FBT subliminally plays Portal.
A doctor creates the ‘SomnaSculpt’ psychotherapy programme, where patients are taught to enter a lucid dream state; conscious in their subconscious, they can safely experience the root cause of their problems and work through them. Our character is sent in and finds a world where depth and perception are malleable; but unable to wake up, we have to give up on resolving our Daddy Issues and find an escape from our subconscious.
I’ve never had my head so expertly messed with as I have by Superliminal. It’s like being called up to the stage by a magician and messed with for someone else’s amusement. Problem is, there’s only so much of ‘is THIS your card’ you can handle.
I’m 99% sure it’s not really magic. It’s not just incredible game design, you’re also fighting against your mind refusing to accept depth perception is no longer a thing. Anything you pick up can be altered by comparing it to objects, moving back and forth or holding it up and letting it go. Other objects will pop into existence when you align them. And those are the only physics they use that I can describe easily. Meanwhile the perspective of the world you're in alters too. It’s like being lost in an Escher painting. While on Acid. How they figured out to do this I’ll never know. The problem is, they don’t know what to do with it.
Superliminal is following -hard- on the heels of Stanley Parable and Portal, but while both of those games messed with your perception and expectations like Superliminal, what they had and this is missing, is Cake.
In Portal, you diligently solve puzzles, amused and confused at the way portaling worked. But just as you said ‘is this it?’ you noticed the tester voice was getting a bit odd, you found that secret room that warned the Cake was a lie; and when you get tipped into the furnace, suddenly you had a new focus – escape. In The Stanley Parable, you were convinced you could beat the narrator; both games dangled a reward, and more critically, a purpose. Most of Superliminal you’re either getting a headache thanks to the perspective-bending, or your mind is wandering, impressed but not really caring.
Most frustratingly, the puzzles aren’t reflecting some aspect of the dreamer, we the gamer aren’t teasing out clues or drawing conclusions, unless they’re obsessive puzzlers. Escaping your subconscious should be awesome. There should be all sorts of embarrassing moments liking pee’ing yourself in class, getting caught by your mom when you were – well, anyway, the puzzles and the abstract reality should all reflect the subject’s central problem; this should be cathartic but their subconscious is giving nothing away.
It’s unfair to compare Superliminal to Portal, but it pretty much demands we do. Levels feature pressure pads to open doors, which have forcefields to stop you carrying objects from puzzle to puzzle and levels end with an elevator. There’s an automated, increasingly surreal voice directing us, we break out of the test area, and we keep waking in a room with an alarm clock and an insistence that we go test. Is the sleeper subject GLaDOS?
It's ironic that, given how often the game uses Exit signs as props, it has so little direction. And without a narrative or mystery to distract you, you begin to see through the magician’s tricks. Not to dismiss the ingenuity of it, but I can’t sustain being amazed indefinitely, especially when a lot of levels are variations of the same puzzle. At one point I had to look up if Superliminal was procedurally generated. I never felt like I was being toyed with, that it was beyond me, that I was picking up hints, let alone actually progressing. Where's the exit?
Eventually we do start to run into mildly threatening imagery, some less than subtle comments about how perception is reality and it starts to get interesting, only for the plot to then neatly fold itself away and be forgotten. I honestly don’t really know why I played it, narratively speaking. I had loads of fun, and I remember the puzzles but not why I was solving them. It reminds me of that Tom Cruise remake, Vanilla Sky, where you spend two hours wondering how he could turn down Cameron Diaz, then it ends, and all you’re thinking about is Cameron Diaz.
Superliminal is as if they distilled Portal down to just being ‘speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out’, but you can’t boil Portal down to just its mechanic. But you can reduce Superliminal to ‘little thing becomes big thing’.
Superliminal began as a concept video by a tiny dev team called Pillow Castle. It went wildly viral, and justifiably. What they’ve achieved needs to be celebrated, it feels unfair to attack something this ingenious. I’ve never played a game that left me perplexed *after* I’d solved the puzzle. I even played a few levels drunk, and what a ride that was. Superliminal needs to be recognised for the cleverness on display, but that’s what it is, a display, an art instillation you’d expect to see in the Tate Modern.