The sickening brilliance of Superliminal

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

It’s difficult to recall another game that has made me think about different works of art quite as often as Superliminal. There are tricks of the eye where you have to stand in a specific spot and look up at a particular angle for a picture to emerge from the landscape – it’s a bit like Holbein’s famous painting, The Ambassadors, where crouching down and peeking up at the canvas from one corner will reveal a hidden skull.

Other puzzles recall the perspective-distorting japery of M.C. Escher. Still others remind me of the way René Magritte would play with our understanding of everyday objects (there’s even a reference to one of his paintings, The Son of Man), or how Salvador Dalí could use surrealism to unsettling effect.

Superliminal also has a tendency to make me feel really, really nauseous. Developer Pillow Castle’s 3D puzzler owes a clear debt to Portal, both in its puzzle design and its use of voice-overs and confined spaces to create the feeling that you’re an overgrown lab rat trapped in a maze.

After only a few minutes, sights like this start to feel perfectly normal.

What separates Superliminal from Portal, though, is the way it constantly messes around with your spatial perception: what looks like a 3D object from a distance is revealed to be flat when you view it from a different angle. What appears to be a normal corridor turns out, on closer inspection, to be a tunnel with a tiny aperture at the end. It’s all thrilling stuff, but quite dizzying if you’re prone to that sort of thing – the developer even warns of potential side effects as the game begins.

I’ve therefore been playing Superliminal with a mixture of awe, fascination, and bouts of queasiness – that I’ve persisted through the more stomach-churning segments is testament to just how absorbing the game actually is. Some of the puzzles are difficult to put into words, since they exist – appropriately, given the title – in a dream space beyond everyday logic. Objects will change size depending on your spatial relationship with them – pick up a large block, place it far away from you, and then approach it, and it’ll have shrunk in size. In the same way, clicking on a distant object and placing it near you will blow it up to elephantine proportions.

Battering down a wall with a gargantuan chunk of Edam is a truly special moment.

By manipulating and rotating objects, you can solve time-honoured puzzles: activate pressure switches, create makeshift platforms to reach doors and out-of-reach levels, and so forth. The sheer ingenuity in the way these puzzles are designed and mounted, however, is frequently gobsmacking – there are moments in Superliminal that made me exclaim ‘A-ha!’, and almost as many that simply made me gasp at their imaginative leaps. An elongated painting of a chess piece has to be viewed from the just-right spot to be seen in its correct proportions; once it’s snapped into focus, it becomes a physical object. Picking it up reveals a doorway hidden behind.

For all the artistic ingenuity on display, Superliminal is far from serious – it’s playful, even goofy at times. There’s something wonderful about picking up a piece of cheese, using your spatial manipulation powers to turn it into a gigantic wedge, and then using it to smash down a wall. The humour extends to tiny details in the sound design: retrieve a can of soda from a vending machine, and it’ll land on the floor with a tinny clink. Increase its size, drop it again, and it’ll make a bassy thud like a falling anvil.

I won’t spoil what you have to do to solve this puzzle, but the solution made me laugh and coo at the same time.

There are moments, too, where Superliminal succeeds in matching Portal in terms of eeriness. The game’s fixation on messing with your head means the rules you normally take for granted in a video game can be pulled out from under you; those switch puzzles almost feel like a sly means of orienting you in what seems to be just another first-person puzzler, before something unexpected happens and you’re left plummeting into the unknown. There are also moments where you’re not sure whether you’ve truly solved a puzzle or whether you’re about to break the entire game. At one stage, I thought my attempt to create a platform from an exit sign had caused me to glitch over a bit of scenery and into a dead bit of space behind the level itself; but then I realised this was exactly what I was meant to do – the designer was simply one step ahead of me the entire time.

This is one of the sections where the nausea really kicked in for me. Just so you know.

It’s this latter point, in particular, that makes Superliminal so special: it’s the product of someone smart enough to know just how far to push the boundaries of logic. Only in certain spots does the game tip over into trial-and-error frustration. For the most part, it’s a mind-altering, thought-provoking work of genius. Playing through the later stages of Superliminal, I’m reminded again that I’m just a rat in a maze, and that maze was designed by someone at least ten times more intelligent than I am. It really is enough to make me sick.

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