There’s something about first-person puzzle games that makes them compelling. I like puzzle games, but I like first-person ones even more as they require more careful and thorough observation to solve. The first-person perspective also paves way for more creative puzzle designs, which Superliminal does quite well.
Superliminal is a first-person puzzle game developed and published by Pillow Castle Games that is almost like a mix between Portal, The Witness, Antichamber, and The Stanley Parable in various ways. It has similar elements like portals, visual perception puzzles, mind screwdrivers, and disembodied voices narrating your experience.
It’s an expansion of a tech demo titled The Museum of Simulation Technology, adding a plot and more puzzles. The retail game still makes use of the original premise of using perspective to manipulate interactive objects to solve problems and progress through the game.
Puzzle games should rely mostly on their puzzles instead of overly relying on the narrative to be compelling. For example, Antichamber has almost no narrative, but it pulls the player in with its gameplay. On the other hand, something like The Talos Principle or The Witness may rub some people the wrong as they try to be “too deep,” which then defeats the purpose of their design.
NOTE: This is a full review, so here be spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Premise and Story of Superliminal
The year is 1991, and you are a volunteer at the Pierce Institute. They specialize in a revolutionary sleep therapy technology they call SomnaSculpt, which induces super lucid dreams that you can explore and fool around in. You end up going deeper and deeper into the dream, and things get weirder as you go.
It’s not much of a plot, but merely a background that gives a bit of context to the setting and what you’re able to do in it. The Pierce Institute doesn’t seem like they’re doing anything nefarious. They’re also not actively trying to help you get out other than telling you to reach the elevators that let you try to snap out of sleep.
Presentation of Superliminal
At first glance, you know it’s an Unreal Engine game. Never mind that this game is exclusive to the Epic Games Store. It does have that UE4 look at feel, not that it’s a bad thing at all. The graphics are good enough that you won’t have to worry about being deceived by what you’re seeing, especially in such a puzzle game that is all about how you see things.
Colors are saturated and set at fairly high contrast. This lets you distinguish objects easily, and the game highlights interactive objects with a white outline when you look at them just to be sure. The game does its best to make you think more about the problem and not what you’re supposed to be looking at.
The high contrast reminds me of Antichamber, and it makes dark places almost impossible to see through. That works with rooms and passages meant to be hidden, so you have to feel your way around to find those places. In this case, they’re not that hard to find as you’ll figure out the rules as you go along, which the game is thankfully consistent with in its visual communication.
Whenever you feel like you’re stuck, you may start running around to look for less obvious ways out. That’s when you may stumble upon a doorway or passage in the darkness, and you should be able to find your way out as long as you’re facing the right direction.
Gameplay of Superliminal
As soon as you start the game, you see the message “Perception is reality.” You fumble enough with interactive objects and you’ll realize that you can resize objects through perspective. Everything interactive is within reach—what looks nearby are big and what looks far away are small.
The system takes some getting used to, and you’re encouraged to play around in order to understand how things work in this dream world. Different types of objects can help you in certain ways, like how a wedge of cheese can be enlarged to serve as a ramp.
There are certain parts where you have to see objects painted on walls at a certain angle in order to materialize them. If you stand close enough to the right spot, you actually get snapped into it. This may be necessary as it’d be a waste of time to walk back and forth and side to side repeatedly just to hit the exact spot. It looks like something that was added after playtesting.
You then hear a robotic voice that roughly sounds like that character in another famous first-person puzzle game. It seems like a deliberate ploy to make players assume possibility of being hoodwinked later. As mentioned, nothing of that sort really happens, but not knowing that beforehand keeps you on edge.
There’s even a section in the campaign that teases a threat to your life—perhaps there’s a murderous test subject on the loose. Of course, there’s really nothing to it, and the game just plays tricks on you to keep you anxious about what may come next.
Adding these things help keep things from getting too stale in Superliminal, a game that prefers to show more than tell. It shows by letting you perform the magic tricks to blow your own mind rather than doing them for you. We can talk about subversion of genre and expectation all we want here until we’re blue in the face, but Superliminal is a fairly simple game once you get it.
Comparing this with Portal, The Talos Principle, and Antichamber, Superliminal is more minimalistic as the only tool you are given is your perception. It also doesn’t try to push any sort of agenda or other extraordinary ability and just lets you live in the moment as you place a chess piece onto a button to open the door to the next area.
But perhaps that’s also what’s wrong with it. Every problem has one solution, pretty much. Since your only tool is your perception, that’s the only thing you can use to solve the puzzles. Once you’ve played around with resizing objects enough times, there’s not much else you can do.
That and the game’s linearity means there’s little to no replay value to be had once you finish the campaign once or twice.
When I first played Antichamber, I thought my skull exploded into a million pieces. With Portal, I was shooting the gun at whatever wall I could find. With The Talos Principle, I was getting annoyed at the godly voice. With Superliminal, I just got to enjoy being able to make an exit sign grow to the size of a house. The first-person puzzle genre is not very crowded, but it’s not sparse either. At this point, the idea of blowing people’s minds has become almost passe. While I’m sure there are still plenty of mindscrew concepts out there waiting to be executed, pushing some sort of moralizing or overly subversive addition to the narrative may be unnecessary. Perhaps it’s fine as window dressing, but not if it takes away from the puzzle gameplay as well. In Superliminal, the idea of the SomnaSculpt being a therapy to alleviate anxiety and self-doubt is just in the background. It adds to the in-game narrative of it being a form of therapy, but it doesn’t go beyond that. In the end, it’s just a neat puzzle game that ends as it begins—with you waking up to a new world.
When I first played Antichamber, I thought my skull exploded into a million pieces. With Portal, I was shooting the gun at whatever wall I could find. With The Talos Principle, I was getting annoyed at the godly voice. With Superliminal, I just got to enjoy being able to make an exit sign grow to the size of a house.
The first-person puzzle genre is not very crowded, but it’s not sparse either. At this point, the idea of blowing people’s minds has become almost passe. While I’m sure there are still plenty of mindscrew concepts out there waiting to be executed, pushing some sort of moralizing or overly subversive addition to the narrative may be unnecessary. Perhaps it’s fine as window dressing, but not if it takes away from the puzzle gameplay as well.
In Superliminal, the idea of the SomnaSculpt being a therapy to alleviate anxiety and self-doubt is just in the background. It adds to the in-game narrative of it being a form of therapy, but it doesn’t go beyond that. In the end, it’s just a neat puzzle game that ends as it begins—with you waking up to a new world.
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