Take another look
Just outside the tiny town of Wanaka in New Zealand, there’s a tourist attraction called Puzzling World. It’s one of those kooky mainstays that’s managed to sustain itself for decades off the back of tourism and a family-friendly vibe. Imagine if all those optical illusions you saw as a kid were transported to a single location — mazes, holograms, faces that watch you as you walk past them, that kind of thing — and you’ll get the picture.
The Ames Room was the highlight for me, a feat of perspective trickery utilised by the Lord of the Rings films which never failed to boggle the mind. I loved Puzzling World when I visited in 2012, so much so that I still bring it up in conversation today. My travelling buddy was far less enthused. But if you imagine the essence of that tourist attraction was condensed into a game, Superliminal would be the result. And just like my friend, whether you enjoy it or not is definitely a matter of perspective.
Superliminal shares some of the tropes of the first-person puzzlers that came before it such as The Spectrum Retreat and Portal, but also the meta narration and often dream-like surrealism that The Stanley Parable nailed. But it carves out a unique niche thanks to its main mechanic: perspective.
Without going all Father Ted on you, Superliminal plays around with size and distance in a way I’ve not seen in a game before. As the game repeatedly tells you, perspective is reality. Pick up a can of soda and bring it close enough to you so that it fills the room and release it, and it will indeed fill the room. Hold it in relation to the floor you're standing on and let go at your feet… and it becomes tiny. Everything’s size is relative to how you see it, not how large it actually is. Once you get your head around that — and doing so is a challenge in itself as the game gives you almost zero instruction — you’ll be tasked with moving forward through each new room by manipulating the objects within to form ramps, bridges, stairs and more. Doors can be removed and discarded, wedges of cheese grown to impossible sizes, and neon exit signs vastly expanded to illuminate darkened rooms or activate multiple floor panels at once.
The earlier stages feel the toughest, oddly. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t used to the rough-around-the-edges physics engine, or maybe I wasn’t used to a puzzle game which threw you into a scenario and left you to figure out what the hell you were supposed to be doing. One infuriating early puzzle involved getting through a locked door which refused to budge, despite me being able to peer into the next room through a crack in the wall. By increasing the size of an object to a grand scale, I managed to accidentally knock down the walls surrounding the door and could proceed. The result was relief and bewilderment. Superliminal challenges you to experiment; when you realise that each room is small and self-contained, the fear of failure dissipates and you’re free to play around as much as you like.
As you progress, the puzzles become easier but more surreal. A fun riff on the Arkham series’ Riddler puzzles sees you plucking objects from the air after lining up otherwise nondescript markings. Items which duplicate become another challenge, while later levels play around with light and dark in a mind-boggling way. Shadows become doorways and signposts are not always meant to be followed, but trial and error will inevitably see you finding your way onward to the next elevator and level.
My biggest complaint with Superliminal is that it didn’t really delve as deeply as I would have liked into some of the themes it touches on. At one point things took a darker turn as red stains were smeared along the path and “DIE” was written all over boxes. These proved to be as much of a ruse as the puzzles, which is a shame as there was certainly scope for fleshing out the narrative beyond the repetition of waking up in bed to the sound of an alarm clock.
The lack of conflict is soothing in a way. Your character is in some sort of Inception-like dream state at a clinic run by a calm Scottish doctor who communicates with you via radios you discover. The computerised voice of the AI is the opposite, commenting when you take the “wrong” direction and attempting to heighten emotion at various points. The collaboration feels uneasy in a game with no time limit or real understanding of your reason for being there, but even without the narration the game would have been fun to play. The final ten minutes or so ramp up the pace (and in some cases the nausea) but not the danger, a move which makes sense when the ending is explained.
One of my biggest bugbears with puzzle games — and The Soujourn is a good example — is that they try to over-engineer a story to contain its challenges. Superliminal surprised me, not only by how simple its message was, but also by how much it resonated. It fit perfectly with the game’s structure and developer Pillow Castle should be applauded for not muddying it.
Some might take issue with the game’s length. A two-hour running time may seem stingy by today’s standards, but as Superliminal starts to rehash a few of its earlier challenges in the later stages, it makes sense that the game wrapped up when it did. It’s an enjoyable blast of creativity which might only appeal to a specific audience — but much like a visit to Puzzling World, the memory of it will linger long after.
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