Superliminal

. 1478 words; about 8 minutes.
Category: Games.

Superliminal, the first and so far only game by Pillow Castle Games, is a first-person 3D puzzler which is often compared with the Portal series. Portal and Portal 2 were corkers, and the lack of another sequel left a void.

The Superliminal list price is €16.79, but it set me back €8.39 because "Superliminal is 50% off on Steam, and we just added a completely free multiplayer update!". On clicking through to the Steam listing it will bellow "SPECIAL PROMOTION! Offer ends 12 November", although given there's only one direction game prices go, you may not need to rush. However, I strongly recommend not supporting DRM, and you can get it for that same price from GOG's listing, although if you want the soundtrack as well it's currently cheaper on Steam because they give a 15% bundle discount. The "multiplayer update" is missing from my DRM-free GOG version, so this may be a Steam exclusive, or perhaps just an oversight.

Spoilers are blurred and a hover or tap will reveal them. If you can read this sentence without revealing it, your browser lacks the appropriate support and spoilers are not hidden. It's still fun to replay even once you know the twists, but don't spoil it yet.

Performance and interface

I played the game on a 2014-vintage MacBook Pro with an NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M and i7-4850HQ, i.e. 8 year old tech and pretty much the minimum spec for the game. I used the trackpad since my mouse is lost in the Desk Of Doom. There was noticable mouse input lag of perhaps 200ms, and curiously when the game is running in the background it also causes similar input lag in my text editor writing this. The game was often an infuriating slideshow with the default graphical settings, but did not slow down at all in "Low" settings. Evidently it's GPU-limited rather than CPU-limited, and the recommended Nvidia GTX 1070 would be on my shopping list were they not the thick end of a grand and unavailable thanks to idiot cryptominers.

There is something about Unity-based software which cause them to completely sidestep a lot of MacOS's UI settings, such as mouse acceleration and control-click to emulate a right-click, and this game is no different. Navigating through the game menus feels like the screen is made of treacle. When in the game, the mouse-look speed is fine, but parts of the game which require rotating objects with a right-button drag is somewhat challenging when no such button is present and control-drag is ignored. The game options allow you to adjust the mouse-look speed and bind a key to rotation, which makes it playable.

It is definitely preferable to play this on a nice desktop gaming rig rather than my Road Apple, which is the only machine I own with a GPU until prices become sane again.

Plot and game mechanics

The game opens with a tatty video narrated in a soothing voice promoting the Pierce Institute and their Somnasculpt in the style of one of those awful American drug TV ads which are very much verboten in civilised society. Call 1-555-SOMSCULPT today! This zooms out to reveal that it's basically an old VHS tape playing on a vintage telly.

"LOADING..."

Now you're staring at a wall with "WASD" and a mouse scrawled on it. We're in the tutorial level. Big sigh as we're off to the game options to change the key assignment since it'd be too much hassle to provide a secondary binding to the cursor keys for left-handed players. This is sadly an endemic problem in the games industry and not specific to Superliminal.

Scroll round, there's a "Terms of Service" on a table. It's too zoomed-out to read it but the pointer turns into a hand inviting you to click on the contract to pick it up. Oops, you've just signed it instead. No, you can never get close enough to read it.

Walking out of the room and down a corridor, you reach a table with a note on it saying "Perception is Reality. GRAB ↪" pointing at chess pieces. There's that inviting hand pointer again, so pick up a piece up, spin round, look into the air, drop it, and THUD as a large piece clatters down. Welcome to the first game mechanic: objects will have the same visible size while you're holding them, but they may be held close or far away and will change physical size when you drop them. Getting the size just right can be quite tricky, but that's why we're in a tutorial.

Out into the next corridor and a massive chess piece blocks your way. You know the drill.

Past that and the plot starts to be revealed. You are asleep and are in the I-LIDS programme. As you work through the tutorial it will show you how to rotate objects, jump, how objects cannot be taken through gateways, doors which are operated by putting a weight on a floor button, making stairways out of boxes, and so on. You've played Portal so this will all feel familiar. Another corridor with a chess piece, hang on, we've done this before. Just get up close to grab it and… it turns out to be a Trompe-l'œil painted on the floor and wall. So on and so forth.

To give games better pacing, or at least easier to code, they will often manipulate the universe when you're not looking. A driving game will move out-of-sight cars so that even if you drive into the weeds, you will still quickly catch up with another car to overtake. Open-world games will update far-away NPCs every few minutes and in implausibly-large steps. This game takes that universe-manipulation and rubs your nose in it.

Right, on to level two. "LOADING..." again, but with a twist. It seems to be random, but there are a variety of easter eggs to collect in the animation such as it counting up to 100%, the progress bar physically growing or morphing, and other oddities.

You are standing at the end of a bed with an alarm clock beeping away. It is blinking "3:00 AM". What sort of sadist set your alarm to that time? Anyway, you're up if not exactly alert and since there's nothing else obvious to do beyond hitting "snooze", you might as well wander down the corridors. If you feel like it, let off the fire extinguisher and pull the fire alarm because you're a jerk, and perhaps stop at the vending machine for a can of "DIET SODA" or "RANDOM SODA" to help not feeling quite so much like a zombie. Three bloody a.m. should be illegal! Your way is eventually blocked by a fire exit and there's that tempting hand pointer so we'll just press the handle and it comes off in your hand. Not the handle: the door, which gets larger when you put it down. You're not awake after all. So you go off and do solve some puzzles and pick up more of the plot. Towards the end of the level, Doctor Pierce directs you to the lift which will wake you up. Aaah, and then to wake up nice and refreshed in the morning after a night like that.

That was fun. Onwards to level 3. "LOADING..." Bed, check. Sodding alarm clock, check. Four in the morning isn't exactly an improvement on three. Maybe a can of "BAKING SODA" will help this time. Yeah, right.

There are nine levels in all. Each level builds on and subverts the expectations set by the previous. It is possible to speedrun the lot in 23 minutes, but a typical play through is about four or five hours. Is that much entertainment worth eight euros? I thought so: when I got to the end I went right back to the start and did it again. Another chance to find more of the wonderful easter eggs.

It'd certainly be nice if the game was longer, but some of these levels will have involved a lot of slow and delicate design work to polish it sufficiently to not break the illusion (no pun intended). More levels would have cost proportionately more to develop and thus make a more expensive game. Given this trade-off, it's probably around the right size.

Come on then, Pillow Castle Games, when is Superliminal 2 coming out? My credit card is ready and waiting.