I have a dream…
It’s all a matter of perspective. If there’s one thing Superliminal hopes to hammer home — thoroughly, repeatedly, exhaustively — it’s this. There’s no single universally-correct approach to every problem. Sometimes creativity is needed.
Superliminal takes this theme and builds an entire house out of it. The windows are doors, the furniture is gigantic, and one of the bedrooms is in your neighbor’s house. None of that’s literal, it’s just a metaphor to convey that Superliminal‘s architects flipped the framework on approach to game design. But it can also be literal. Sometimes the chairs are very big.
Developer: Pillow Castle Games
Publisher: Pillow Castle Games
Released: November 12, 2019
Superliminal trades in subversion and surprise. A puzzle game ostensibly about nothing more than problem solving, Superliminal mandates constant environment manipulation that threatens to tug apart the seams of reality. Technically, it doesn’t take place within the fabric of reality. Superliminal occurs within a dream (and within dreams within dreams), opening the boundaries of the imagination well past anything we typically expect. Nothing is as it appears, and that’s all the fun.
The basics are easy enough to grasp. A teeny tiny object held at a range will grow to absurd proportions. A large object held low and close to your person will shrink down to a manageable size. This creates a physics sandbox that’s entertaining in its own right, rewiring us to think about distance not as a gap between here and there, but rather as something that affects the scale of the surroundings.
It’s trippy and that’s by design. Superliminal finds no shortage of ways to flip the script, turning room after room into brain teasers that require unconventional solutions. Early on, an exit is barricaded off by a brick wall. Make your own door by growing the exit sign hundreds times larger than it should be, and hurl it at the walls like the world’s most brazenly honest wrecking ball. A little later, other exit signs can be enlarged to serve as a ramp up and over the walls.
It doesn’t feel like much of a transgression to explain the workings of a few puzzles. Superliminal is clever enough that it doesn’t retread the same territory too often. Instead, like any good puzzle game, it’ll build on previous results to create more convoluted (or more ridiculous) solutions. Superliminal makes use of its four(ish) hour runtime to always bring something novel in its challenges.
Superliminal wears its influences on its sleeves, as it’s very obviously born from that generation of narrative irreverence inspired by the likes of Portal and The Stanley Parable. A feminine robotic narrator chides against interacting with the testing facility in any way that might adversely affect the standard orientation protocol. A doctor, the straight man who’s only heard through radio recordings, is here to help us escape the dream states. It’s a dynamic we’ve heard before.
The biggest knock against Superliminal‘s comes from an unexpected place. A game that tries so hard to subvert norms naturally leaves players guessing how that subversion will manifest. It’s akin to going to a comedy show and spending the whole time trying to jump the punchlines before they’re told. It can feel anticlimactic.
It’s a fine line. Superliminal is hinged upon opening perceptions, seeing problems in a different light as a means of overcoming them. But it goes the other way too. When you no longer first try to view those obstacles through the lens of rationale, it robs the outside-the-box solution of some import. Nothing is as it seems in Superliminal, both to its credit and to its detriment.
Still, Superliminal‘s satisfying every time a puzzle clicks. It sounds obvious, but that’s the most redeeming trait a puzzle game can have. Sometimes it’ll take you by surprise, sometimes you’ll train your eye to see it coming. But analyzing a situation, exploring possibilities, and approaching it from unique angles never fails to be rewarding. Is that enough to offset the realization that you’re starting from obtuse and working backward toward logical? It all depends on your perspective.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]