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  • An Analysis Of The Mechanics And Narrative Of Superliminal

    [05.13.21]
    - Erik Dewhurst

  • Holistic Game Analysis

    How Mechanics are Introduced

    I believe there are three major puzzle game archetypes. (I'm still working through this categorization)

    • Monolithic Puzzle Games: These include Sudoku, Crosswords, Logic Puzzles, Minesweeper, and Tetris. In these games a singular set of skills are required from the player. The player learns those skills once and reuses them in every variation/level/incarnation of the game. These games are expected to have consistent mechanics. They are task-oriented games.

    • Puzzle Collection Games: These include Myst, Zork, and 13th Guest. These games are mostly an amalgamation of loosely connected puzzles. While some puzzles are connected, there's little you learn from one puzzle that's applicable to another.

    • Progressive Puzzle Games: These include Breath of the Wild, Portal, and Superliminal. These games start with a few central mechanics, and progressively introduce more mechanics throughout the game. These games usually follow a pattern similar to this: introduce new mechanic, test aptitude in new mechanic, introduce combination of previous mechanics or variant of existing mechanic, repeat until complete. Rather than asking the player to master a single skill, the novelty of learning new skills keeps their attention.

    In a first playthrough of Superliminal, there's a feeling that the game is constantly introducing new mechanics with every puzzle. After close analysis I noticed most mechanics are established in the first level. The game does introduce new core mechanics in each level, but much of the novelty of each puzzle comes from reusing existing mechanics in new ways. Because each puzzle is a new perspective on an existing mechanic, the game feels like it has more puzzles than it does.

    This isn't unique to Superliminal. The Zelda series, The Last Campfire (another recent indie puzzle game), and Portal all share this approach. In contrast, recent AAA action adventures like Ghost of Tsushima, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Final Fantasy VII Remake do introduce core mechanics at the start and dole out additive mechanics throughout the game. But progressing through these games is not dependent on using every skill you're taught. The core of these games is a "do it your way" approach. The core of a puzzle game like Superliminal is to have a singular method for solving each puzzle. The player must fully understand and solve each puzzle to continue. This likely requires the designer to pay greater attention to each puzzle's difficulty to ensure players are not completely stumped.

    I'd argue that this game's narrative is dependent on a constant stream of novel puzzles that trick and confuse you. If you replaced every puzzle with a similarly difficult Sudoku puzzle, the game would be bland.

    I corresponded with Christopher Floyd, Executive Producer and one of the Game Designers on Superliminal, regarding the interplay of mechanics and narrative. I asked if the mechanics lead the creative process. Christopher had this to say: "It was less a case of being led by the mechanics, and more a case of working to create a cohesive whole, with all disciplines (art, sound, design, writing, etc.) serving each other toward the same purpose" and "It was a matter of finding which parts fit best with the overarching experience. For example, the opening sequence at the beginning of Whitespace (causing the world to dismantle around you) was in development for a long time as a ‘transition from one world to another,' before we found a good narrative wrapper for it."

    This and other comments from Christopher give me the impression that the team was focused on what Jesse Schell (author of The Art of Game Design) calls "the Essential Experience." Focusing on an essential experience is a way of looking at designing and developing from a point of view that transcends story or mechanic and focuses on the feelings one is eliciting from the player. I'd argue that the essential experience of this game was to give the player a sense of being in a dream. Both mechanical and narrative decisions for this game could be answered by asking a central question: "Does this give the player a sense of being in a dream?"

    Flow and Difficulty

    On the topic of difficulty: I made an attempt to analyze the perceived difficulty of each puzzle in the game. My methodology was informal, but it was effective enough for my needs. I asked myself and my partner to rate the difficulty of each puzzle on a scale of 1 to 10. We discussed each until reaching a consensus and recording the number.

    Before my analysis, I expected to see one of two patterns:

    1. A quick increase in difficulty at the start followed by a cycle of increasing and decreasing.
      OR

    2. A long slow increase in difficulty.

    Instead, the data showed that neither pattern dominated the game. The first level does ramp up quickly, but instead of getting more and more complex, the game backs away from difficulty and leans into narrative. The difficulty curve after the first level is arguably random. However, harder puzzles generally show up in the latter half of levels.

    The figure below shows the perceived difficulty of each "room." This analysis included hallways, rooms without puzzles, and loading screens. Those are given a perceived difficulty of "0." My level of detail in recording "0" difficulty areas decreased over time. There most definitely are halls and rooms in level 5-9 that I did not record.

    The Acts of the Game

    Most conventional stories can be broken down into 3 acts. Act 1 introduces the world, key characters, and central problems. Act 2 sees the characters attempting to resolve the central problem. And Act 3 sees the resolution of the central problem. I bring this up to point out that, while the mechanics are novel and the subject matter is unique, the game still follows a traditional story arc. I believe this game breaks into the 3 acts in this way:

    • Act 1:

      • Level 1 "Introduction"

      • Level 2 "Optical"

    • Act 2:

      • Level 3 "Cubism"

      • Level 4 "Blackout"

      • Level 5 "Clone"

      • Level 6 "Dollhouse"

      • Level 7 "Labyrinth"

    • Act 3

      • Level 8 "Whitespace"

      • Level 9 "Retrospective"

    Act 1

    The first two levels introduce the lucid dreaming world, the Orientation Protocol and Dr. Pierce. Then they give you the central problem: you're stuck in your dreams.

    Act 2

    The 5 levels in the middle of the game continually increase the stakes. At first, you think you might be lost. Then you're definitely lost. Then Dr. Pierce is lost. Then you're stuck in an infinite loop of dreams within dreams. Then your dream reality completely breaks down.

    Act 3

    As with any 3rd act, a crisis is required. That crisis comes when you rip your dream reality apart with a paradox. This crisis is resolved when you make your way through "whitespace" to a place where Dr. Pierce is ready to explain that everything happened according to plan.

    Traditional Stories and Video Games

    It's worth wondering if video games have a method of storytelling that diverges greatly from traditional storytelling structures. While the medium makes that possible, Superliminal is a relatively by-the-book story. It's linear, involves protagonists and antagonists, there's a central problem to solve, there are rising stakes and ultimately there's a satisfying resolution. Keeping to the tried and tested methods of a traditional narrative structure worked well for this game.

    Raising Stakes Without Any Chips

    The player character can't die or be hurt in Superliminal. Thus, I'd argue there's no way to use mechanics to "raise the stakes". As a result this game is forced to have narrators "tell" instead of "show". It makes the game more of an immersive cinematic experience. Somewhat like a theme-park ride. Nothing you do truly affects what will happen next. You can't decide to go left or right. But it is up to you to keep it moving forward.

    Games like God of War (2018), Breath of the Wild (2017), and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (2017) include puzzles as key parts of the story, but the player's avatar is constantly threatened with pain and death. Death in these games ultimately boils down to a simple loss of progress. But because they include these mechanics, raising the stakes is easily done without narrative declarations. The writers of Superliminal may have hindered their ability to increase interest by avoiding threat-mechanics. Events like the Standard Orientation Protocol threatening "Explosive Mental Overload" and Dr. Pierce disappearing seem to be attempts to increase interest in the story, but neither threaten the player's character or affect the mechanics of the game. As a result, I could argue that the interest curve of this game is slightly dulled. The highs and lows are not quite as pronounced.

    Despite these decisions, the game remains effective and enjoyable. The nature of Superliminal is to experience a journey centered around problem solving. Raising of stakes in this game is more effectively done via the difficulty of puzzles rather than threats to the player character. Additionally, threat-mechanics could work against the needs of this game by drawing the players attention away from problem solving and into fight or flight mode.

    Replayability:

    The riddle we can guess
    we speedily despise.
    Not anything is stale so long
    as yesterday's surprise

    • Emily Dickinson

    Jesse Schell referenced the poem above in "Art of Game Design" as he ponders the relationship between games and puzzles. He posits that "A puzzle is a game with a dominant strategy". The truth behind both writings is this: Once a puzzle is solved, it's never as fun again. That is definitely applicable to Superliminal. The puzzles in this game can't confuse you as they did the first time. If your memory serves you well, you'll solve every puzzle in little time during a second play.

    But there's more to this game than 100 tiny jigsaw puzzles or word scrambles. There's environment, immersion, story, and characters. Much like a well loved movie or a TV show, the first viewing is the most impactful, but subsequent viewings are not without merit. During my first play I focused on the puzzles. I listened to Dr. Pierce and the Standard Orientation Protocol only for clues to puzzles. Since they offered no clues, I quickly ignored their chatter. A second playthrough allowed me to focus on the story and enjoy that aspect of the game. 

    But unlike an enduring game like Chess, the more you play a curated puzzle-game like Superliminal, the less of a challenge it provides. Without variability or randomality, it may be impossible to provide players with an endless source of entertainment. But again, the nature of a game like this is not to provide endless entertainment. It's a carefully crafted and curated experience. It has a beginning and an end. It is a story and the game play serves that story. In these ways, this game absolutely succeeds in what it set out to achieve.

    What designers can learn from Superliminal

    While writing this paper, I continually ask myself "what should I take away from this write-up and this game?" And when I corresponded with Christopher Floyd of Pillow Games, he asked the same question.

    First: I feel that this analysis reinforced the importance of having a clear understanding of any game's essential experience. I went in looking for a link between how narrative and puzzle mechanics might feed each other. But ultimately both are fed by the essential experience. Without a clear understanding of the essential experience, any game could fall into the trap of treating mechanics and story as two adjacent rooms in the same house.

    Second: A pitfall puzzle-makers can fall into (myself included) is thinking a difficult puzzle is a fun puzzle. Indeed, a game can focus on testing the player's aptitude and a difficult puzzle can give a great sense of accomplishment. But difficulty must take the game's intent into account. The intent of Superliminal was not to force the player to solve the most difficult puzzles. It was to immerse the player in a dream-like state. Instead, the puzzles are varied and relatively low difficulty. I'd argue a linear game like Superliminal can't afford to introduce high difficulty puzzles without introducing the risk of discouraging the player or blocking play all together. On the other hand, a game with parallel puzzles (see Breath of the Wild) can afford to add high-difficulty puzzles. If the player is discouraged they can choose to come back to the harder puzzles.

    Third: The difficulty of a puzzle game does not need to be a constantly increasing curve. After seeing the raw, but limited data I gathered, I could see that difficulty (or perceived difficulty) is not an exact science. In Superliminal there's a push and pull of difficulty that's more like free Jazz than a well structured piece of baroque music. This realization led me to reassess the difficulty of other games. Breath of the Wild, Portal, and the Hellblade 2 are without strict difficulty curves. The initial teaching of new mechanics is simplified, but puzzles difficulty varies throughout. 

    Fourth: The scope of a game like this is of this scope.

    Does the game succeed?

    While it's a difficult and subjective question, it's worth asking "does the game succeed"? The only way to answer this is to ask "what does the game intend to do"? Then asking "did it do that"?  At the beginning, Superliminal clearly states the intent of the game. It intends the player to work through dream-like puzzles. Did it do that? Quite clearly it does. The game delivers a series of puzzles and a narrative that fit the expectation it sets for itself.

    Conclusion

    My primary intention in writing this essay was to get a better understanding of how a commercially successful narrative puzzle game is constructed -- how it uses mechanics, narratives, and the essential experience to engage the player. And how these elements evolve throughout the game and how they converge and diverge from each other. This dissection has given me a better idea of the palette of colors used to build such a game. It also gives me a better idea of the scope of a game of this scale with regard to mechanics, unique puzzles, and storytelling. My hope is to apply what I've learned to future game development projects.

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