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  • An Analysis Of The Mechanics And Narrative Of Superliminal

    [05.13.21]
    - Erik Dewhurst
  • My name is Erik Dewhurst. I am a software creator of 20+ years and a burgeoning game developer. In this essay, I'll analyze how the game Superliminal (2019, Pillow Castle Games) introduces mechanics and how the narrative of the game interacts with those mechanics. My primary reason for writing this essay is for my personal educational process, but I hope others may learn from it. I've chosen Superliminal because it sits at the nexus of some key features: it is a narrative puzzle game; it's modest in scope -- neither massive nor tiny; and it's been commercially successful enough to be ported to multiple platforms. These are all goals I seek to achieve in my own career. Now, let's get into the game itself.

    Superliminal is a puzzle game where you are trapped in a lucid dream. Only by making sense of your surroundings are you able to wake up. The game is composed of 8 substantive levels and an outro making 9 official levels. I'll review the events of each level separately; following the progress of the narrative, the mechanics introduced, and how they interact with each other. At the end of this analysis, I'll provide a review of the game as a whole.

    Level 1 - Introduction

    It's important for a game to introduce core themes at the beginning. Superliminal does this quite well. Because of how well this is done, it's important to provide a detailed account of the first few moments of the game. These moments establish how narrative and mechanical elements are introduced. In later sections I'll back away from moment-to-moment details and discuss greater themes and patterns.

    Story & Narrative

    Scene 1 is an ad for a sleep institute. The ad plays on a television in a bedroom and establishes that you're about to participate in a sleep study. After this you're shown a loading screen and then movement control instructions. Only by using the controls will you realize these instructions aren't part of the game's UI. Instead, they're written on a wall. You're in a room without windows or doors and you're already experiencing a lucid dream.

    Let's discuss how these basic mechanics were introduced. You're intended to perceive these instructions as part of the game's interface, not as instructions within the game world. Only after using the controls are you aware that you've been subtly tricked; these instructions aren't directed to the player -- they're directed to the player-character. The game didn't need to present these instructions, but putting them on the wall of an institutional room reinforces the narrative that you're in an institution. It establishes that there are rules and order. This first moment also establishes key themes that recur throughout the game: playfully confusing illusions, presenting a "false" perspective on a puzzle, and breaking the 4th wall.

     

    After signing a terms-of-service agreement you move to the next room. This room contains the most pivotal mechanic in the game. On a table are pawns and a paper that reads "Perception is Reality. Grab." Grabbing a pawn and putting it down changes its size according to a dream-like rationale. It's impossible to put to words how flawlessly this mechanic warps your perception of reality. One moment the pawn is an inch tall; the next it's 5 feet tall. Like a deft sleight-of-hand, nothing changed and yet the reality from a moment ago is no longer the reality you perceive.

    The creators seemed to know this mechanic was pivotal to the experience. They knew it would surprise and confuse. Thus, it required a playground. There's no puzzle here. You're simply given a toy to play with. This introduces another recurring theme: mechanics don't need to be a puzzle or a problem to be enjoyed. An illusion or a toy can be just as fun as solving a problem.

    At this point, the game shifts from pure tutorial to puzzle mechanics. You're introduced to well-worn mechanics like jumping, climbing, and pressure plates that open doors. Most importantly, you're acclimated to the re-scaling mechanic over the course of 10 simple puzzles.

    As you make your way through these puzzles, you're introduced to the automated female voice of the "Orientation Protocol." She reaffirms that you're asleep and participating in a lucid-dreaming therapy program. Her personality is cold and clinical and plays seamlessly into the dry and dark humor of the game. (It's hard not to draw a connection between this disembodied voice and that of GLaDOS from Portal.)

    You're exposed to two different narratives during this tutorial. One is from the calming voice of the Orientation Protocol. She gives you the sense that there's a plan. The other is within the environment, which gives you the sense that something is not going to plan. This is first evidenced by a boarded up room. Then a room with a broken pane of glass. When you arrive at the final room of the level, the Orientation Protocol tells you to exit through a bricked-in doorway. But your only path forward is to topple the plywood walls of the room with a wedge of cheese -- symbolically reflecting how the Orientation Protocol's narrative is false. After this you fall down a hidden pit. Now it is a certainty that something has gone wrong.

     

    Mechanics

    Let's review the mechanics introduced in this level:

    • Movement: Basic camera and movement control.

    • Jumping/Climbing: Basic ability to jump over obstacles or climb objects.

    • Re-scaling objects: The ability to pick up an item, reposition your perspective, and have the item scale based on the nearest mesh in the player's view.

    • Pressure plates open doors: The tried-and-true pressure plate. There are multiple variations of this. One plate, two plates, a small plate.

    • Misdirection: Misdirection is present in nearly every puzzle. This is done by obfuscating a key object, obfuscating the path to success, or asking you to reuse an object from a previous puzzle.

    • Trompe L'oeil: The projection of a 3D image onto a 2D surface. While this doesn't play into puzzles, these illusions are a recurring theme throughout the game.

    • Non-Euclidian Maze: While this isn't used as a puzzle in this level, it reinforces the dream-state feeling with a relatively simple infinite maze.

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