Playing Superliminal confuses your perception of space, but the trick wears thin quite quickly, says Jacob Aron
12 August 2020
Superliminal has a creative relationship with perspective
Pillow Castle Games
I HAVE been having strange dreams recently. This may be due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – a survey in March found that people in the UK have been getting more sleep due to lockdown measures, and more sleep can have an effect on your dreams.
Or it might be that I have been playing Superliminal, a first-person game designed to mess with your head and your perception of space. It takes place entirely in dreams, with the unnamed character you play as participating in an experimental form of therapy called Somnasculpt administered by a Dr Glenn Pierce.
The story here is pretty light. As you pass through the game, you hear messages from Pierce and the AI that is running the dream therapy, with both getting increasingly agitated as you become lost in the dreamscape, but that is about it. The plot is essentially a set-up for very clever forced perspective and other optical illusions.
This is demonstrated early in the game, when you pick up a chess piece from a table. Place it down again and it has changed in size to match your perspective. If that sounds confusing, think about the classic tourist photo of people pretending to support the leaning tower of Pisa, and imagine you could actually shrink it down to hold it up for real. You can repeat the trick over and over, making objects tiny or gigantic.
You use this ability to pass through a series of surreal puzzle rooms, placing objects on pressure plates or making a wedge of cheese large enough to use as a ramp to a high door. Later levels add complications, such as needing to stand in a specific spot to transform an image stretched across a wall into an object you can pick up.
Developer Pillow Castle loves to mess with you, changing the “rules” of the game just as you have figured out how something works. But, ultimately, the forced perspective wears thin. Many of the game’s puzzles can be solved by picking up an object, holding it in the air and watching a larger version fall to the ground with a thud. This is fun the first few times – I actually ran out of the way, worrying that I was about to be squished by a giant chess piece – but it doesn’t offer enough variety.
“I actually ran out of the way, worrying that I was about to be squished by a giant chess piece”
The game is obviously inspired by Portal, a 2007 release that kicked off the first-person puzzle genre, in which you also navigate a series of rooms while listening to an AI, in that case, the malevolent GLaDOS, which berates you at every turn. Rather than forced perspective, you use a “portal gun” to solve puzzles. This allows you to connect two surfaces via a wormhole through which you and objects can pass.
In later levels, Superliminal introduces its own version of portals in the form of linked doorways that can be resized, making you grow or shrink as you pass through them. It is a fun idea, but in practice I found it very fiddly. My struggles to line up the doors in the way I wanted left me pining for Portal’s elegance.
It is perhaps unfair to compare Superliminal to one of the greatest games of all time, but it doesn’t help itself by aping Portal so closely. The game does at least have a more optimistic tone than Portal‘s cynicism, ending with a positive message that some people may find to be a genuinely useful takeaway from the experience.
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