As you wander around solving puzzles in first person in Superliminal, you’ll be guided through the experience by a robotic woman’s voice. This fairly generic description might well sound like you’ve heard of it before, but if there is anything that Superliminal isn’t, it’s familiar.
Set in Somnasculpt, a dream therapy program ran by one Doctor Pierce, the fundamental truth in Superliminal is that “perception is reality.” The game uses optical illusions and forced perspective to constantly and relentlessly subvert the most basic functions, like moving objects. The size of objects is reliant on how you’re perceiving them. When you put an object on the floor directly in front of you, it’s smaller than if you shift your gaze up and place it at the wall opposite, because it would have to be bigger for it to take up that much space in your view from that distance. For example, you can pick a model house up off a table, turn and place it on the other side of the room, and then walk through the door of the model house.
This is one of the earliest mechanics to appear in the game and as far as I’m aware it is completely unique. It’s also capable of stumping you pretty early on, as it’s difficult to wrap your head around. This feeling of bewilderment this causes is furthered by the constant subversion of just about everything around you. There’s doors that, once you get near them, turn out to be a stretched out piece of textured geometry that only looks like a door from the other end of the corridor, or objects that only pop into being once viewed from the right angle to use the same forced perspective trick.
It sounds frustrating and confusing, but I found it to be a constant delight. Every time I tried one thing and something else happened I’d swear aloud in surprise and grin to myself like an idiot. There’s just something very satisfying about being tricked in such a clever way. More importantly, the mechanics that it relies on to do so are not only unique, but they are subverted themselves. Just as you get used to one particular trick, it’ll change subtly, and be used in a way that you couldn’t have thought of beforehand, or the game will just move onto a new mechanic without mentioning it and things suddenly start to clone themselves when you try to pick them up.
I won’t go into later mechanics in the game as discovering them is part of the fun, but by the final levels you can never be sure that anything you’re looking as it what it seems. The walls might not be walls, the floor could disappear at any moment, doors can open to brick walls, and are you sure that’s the ceiling up there? It’s like being in a severely malfunctioning version of the Matrix… but in a good way.
This is all tied together by a narrative that’s delivered by the omnipresent voice of the orientation guide and occasional messages from Doctor Pierce himself, both of whom seem to grow increasingly more perplexed that the dream therapy is going off the rails. It culminates in a surprisingly introspective message that felt genuinely meaningful alongside the gameplay.
There’s a couple of issues though, the first being occasional drops in frame rate on PS4 when around particularly complex puzzle concepts, which gave me a small sensation of motion sickness – this doesn’t ever happen to me in other video games. There’s also some aliasing as there’s a lot of fine lines and details in the environment.
Outside of that, the game is very short – there’s a speedrunning trophy for finishing it in an hour and another for finishing in 30 minutes. This might be to the game’s advantage, as stretching it out out might have resulted in repeating more mechanics to the point of overfamiliarity. There is some replayability such as collectibles to find around the levels and a few mysterious trophies to figure out, but the delight of discovering all the tricks isn’t quite the same the second time.