Back in October 2019, when things were just bad, not outright terrible, I got sent a request to review a game called Superliminal, by Pillow Castle. As usual, I don’t take up such requests because I don’t want to become beholden to the publisher in anyway and so I politely declined (by ignoring completely). I had seen some trailer footage, and certainly there was a suspicious “hype” campaign, and in all honesty I just dismissed it as yet another “indie” game trying to make a splash. Quickly, it left my radar and I forgot about it.
It seemed the rest of the world did too, because I don’t recall seeing anybody talking about it. And so when browsing the Steam store and seeing it discounted to about £10, I quickly googled it to see if its worth a look:
And wow! According to the interwebz it’s awesome! Have I finally found a game that will be as inspired, thought provoking and puzzling as The Witness?
Ok ok ok, let’s actually review this game from several perspectives (it would want me too after all). It would be easy for me to simply write reasons why it’s not that good, but as a developer of software, and a supporter of small games developers, I think it’s important to consider the context at the same time, which means that on the whole, Superliminal is not a bad “experience”, it’s purely a lackluster one, and it suffers from many of the problems most indie games seem to have.
On The Surface
The premise is quite simple. You are in a first person world where objects can be manipulated via perspective, and in doing so can be scaled, positioned and oriented in a manner to permit access to subsequent areas and puzzles. And it’s quite a neat device too! It doesn’t take long to wrap your head around. If I hold my phone at arms length, and place it in the world, it is scaled depending upon how far away I “drop” it. The phone in my visual field will remain the same size, but if it were placed far away, its huge relative to its environment, whereas if its placed even closer than my arms length, it shrinks. And this mechanic is implemented pretty slickly too – believe it or not, it always felt intuitive what was going to be the consequences of my actions, so props to the designer in that regard!
This review is spoiler free, so I wont divulge the plot other than to say it’s pretty familiar territory if you’ve played Portal or The Stanley Parable. The voice acting is very good and it does have some humour too. On the whole, the presentation is a polished experience and the world you inhabit is consistent with itself.
Movement around the world is traditional FPS fayre, but it does feel clumsy. It’s a bit like your player is made out of jelly (or Jell-O to my Yankee brethren), almost like the inertia of the movement is not quite right. As such, its quite easy to bump into the corners of things, which is no big deal really, but did raise a few eyebrows as to my overall playing ability when I was streaming this! You can just about jump, and there is some attempt at a ledge grabbing mechanic, but it really feels random. However, in the context of gameplay, all of this is OK. I can’t imagine building a movement engine where the physics can in part be manipulated by their perspective on the screen is the easiest thing to get right (and of course, being a programmer, experimenting with the engine was half the fun, and I will say that things only got a bit uncertain when taken to extremes – thankfully they include a “reset” to the last checkpoint). In terms of control, without doubt the most frustrating part is you cant look directly up or down – perhaps this is tied into the perspective nature of the puzzles, but it can make picking things up just that little more awkward.
The game took about 4 hours to play through (with plenty of community experimentation requests) so it’s not big. Nor does it have any replay value at all, and herein lies our problem…
Below The Surface
For a game with such a nifty mechanic, it’s incredibly shallow. I speculate that the origin of this game was a curious tech demo someone was making in Unity, and they where “encouraged” to turn it into a game. This in part could be why you see the review scores it received. You cannot help but be impressed when you see the perspective manipulations for the first time – it’s good solid visual stuff – probably why their marketing campaign targeted YouTubers, visually in 60 seconds or so, it is all impressive and very likely a novel concept unseen before. It’s also one of “those” titles that people love to love, but will secretly never play. Superliminal survives purely by the fact it’s “Superliminal, that weird perspective puzzle game” and “OMG! I’ve never seen anything like it!” and the belief that “Originality Implies Greatness”.
But that aside, it has some real problems which sadly seems to be endemic to the indie game development industry. Firstly, there is barely any content. The game starts by setting you up in a tutorial environment, and you learn about manipulating perspective – it does a great job too, I was admittedly quite excited to get going. Then it moves on to demonstrating that the world is not all it seems, with some curious and surprising optical illusions – again, thoroughly enjoyable stuff. Odd then, that once you have learned these mechanics (and a few more), that the game never really makes use of them. Perhaps its not odd. Perhaps its unsurprising that a tech demo of a cool concept was not that easy to turn into a game. Designing solid, enjoyable puzzles is hard, arguably the hardest part of all game design. Some designers have it, many do not. The premise of this game is you can change an objects size, so in principle that’s all you can really do with the puzzles. Make the object big enough that you can get to your goal, or make it small enough so you can get past it. The problem is, each “area” will only have one or two objects you can sensibly interact with, and worse, they are objects you will have seen before. Walking down a corridor and see a wedge of cheese? Yup that’s gonna be a ramp somewhere.
The world is also completely void of any interaction. There are plenty of doors, props, cupboards, and the scenery looks good, but its all entirely static. You quickly learn that you might as well run through the level, and find the wedge of cheese (or whatever) that you need to change the size of.
In total, there were three puzzles that had me stumped for more than 10 minutes. The first was early on where the game decided to break the rules it just taught me and have consequences that are completely unrelated to my actions – something that happens quite a lot as it seems the developers couldn’t figure out a way forward so just made something up – like a trapdoor, or scenery collapse, or outright cut to a different area mid step. The second puzzle was again purely a puzzle because it contradicted everything that had been set up, and the premise of the puzzle was far more sophisticated than the solution (OK, that one’s on me, I was a bit slow). Finally, a puzzle involving a bouncy castle was actually a lot of fun and was the only time during the playthrough where it felt like I had actually discovered some amazing secret. Every other “puzzle” is obvious within seconds, or merely a contribution to a set piece to progress the plot.
The whole project feels a bit like the developers were making it up as they went along. It starts off great, and I mean that first 30 minutes is really good (probably why the reviews are so high too). But as the puzzles dry up in originality through Act 2, finally you reach Act 3 – the curse of too many indie games. The game has all but stopped and given way to rambling, naval-gazing, pretentious BS delivered through a stark, headache inducing walking simulator. Gone are the puzzles, you are literally walking through black and white squares for what seems like forever, to be rewarded with this zinger – “the world can be better if you look at it from other perspectives”. Well woop-di-doo.
Through The Surface
Superliminal is the victim of indie-game-itis. The concept is awesome, the production is superb, but its all too fleeting and fumbles as it desperately tries to establish itself as something bigger, deeper and more meaningful than it really it is. Oh how I wish the designers took the idea of perspective manipulation, and held on to it a little longer to develop it into a puzzle mechanic. It doesn’t matter which way you look at this game, its “least effort possible” characteristics dominate. It starts off very well, has some excellent presentation, and has some really beautiful hidden things (the “star room” puzzles were the best thing about the game), but falters as it quickly ran out of ideas.
If you are into game development, it’s worth picking up. The bits it does well are excellent, and it’s certainly inspiring when it comes to thinking differently about conventional game mechanics. If it’s highly discounted, it’s worth picking up also, but this is just a tech demo and nothing more.