I have no idea how I missed Superliminal at launch. A first-person puzzle game that centers on shifting perspectives (and often, sizing or resizing objects based on perspective), it released to critical acclaim last year. It also happens to be precisely my shit. I saw this tweet the other day and immediately ran over to my Switch to buy it. I spoke a bit about the game on Channel F this week (that discussion starts around 23:24), but, as I’ve spent more time in its wild, expressive world, I’ve fallen even further for the game and its brilliant imagination.
I finally got around to play Superliminal by @pillowcastle! What a lesson in level design this was ?
I’m gonna need an aspirin cause my head’s still spinning ? pic.twitter.com/089gOjkVjL
— Albert Paris (@AlSParis) March 23, 2021
It’s a fantastic example of smart, satisfying design. It often does that ridiculously difficult, but heady thing that only the best puzzle titles can do: it makes me feel like a genuis. There have been moments of surprise and delight throughout — that “ooooh! That’s what I have to do!” hit in my brain that I specifically come to this kind of experience for.
I’m going to spoil one fairly early puzzle here, in an effort to show just how effectively Superliminal uses visual language. After getting through much of the Optical stage (the second main area of the game, it looks a bit like a massive museum space crossed with a hotel), I came across a long room with a skylight, chairs, tables, lamps and paintings on both sides, and a looming empty space where the exit door surely needed to appear.
I knew from solving many perspective puzzles thus far that observing the room – or a specific object — from particular angles often lent a solution. So does observing the details in a room, or thinking about an object in a particular way. At first, I ran around the room, seeking an angle that might make a doorway appear. Nothing. I tried to interact with the lamps, tables and chairs, looking for something to manipulate. Nothing!
Then… I looked at the paintings. At first, I thought maybe I could grab one down from the wall, “re-size” it using the game’s perspective shifting, and use that to mess with the absent doorway. Then I noticed… every single painting was the same. It depicted a moon high in a night sky.
Sure enough, looking through the skylight from the right angle produces a moon object that you can grab onto and resize! And on that moon, there were a few tiny props, including a door prop that was good for sticking on that “doorway” geometry, transforming into a usable exit to the next room.
Brilliant. I audibly whispered “oh, yeah!” To myself when I arrived at the solution. It felt like a moment where I was in genuine dialogue with the designers – as I was able to experiment a little with all the mechanics available to me, and suss out the desired solution. That it came so naturally speaks to how well the room was put together (and I don’t know any specific facts about Superliminal’s development, but I can only guess that the designers came to this with plenty of prototyping, playtesting, and iteration.)
Here, we have a stage that is doing something a little bit new — asking me to look for something that’s not strictly in the same room — but it’s using the same language as previous puzzles. If I look hard enough, I’ll find that thing I need to interact with. And the clue in the paintings gave me just what I needed to close the gap.
I am no puzzle savant. I’m probably on the slow side of average when it comes to sorting out relevant details in a simulated space, because I like to look at everything in an environment. But I adore it when I come to these moments, which test and challenge me a little, then reward curiosity, careful observation and experimentation.
That’s a pretty easy definition, for me, for great puzzle design: clearly communicated challenges that reward player curiosity, observation, and experimentation.
As I mentioned on Channel F, when I encounter a puzzle I get stuck on in any game, I generally try to do a little mental inventory. It may even be verbal, or in a notebook — but I list the “tools” at my disposal, and try to work from there. Here, I thought about looking at different angles, at interacting with objects, at jumping. Then I moved on to closer observation. That did it!
Now, not every room in Superliminal has filled me with this level of gushing delight (and there is one much later room I’m still salty about, and even resorted to a quick guide). But it’s held a consistent pull for me, with so many fun, surprising and genuinely inventive challenges that I’m dying to finish up the last couple of areas.
This has been one of my most pleasant surprises of the year so far, so a sincere thank you to Twitter user AISParis for posting the gif that started it all on Monday morning.