An Analysis of the Mechanics and Narrative of Superliminal – Gamasutra

Chess Puzzles

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My name is Erik Dewhurst. I am a software creator of 20+ years and a burgeoning game developer. In this essay, Ill 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; its modest in scope -- neither massive nor tiny; and its 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, its 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-EuclidianMaze: 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 youre lost in their lucid dreaming system. He confirms that things arent 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, youll 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, theyre 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 youre in an industrial hallway then an art gallery. The Orientation Protocol indicates that you attempted to use an unauthorized pathway. Now youre 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 leves 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 thats 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 youre 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 arent 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 players 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:

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. Its non-diegetic music again. Dr. Pierce returns, but its 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 its the most difficult in the game. The three clues youre 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 puzzles difficulty comes likely due to it diverging from the puzzle-logic weve been introduced to before.

This level has expected you to run in circles until the game gives you a way out. Youre 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 somethings 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.

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An Analysis of the Mechanics and Narrative of Superliminal - Gamasutra

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