In a doorless room, a contract sits in a center table. There is no way out, as far as I can see. I go over to the contract. I can’t zoom in, can’t read it, but I sign anyway. That’s just how it goes. A door has appeared behind me. As I walk through, an AI begins talking about Orientation, which is always more unsettling in games. Time to start testing Dream Therapy!
At first blush, Superliminal, developed by Pillow Castle, feels like a lot of what’s been tried and true in the puzzle genre in recent years: unsettlingly omniscient narrators and announcers, sterile and diegetic sound design, and well-lit puzzle rooms. Yet over the course of its nine chapters, Superliminal manages to stand apart from its peers, both narratively and mechanically, flipping conventions on their heads and leaving players with a new personal perspective in a game all about mechanical perspective.
Superliminal’s prime mechanic is manipulating objects around you, not just where they are, but how large they are. Everything is determined by the player’s perspective. Hold a chess piece close to you and aim at a far-off corner of the room? Suddenly, that chess piece dwarfs your avatar’s size, and this opens up the floodgate of possibilities. Making ramps out of cake, stairs out of dice, and weights out of building blocks, but that’s largely only the first chapter.
The pacing is superb, giving players a rising set of challenges in a particular mechanic, giving them a final test, and moving on to the next set of tools or lessons. This pacing creates a perfect set of peaks and valleys throughout Superliminal’s full playthrough, helping players feel like master manipulators in an area before putting them somewhere new. In Super Mario games, each level tends to have its own new mechanic or challenge to overcome. Similarly, Superliminal’s chapters each introduce a theme or perspective to consider, drawing almost exclusively on them before placing them on the backburner.
Players are followed along by an AI overseer, keeping an eye on their progress as players move through a series of challenges, and occasionally providing their own input. I got some pretty harsh GLaDOS vibes early on, but the lack of them actively trying to kill me put me at ease. It isn’t long before the façade begins to fade, and players start to maneuver outside the set puzzle rooms, akin to the hidden areas in Portal. But in time, the AI and the doctor trying to guide you through these dreamscapes don’t start to sound hostile, they sound…confused. And in a world of video game AIs trying to kill me, or director-types are wild megalomaniacs, this was a truly welcome shift. We were ALL lost! What fun!
As your mastery begins to stack, players find themselves referencing their teachings, if not the mechanics, of previous lessons, without even realizing it. Superliminal is a game that encourages, if not outright demands, changing up all of the norms gamers may have grown accustomed to. There is backtracking, seemingly dead ends, and impossible gaps until players shift their way of thinking to overcome them. Shadows play with your perspective, the moon hovers overhead, and everything you assume to be real goes out the window as quickly as you try something new. With a blend of curiosity and general understanding, players continue a steady forward momentum through the many puzzles awaiting them.
Superliminal excels by playing, not just with its advertised perspective, but your expectations. Objects start to behave differently when you interact with them, catching you off-guard and forcing you to rethink your approach once again. It presents you a genuinely encouraging overseer in the doctor. A far more human AI, (frustrated at me, but not homicidal) than I’ve experienced before. A terrifyingly effective genre shift at 5:00 AM. The Loading screens begin to act differently. The sight reticle changes to a smiley face. In a world of puzzle games that demand you survive in hostile situations, Superliminal asks that you just change your mindset for a while. It gets you by wanting you to have fun all it has to offer and all the notions it challenges, and it holds onto you with its moving closing chapters.
Everything comes to a head in the three-chapter finale: players must rely on and consider all that they’ve learned in a wild, rapid-fire gauntlet of puzzles, inching ever closer to the goal as the music swells all around. This was, by far, my favorite part of the game, not for the frenetic pace of it, or the challenge, but experiencing a true culmination of everything I’d learned to that point.
Even after that, as the experience wound to a close, I was unexpectedly touched by how the puzzles began to feel less like puzzles. The spaces felt more like perspective-based art sequences, stark whites and blacks, all accompanied by the mysterious doctor’s guidance. With his final encouragement and reassurances, I felt a sense of peace and catharsis that few games have provided me. This was the culmination of everything I’d learned. This was what it was all leading to. Needless to say, it hit differently than other narrative beats or plot twists, and I hope it does similarly for you.
So, is Superliminal good? Superliminal is great. It’s great for gamers who are caught in a rut of knowing what to expect. It’s great for non-gamers who are looking for a unique, and uniquely uplifting, experience. Its controls are intuitive, its mechanics woven into every room that it feels less like a tutorial, and more like a challenge any player can rise to. It is surprising, poignant, and a breath of fresh air for its genre. You have a chance to see things differently with Superliminal. I encourage you to do so.
A word of warning, the game opens with a twofold caution: first, flashing lights and contrasting visual patterns may trigger seizures in some people, which I could imagine as I moved through the final acts. Secondly, and more uncommonly, the report of players experiencing dissociation and/or derealization while playing, “due to the nature of the dream setting.” If you live with any degree of epilepsy or photosensitivity, please enjoy with caution.