Superliminal is a Portal-esque puzzle game that completely reverses that game’s fundamental conceit. In Portal, solving a puzzle felt like gears clicking into place. It was praised for how it empowered the player. “Every time I solved a puzzle I felt like a genius,” was a common talking point. Superliminal doesn’t make you feel unintelligent, but the give and take between the player and the game is completely different. When a puzzle is solved in Superliminal, it often feels like a magic trick. Randy Pitchford must love this game.
Seriously though, most of the puzzles feel like being called up on stage from the audience of a magic show. The designers anticipate what you will do and what you will try, and their goal is to surprise and delight you with some wild optical illusions.
I hesitate to say much at all about what the puzzles entail, because so much of this game is about that initial novelty. But to give you an idea, I’ll explain one of the opening puzzles and one of the game’s key mechanics…
“Perception is reality.” Not only was this statement part of the advertising, but it also comes up again and again throughout the game’s world. Have you ever sat across from someone and squinted your eyes while holding up your thumb and forefinger so it looks like you’re squishing their tiny head? Have you ever held a small object in such a way that at just the right angle it looks massive? How about those lame tourism photos where everyone uses forced perspective to make it look like they’re holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
That forced perspective concept is at the heart of Superliminal. It allows you to take a tiny rubber duck, hold it close to your face so it looks gigantic in the environment, and then send a giant rubber monstrosity crashing to the ground. It lets you shrink a normal-sized crate down to dollhouse-size in order to fit it through a gap, pressing a pressure plate in another room. And things only get wilder from there.
All along the way, you’re told that you are a participant in some new form of sleep therapy, delving deeper into dreams in order to come out the other side a better person. It’s not long before it seems like something has gone wrong with the study and your goal becomes a desperate escape from your own mind.
It’s an interesting idea that falls flat. Ultimately, the story of Superliminal feels more like a checked box than a strong concept. “We crammed a story into our puzzle game—check!” This isn’t uncommon—many puzzle game stories feel like an afterthought—but it would have been nice to see a stronger marriage of gameplay and themes.
As it stands, while there are some cool bits of environmental storytelling, the dialogue feels too much like a forced attempt at dry British humour™ to really stand out. Superliminal attempts to impart a larger lesson on the player before the end, but that lesson doesn’t vibe with the gameplay as much as the developers probably intended.
The result is one of those classic game criticism conundrums. As a piece of art, Superliminal isn’t a cohesive success. But as a video game, you can ignore the larger story and have a fantastic time. It may fail as a story, but it excels as an interactive magic show.
I intentionally avoided talking about 90% of what makes this game special because, genuine criticisms aside, I truly loved playing it. Superliminal is a game you can pick up and play in a single sitting, and it will deliver “how the fuck did they do that?” surprises over and over.