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  • An Analysis Of The Mechanics And Narrative Of Superliminal

    [05.13.21]
    - Erik Dewhurst

  • Level 7 - Labyrinth

    Story

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. The sleep study office is gone. Only industrial halls. A new voice arrives. The "Emergency Exit Protocol" tells you to prepare to wake up. But the Orientation Protocol stops you from waking up and declares that you must stay in lucid dreaming indefinitely. And she follows through with this promise.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. You turn off the alarm and walk around the sleep study office. You get to the lobby and hear an alarm.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. You turn off the alarm and walk around the sleep study office. You get half as far and the alarm goes off.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. You turn off the alarm and step out of the bedroom and the alarm goes off.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. You turn off the alarm and the lights go out.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. But something's VERY wrong. You're disoriented to the extreme. The bedroom is on its side. You fall out of the doorway into what looks like a lunch buffet. Another alarm is beeping. You turn it off.

    Sleep-study bedroom. 3am. The sleep study office is only 2 hallways. The only way out is a painting of clouds in your room. Once through this portal, the music sets a new mood. It's non-diegetic music again. Dr. Pierce returns, but it's a prerecorded orientation message. You're back in industrial hallways. Then everything tilts. You fall down the hallway. The world is on its side. You keep falling through doorways into new rooms until you land in a ballroom with a high door and a tiny spiral staircase you can re-scale. Dropping the staircase on the floor causes the floor to fall out from under you.

    Everything is off the rails, more so than ever before. The music ramps up into a syncopated drum loop. You enter an elevator to find yourself in a hallway that leads back on itself infinitely until you discover the logic in the dynamic maze. This puzzle is worth detailing because it's the most difficult in the game. The three clues you're given are a piece of paper that says "Perception is NOT reality," an exit sign that points toward a hallway, and a number indicating your progress through the puzzle. The solution is to realize that you must LOOK the opposite direction of the exit sign before you GO the direction the sign is indicating. And you must do this flawlessly 5 times in a row. This puzzle's difficulty comes likely due to it diverging from the puzzle-logic we've been introduced to before.

    This level has expected you to run in circles until the game gives you a way out. You're not expected to think. This puzzle breaks that pattern by needing you to read environmental clues and use trial and error to deduce a logical pattern.

    The game then goes on to throw every trick it can at you, confusing you by having the world change as soon as you touch an object or jump down from a ledge or turn off an alarm. The roller coaster only ends when you step out of an elevator maze and into an infinite parking lot containing a bedroom with a ringing alarm. Once you turn off the alarm, the level ends.

     

    Narrative

    This beautiful madness is a tour de force where mechanics and narrative are in lockstep. Mechanics introduced throughout the game are used in new and different ways to reiterate that you're lost and stuck in an infinite loop. The verbal threats made in previous levels felt empty and did little to ramp up intrigue. This level makes the threats tangible and real. You really are stuck in a loop. Things really are changing in unpredictable ways. This really feels like something's gone wrong. Because there are fewer sit-and-think puzzles, you're constantly on the move. It makes you feel like you're trying to escape the madness by running away from it. The fast-paced drums push a sense of urgency. The calm established in the previous level was a good jumping off point to show how far you can fall. In a movie or play, this would be the 2nd act twist. There was hope, but that hope is whisked away. You are brought to your lowest point before the finale.

    Mechanics

    There's nothing truly new here. Every mechanic in this level is a variant of earlier ones. It's arguable that being teleported to new spaces is a new mechanic. But I have a hard time justifying that as a first-order mechanic.

    Level 8 - Whitespace

    Story

    A bedroom in an industrial setting. Not one you've seen before. No clock. There's a new filter on the player's camera. Are you awake? The Orientation Protocol chimes in and says "no." You're stuck in a new section of the lucid dreaming system. You can only interact with a single small building in a diorama of a strip mall. Under closer inspection, the building is the sleep-study building. Picking up the building causes the room you're in to creak. Dropping it causes the world to shake and dust to fall from the ceiling. It seems you've picked up the building you are in. You can rescale and enter the building. But that's all. After a time, the Orientation Protocol warns you not to create a paradox. Once you do exactly what she tells you not to do, the world literally shatters and dissolves before your eyes.

    When you recover, you're in white space with a white sky. Ethereal music plays. You enter a black non-Euclidean space that feels like a Frank Miller drawing or an M.C. Escher print. Everything is black and white. You fall. Walk toward a white doorway. You fall. Go through a black doorway. Dr. Glenn Pierce returns and starts a reflective monologue. As you make your way through a labyrinth of black and white rooms and relatively simple puzzles, Dr. Pierce reflects on how difficult it is to change one's perspective. The environment seems to say "this is a place of pure thought." The level ends as you fall endlessly into a giant alarm clock blinking "7:59am."

     

    Narrative

    The paradox room may be the best example of narrative and mechanics working together in this game. Without dialog, the player couldn't determine the goal of this puzzle. But instead of outright telling the player "pull the building into itself to create a paradox," the Orientation Protocol tells you NOT to create a paradox. Because she's been established as an unreliable narrator, the player understands that creating a paradox is the only way forward. This puzzle wouldn't work at the beginning of the game. It's only after establishing the Orientation Protocol as an unreliable narrator that it's possible to use her to deliver reverse psychology.

    Mechanics

    There are a few odd mechanics introduced that are unique to the "Whitespace":

    • The Paradox: The idea of pulling a space into itself in an infinite loop is only used once, but it's a noteworthy mechanic.

    • Objects Solidify Floor: By putting an object on a square of a giant chess board, you can traverse that square. By giving the player 2 objects to work with, you can traverse the entire board.

    • Placing an object in a space to create the space: This was a one-off mechanic that felt unintuitive even after completing the puzzle.

    • Hidden paths: While these appear throughout this game, it's most notable in this level as it becomes central to some puzzles. There are multiple situations where only by moving yourself to a certain position in the level can you see the path forward.

    Level 9 - Retrospective

    Story

    Sleep study bedroom. 8am. As you turn off the alarm, you're transported to spaces from previous levels. Dr. Pierce reveals that everything you've experienced was completely intentional. It was all a way of helping you see the world from a different perspective. As he delivers a touching monologue, you walk backward through areas from each previous level. A tour of the problems you solved and the feelings you felt during the game. It celebrates your ability to keep moving forward despite adversity and it encourages you to apply this to your real life. There are no mechanics in this level other than movement. There's no reason for any. The game is winding down and leading into the credits.

    Narrative

    It's fitting that our reliable narrator Dr. Pierce returns halfway through the previous level to encourage you through a series of puzzles. It helps reestablish him as an active helper and sets him up as the de facto narrator for the conclusion of the experience. This level feels almost like a conclusion paragraph in a college essay. And that tone works extremely well for the game.

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