Superliminal Put in Perspective
In the video game “Superliminal,” items become the size they appear to the player. An item that is dragged far into the air, and so looks large, will become large. The player uses this to manipulate the world around them, solving a series of puzzles, all while voice-overs shepherd the player through the game’s narrative — an experimental therapy being given to the player character for some hinted at mental illness. This therapy is, in the game’s world, a sleep simulation. Very shortly into the game, something goes awry. The rest of the game follows the player as they try to escape the malfunctioning simulation solving increasingly bizarre and surreal perspective puzzles along the way. Despite how unique it sounds, the game is actually really simplistic. And because of that, I loved it.
When I started “Superliminal,” I was expecting deep, intricate puzzles. Most puzzle games demand that the player perform a complex series of interlocking tasks, drawn from a toolbelt of abilities the player has learned to appreciate. “Superliminal,” in contrast, is about fumbling blindly to find one correct action, like trying to fit a square peg into the appropriate hole while blindfolded. One early puzzle involves a button, which needs to be pressed to open a door, placed on a ledge unreachable to the player and a small wedge of cheese. The player must scale up the cheese by dragging it into a position where it looks large, so they can use it as a ramp to reach the button. There is one correct action to solve the puzzle. The player either understands what they need to do, or they don’t.
That may sound negative, but it isn’t necessarily. “Superliminal” is so brief and so continuously creative with what it demands, while its puzzles remain easy to solve, that even if I was frustrated for a little bit, that frustration was quickly replaced by joy at the ingenuity and sheer visual spectacle of the solutions. Most puzzle games are interested in creating deep puzzles. “Superliminal” is more concerned with variety, and keeping each puzzle simple, yet striking and memorable.
The narrative of “Superliminal” focuses on the same thing the gameplay does: perspective and, specifically, the player character’s perspective. As the game ends, the doctor in charge of the simulation explains the need to find a unique perspective by stepping outside of oneself. This explanation is framed as the point of the therapeutic treatment given to the player character. The revelation is somewhat sophomoric, but it nonetheless works because the player has experienced it themself. They’ve had to consciously think about the way they see things, and the way that can be reframed to solve puzzles. To get through the game, the player has to continually adopt new perspectives.
In a novel or movie, I would dismiss “Superliminal’s” thematic revelation outright, but because they find expression in mechanics, in a way I’ve not often experienced, I have to give the game credit. Part of me wants “Superliminal” to contemplate more hefty and interesting themes, or use its mechanics to tell a more compelling story. But the other half of me thinks that would rob “Superliminal” of its unique power; it is so short, so pointed and so effective in its use of its core mechanics to convey its theme and ideas that any extra story, anything more interesting in its own right, would distract from that.
“Superliminal” is a game singularly obsessed with one mechanic, and it rehashes that mechanic so often, in such a short space of time, that it can’t help but be memorable. The game is, in many ways, simplistic. It has simple puzzles and a simple story. But what it builds from that simple foundation is an experience that is complex and compelling.