How humans see the world boils down to how they perceive it. For example, if something looks green, we can conclude that it is in fact green. It’s due to our reliance on perception that optical illusions have such a strange effect on our senses. Pictures appear to move by arranging lines in a certain pattern, and dresses can simultaneously appear black and blue to some, while others see the same dress as gold and white. These wild quirks of perception are explored in Superliminal, a game where the player’s perspective plays a key role in the qualities of the objects and environment around them.
Superliminal opens with the unnamed protagonist falling asleep watching a commercial about a new type of dream therapy called SomnaSculpt, pioneered by Dr. Glenn Pierce of the Pierce Institute. The player awakens in a plain room containing only a desk, a ‘terms of service’ contract and pen laying atop it. The individual has apparently started therapy. The main character’s only path forward is through the hallways in front of them.
The protagonist starts to hear frequent comments broadcast over the PA system from the Standard Orientation Protocol, a computer AI tasked with orienting the subjects taking part in the SomnaSculpt program. It informs them that they are in fact in a dream, and therapy will consist of solving the puzzles in front of them.
Though the protagonist breezes through the ensuing puzzles, it becomes clearer after each room that perhaps this therapy is not going as smoothly as they’d like. The AI starts to allude to the character not taking well to the treatment, the head of the institute starts to contact them about not being where they’re supposed to be, and peculiarities arise with each level passed, all leading to a conclusion that will leave players with much to think about.
Much of the story of Superliminal seems fairly familiar. There have been games like Portal that have touched on the concept of players going “off the grid” and not adhering to the therapy or exercise set out for them, all the while badgered by an antagonistic AI. What’s great about this game though is that it takes those concepts and puts its own spin on them. Just like the puzzles you solve, all is both as it seems and also not. The story keeps players guessing and leads them down an increasingly vexing and engaging journey through dreams.
Players move from room to room, picking up objects and changing their view to make the object appear larger or smaller to fit their needs based on the puzzle. For example, say the door to the next room is set high up into a wall. The player must take a small block and hold it in such a way that it looks large in the room. Once dropped, the object takes on the size as it appears to the player, and the small block has now been made large enough to jump onto and a path to the doorway has been made.
It’s a concept that is difficult to explain, but is very simple to understand while playing. It all comes down to a forced perspective. An instance of this concept can be seen in the popular child activity of holding two fingers in front of your eyes and “squashing” people you see with your fingers. The people are far away, but to our eyes, they look like tiny people we could grab, due to our fingers being close to our face and appearing much larger than the people. In Superliminal, that concept is central to how you’re able to take small objects and make them larger, or vice versa. It is an interesting gameplay mechanic, and makes the game’s puzzles a pleasure to figure out and solve.
The game is divided into several levels, each with a general theme or setting. As you complete levels, you can revisit them later through the Select Level menu on the game’s title screen. There are many checkpoints throughout each level, so if you have to quit the game or get stuck somehow, you can continue from the main menu and be back to a relatively recent spot in your playthrough. Additionally, there are options on the pause menu to restart from your last checkpoint or to start the level from the beginning. This can be a useful feature if you lose track of objects needed to complete a puzzle.
Many of the rooms and hallways you venture through in Superliminal will require some kind of creative thinking to pass through. Changing the size of objects to fit onto switches, duplicating objects, and knocking over walls are just some of the things the player will need to do in the course of the game’s roughly 10-hour campaign.
The variety of ways the developers were able to use the concepts of forced perspective and perception is astonishing. Just when you are comfortable with how to solve puzzles, new aspects are introduced that often don’t involve any kind of new player capabilities, instead of taking the game’s two unifying concepts to their utmost extremes. Players must use their reasoning to navigate through these puzzles, rather than using any kind of outlandish tools or technology. You come away from rooms feeling accomplished in figuring out the creative and entertaining solutions.
Among the rooms and corridors in the game, players will see things that will mess with their minds. Hallways that aren’t hallways. Shadows that look like specific things, but are completely different as you come closer. These all tie back into the idea of perception ruling our reality. A few of the later levels do an absolutely fantastic job of this, containing many illusions in the environment that either make players uneasy or completely disoriented. Even loading screens are used to create a weird environment, such as the progress bar filling from the bottom or extending out past the screen.
There are a number of things you can collect or look out for while you play, all completely optional. You can keep track of your progress in collecting all of them in each level on the Select Level menu, which features icons representing each collectible. If the icon is greyed out on that chapter’s picture, there is still more to find in that level. It’s also a good way to see what types of collectibles are even in each level, as some are not found in certain levels.
The most common collectibles are the fire extinguishers and fire alarms you encounter. Interacting with them will give you credit for finding them. There are many of these in each level, so players should always be on the lookout. The more rare type of collectible is the chess piece. These are usually hidden away behind something or hanging high above you in a room, requiring a lot of platforming and stacking to reach.
The other collectible type that is difficult to find is the blueprint. These are usually found in a location off the beaten path. Interacting with them shows a rough sketch of the current area, which is a cool detail.
The last collectible type, one some players may never encounter in their entire playthrough, are constellations. Often accessed from doorways set into the dark shadows cast on walls, planetarium-type rooms can be found through black hallways. Once in the room, players must line up their view so several stars form an object. These rooms are some of the best-looking environments Superliminal has to offer, so it’s a shame that they are so hidden away.
Unfortunately, duplicating and changing the size of objects in Superliminal leads to some hiccups in performance. On numerous occasions, players may find their frame rate dipping if there are a significant amount of objects in the current room, or if an object is made especially large. This is very noticeable if the Switch is docked, and is less common in handheld mode. There are also several scenarios when testing the game’s limits, something that seems encouraged given the subject matter and setting, leads to you dropping off the map or even crashing the game. The last few levels are especially prone to this happening, so players might want to play in handheld mode to minimize the risk.
If you’re a fan of piano pieces and songs you might hear in a dentist lobby, Superliminal‘s soundtrack will be music to your ears. Much of the first several levels feature jazzy piano music playing in each room, and even the main menu and pause menu contain the same piano music. At times it evokes memories of watching Charlie Brown’s holiday specials. Later in the game, there is a bit more variety at times, but for the most part, jazz piano is the genre of choice. Whether this is a good or bad thing is entirely based on personal preference, though soothing piano can be a tad irritating or patronizing while stumped on a puzzle.
Industrial settings and hotel hallways are a common sight in most of the game. Some parts will bring to mind the test chambers in Portal, albeit with more of a color palette. Superliminal features many colorful rooms and decorations. There are several paintings scattered throughout the game, and certain later parts of the game feature unique scenery completely different from the rest of the game. On the whole, players will have little to complain about regarding the game’s art style. It is very clean. The environment and objects all look great. Even the reflections you see in glass seem to all have been made separately for each room instead of reflecting the room itself, which is an achievement unto itself.
Superliminal features its own achievements, which you can find listed in the achievements tab of the options menu. These give players many different tasks to aim for even after they’ve played through all the levels. Examples include destroying a can of soda and flipping all fire alarms. All achievements are optional and don’t seem to unlock anything, but those that wish to see everything in the game will want to try their hand at completing them. Collectibles will be the main thing to find once the game ends, as it is extremely unlikely players will be able to find even half of all the things hidden throughout the game. This goes a long way in giving players their money’s worth.
Superliminal is a very fun puzzle game that contains unique concepts that give the game its own identity. Anyone interested in how the brain works and how it can trick us will have a delightful time playing with object size and puzzling out how to use perception to advance forward. It is an enjoyable ride, one that will constantly surprise players and make them think about how they see the world. Technical difficulties occasionally break the illusion, but steering past these hiccups will reveal an experience unlike any other.
Final Rating: 8.5/10.