Superliminal overall thoughts
In an age where the advancement of the gaming medium is so often measured by flashy graphics and cinematic storytelling, Superliminal has dared to dream differently. The creators behind this experience are true innovators who have managed to transform perspective itself into a compelling, mind-bending gameplay mechanic, gently encouraging the player to explore a myriad of clever puzzles with sharp wit and absolutely inspired level design.
Superliminal turns mundanity into horror and frustration into joy, delivering a thoughtful, intelligent reflection on perspective alongside an extremely accomplished game. It walks side by side with Portal and The Stanley Parable as an example of what lofty heights the gaming medium can achieve with the right creative minds behind it.