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.
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.
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.
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.
An alarm wakes you up in a sleep-study bedroom. It's 3am and the halls are empty. As you explore, your surroundings become a hotel. Optical illusions trick you into feeling lost and you find yourself at a dead end. You resize exit signs to scale walls. The hotel, like the last room of the previous level, is a facade. It seems to be the set of a movie or TV show. A radio sits in a prominent place, asking you to turn it on. Doing so introduces Dr. Glenn Pierce. Dr. Pierce is the founder of the sleep institute who explains that you're lost in their lucid dreaming system. He confirms that things aren't going to plan. He lets you know "we're working on it" before you return to the hotel. Throughout the rest of the game, he casts himself as a life preserver in an ocean of dreams.
The next 4 puzzles center on a new mechanic involving trompe l'oeil. Images of objects have been fractured and projected onto various surfaces. By looking at the 2D fragments from the right perspective they not only appear 3D, but also materialize as 3D objects. This mechanic does a lot to reinforce a growing theme that "your perspective dictates your world." Both this and the scaling mechanic can be described as "materializing a new reality based on what you see."
Soon, Dr. Pierce's radio returns to say "you're still lost." And after one more puzzle, he returns again to reiterate "you are still lost" -- only this time he introduces a set of elevators that he promises will "slowly wake you up." The culminating moment of this level is a scene in a large room of the hotel. Looking up through a skylight, you'll discover you must shrink the moon and lower it into the room. On the surface of the moon are a radio and a doorway that leads to an elevator. The radio prepares you for handling the possibility that the elevator might not wake you up. The elevator completes the level.
There are a few key changes in narrative in this level. Firstly, you "wake up" and are still in a dream. Secondly, the introduction of Dr. Pierce, who promises a path out of these recursive dreams and who also brings more humor to the game. I'd argue the levity of Dr. Pierce and the Orientation Protocol are absolutely necessary for this game. Otherwise, it might feel dry, lifeless, or merely creepy and institutional. At odds with the humor is the environment telling you things may be dire. The level ends with an ominous whiteboard warning you not to get lost.
Let's again review the mechanics introduced in this level:
Trompe L'oeil Maze: Utilizing images projected across multiple 3D surfaces to depict a different 3D reality.
Forced Perspective: This is used in one hallway to promote confusion and the sense of being in a dream.
Trompe L'oeil Materialization: the mechanic of objects projected on walls being materialized into 3D when looked at from the proper perspective.
Non-Euclidean Doorway: The doorway to the elevator is not only a scalable object, but also a non-Euclidean space. The scale of the space you enter through this door is relative to the amount you scale the doorway.
Clearly, this level focuses on optical illusions. And while these mechanics were hinted at before and reused later, they're center stage here. Every subsequent level is centered around a unique mechanical theme. Despite the mechanics of this level reinforcing overarching themes of the game, I don't see notable interactions between the mechanics and narratives introduced in this level.
An alarm wakes you up in a sleep-study bedroom. It's 4am and the halls are empty. You turn a corner and you're in an industrial hallway then an art gallery. The Orientation Protocol indicates that you attempted to use an unauthorized pathway. Now you're stuck in a dream paradox. She advises that you subject yourself to "explosive mental overload" to get out of the paradox. You move through an art gallery without art. Jazz piano music feels right at home. This leve's puzzles are almost entirely based on the core scaling mechanic. Most involve oversized dice. Some dice are warped. Some painted on walls. Some fall apart when you touch them. And some are a doorway to the elevator out of this level.
The threat of "explosive mental overload" raises the stakes. In the first level you're intended to be confused and unsure if things are going according to plan. The second level confirms your suspicions. Here, there's an escalation of the danger. Will you die if you're subjected to explosive mental overload? What does that even mean? It feels like the Orientation Protocol has established herself as the antagonist. And most notably, Dr. Pierce makes no appearance in this level, reinforcing your sense of being lost.
Not many new mechanics were added in this level:
Multi-part Objects: This includes objects that look to be a single object but are actually more than one. Some break into pieces when touched. Some do so when put down.
Sliding Pillars: In a single room, there are pillars you can pull up from the ground, push across the floor or pull out of the walls. It's a mechanic that is only used once in the entire game.
The puzzles of this level have relatively low difficulty and expand on the scaling mechanic. I imagine this level was originally planned as the second level. However, if the tutorial had been followed by this, the game could have felt very monotone. After a level full of chess pieces, the recurring dice would have become redundant, unintentionally telegraphing a game that's no more than an exercise in moving dice and pawns.
The dice falling apart appears to be a metaphor for your mind falling apart. It rather perfectly reinforces the threat of explosive mental overload. And when you're forced to jump down an elevator shaft to finish the level, it gives a great sense that you've totally lost/given up control of the situation.
An alarm wakes you up in a sleep-study bedroom. It's 4am and the halls are empty except for a radio. Dr. Pierce's voice returns and suggests you may be having feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. Again, you turn a corner into an unfamiliar place, an industrial hall lined with doorways. Then things take a turn. Lights flicker and cut out. A dim red light leads you through the darkness. A sign reads "Emergency Generator this way." You make your way through dark halls and past more flickering lights until you're in an industrial freezer. And then blood. A room with blood all over the floor. A bloody hand print next to a door that snaps shut on you. As you escape this room, the door behind slams shut. You're stuck in a dead end that forces you to venture into the darkness to find a way out. Another door slams shut behind you. Another bloody room. Running forward leads to falling down a pit that returns you to the room you were just in. Eventually you discover a rickety bridge hidden in the shadows. After passing this test, you discover another radio with Dr. Pierce's useless therapeutic advice.
After making your way through a series of dark hallways, the Orientation Protocol returns to admonish you for not subjecting yourself to explosive mental overload. For the remainder of the level, you use shadows and improvised light sources to feel your way through the dark, blood-splattered halls.
Ultimately, you end up in a storage facility with the word "Idea" at the end of the hall. When you activate this "Idea" (in obvious IKEA font and colors), you see it's the Emergency Generator you were looking for. The lights all come on, light jazz starts playing and you see the blood trails were spilled paint all along. You step into an elevator and the level ends.
Dr. Pierce's radios feel at odds with the environment here. He makes no mention of fear, despite this level's clear intent of eliciting fear from the player. Perhaps the best narrative twist of the entire game is when you've spent the last 5 minutes frightened of some lurking murderer only to find out that there was nothing to be frightened about. This level very clearly plays on the central theme of "seeing things from a different perspective."
Again, there aren't many new mechanics introduced in this level. In fact, there are very few puzzles. The puzzles that exist are focused on traversing a maze in limited light. I believe this was intentional for a couple reason: A) Puzzle solving requires higher mental functions and fear limits those functions within the brain. B) Solving puzzles gives a player control of objects and the situation. This level clearly wants to focus on feelings of being out of control.
An alarm wakes you up in a sleep-study bedroom. It's 6am and the halls are empty. The repetition is deliberately numbing, reinforcing the dream state and the feeling of being stuck in an endless loop. This disorientation is further reiterated by the introduction of mechanics that clone objects as you touch them.
Once introduced to the cloning mechanic, the Orientation Protocol returns to note the dangers of dream overexposure. She warns you of "hallucinations of dreaded or annoying objects" as you walk into a room with a ringing alarm clock and "unrealistic beliefs about the lengths of hallways," which you've experienced multiple times already. This dialog continues to raise the stakes and is a good bit of self awareness that grabs the player's attention. The cloning puzzles continue throughout the level, but the most iconic is the dreaded alarm clock being used as building blocks to escape a room.
In the latter half of the level, the Orientation Protocol lets you know Dr. Pierce was attempting to contact you, but she's unwilling to relay his messages. Again, this raises the stakes. Your lifeline is cut off. In a brief moment of hope, Dr. Pierce's radio appears again, but his speech is garbled nonsense. The level ends there as you step into yet another elevator.
As mentioned, the key developments in the narrative are A) the threat that you are being overexposed to dreams and B) you've lost contact with Dr. Pierce. These messages being delivered by the Orientation Protocol gives more of a dream like feeling.
This level introduces one mechanic and one modifier of that mechanic:
Returning Cloned objects to their originating object
Sleep-study bedroom. 7am. There's a vignette filter on the camera. The music, which has been diegetic jazz appropriate for hotels and art galleries, is replaced with a calming cinematic score. It's like the game has stopped trying to convince you that you've woken up. You step out of the bedroom into a film theater playing a loop of clouds. Around a corner is a radio. Dr. Pierce provides a calming message. "You have reappeared on our monitors". This is the light at the end of the tunnel. There's a sense that things will get better soon. But before long, you're back to the puzzles. The theme herein is non-Euclidean objects and spaces -- doorways and hallways that lead to spaces with differing scales. The level explores this idea in ways that work with the scaling mechanic. The first puzzle forces you to expand a dollhouse until you can enter it. Then exit it through a different door and ultimately enlarge it enough to fit through a small door inside the dollhouse.
Except for periodic check-ins from Dr. Pierce, the majority of this level involves "Alice in Wonderland" puzzles that shrink you to the size of a dollhouse or smaller than a chess set.
The most notable change in the narrative is the upbeat prognosis that you are headed in the right direction. The Doctor thinks so at least. Aside from the soothing environment at the beginning of this level, the narrative and gameplay have little interplay. The "Alice in Wonderland" theme is a great reinforcement of the dream state, but Dr. Pierce's dialog doesn't reference it, or play into it.
Like previous levels, there's a central reliance on a single mechanic. But this central mechanic isn't new. The non-Euclidean idea was introduced in the first level and again in the second.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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:
A quick increase in difficulty at the start followed by a cycle of increasing and decreasing.
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.
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:
Level 1 "Introduction"
Level 2 "Optical"
Level 3 "Cubism"
Level 4 "Blackout"
Level 5 "Clone"
Level 6 "Dollhouse"
Level 7 "Labyrinth"
Level 8 "Whitespace"
Level 9 "Retrospective"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The riddle we can guess
we speedily despise.
Not anything is stale so long
as yesterday's surprise
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.
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.
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.
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.