I feel so foolish to have overlooked Pillow Castle’s Superliminal when I had a chance to pick it up at a big discount over the last Epic Games Store sale. I’d heard good things about it from our very own Solon, but for whatever reason I skipped over it. It has recently been ported to consoles however, so I decided to give it a shot. After the short 3, (maybe 4) hours it took me to beat it, I can confidently say it is an experience I feel lucky to have taken part of, and I believe well worth anyone’s attention. It may end quickly, but it is like nothing you have ever played before.
Based around the theme of “perspective”, Superliminal is one of those experiences that you truly can’t see existing, let alone working properly anywhere but in a video game. It is an experiment in replicating dream logic that may seem simple during the first half, where it mostly sticks to making your favourite Looney Tunes gags involving painted doors and tiny anvils playable. By the end, however, takes you to such bizarre scenarios, it may cause genuine trepidation despite the fact that this is not only a game, but one where you mechanically cannot die.
The plot, scant as it is, is that you’ve enrolled yourself in an experimental dream therapy programme to help you be more confident in your decision making. After a brief introduction to the game’s central mechanic of resizing objects based on their apparent dimensions relative to your field of view and other objects in the frame, you are informed that something has gone wrong and you are now lost in your own dreams far away from the intended path. It does have its twists that I wouldn’t want to spoil here, but it manages to both espouse an interesting critique of the flaws with existing therapy for-profit models and some rather shallow musings on the larger philosophical concept of “perspective”.
Everything in the game is given such gravitas due to the stellar aesthetics, however. It is hard not to feel warm inside navigating through beautiful hotel hallways to the tune of a lovely smooth jazz piano. The latter portion of the game is filled with such complex, yet still playable optical illusions that it made my little tech-illiterate mind wonder at the fact that a computer was even capable of them.
The gameplay loop, and really the whole game, betrays strong influences from both Portal and The Stanley Parable. Insofar as your moment to moment interaction with the game is essentially to find a way to get out of the room you’re currently in and then be rewarded with a goofy voice line from your therapist or a computer lady. It’s simple, it works, and it is incredibly charming. But by the end you have to grapple not only with altering the size of objects, but in understanding planes, what exactly can be a surface if it looks that way, and even understanding the logic of dreams and nightmares.
The direction and staging is superb. Being the kind of vaguely artsy puzzle game that prefers to explain itself almost entirely through set design, you know it better damn well be if someone who is bad at puzzles like me had a fairly relaxed time of it. However it’s also great at conveying mood and progression in a powerful and unique way. I found myself laughing out loud at how relieved I was when I finally stumbled upon a light switch after a dark and moody section, despite that the only thing that ever suggested I was in any danger was some lighting and furniture.
Superliminal is otherworldly and affecting to the senses in such a raw way that it’s hard to not imbue the entire game with a certain significance that it might not entirely warrant. Which is not an indictment, by any means. The game is small and has little in the way of story by design. And yet, when presented with some of the scenarios and sights, it’s hard not to feel like this *has to mean something*. I’ll admit, perhaps I am an easier mark for this game than most, considering I had a vaguely similar feeling with this year’s The Pedestrian, but where that game gave me only a slightly inkling of it, Superliminal is the whole shebang. As the credits rolled all I could muster in the way of words were things like “wow” and “that was amazing”.
If I have any criticisms for the game, apart from the short length, is that the final twist seems to undermine most of the game’s satire in favour of espousing the kind of vague, overly broad platitudes that it seemed to be mocking up to that point. It’s not a deal breaker, since the heart of the game lies elsewhere. By the journey’s end I was so amazed that it would have taken very little to make me a convert for anything the game developer’s wanted me to believe and they still didn’t pull it off. However, when you take both the game’s jab at our mental health systems, and its motivational speeches on perspective, they are both valuable on their own even if a little incompatible. It simply depends on how you look at it.