Superliminal is a puzzle game in which perception is reality.
I stand in the hallway of a quiet medical facility, and grab a can of soda from a vending machine. When I hold the soda in my hands, it’s quite small. However, when I turn and place the soda at the end of the hall, I’ve played a clever trick; I can now walk towards the soda can to find its grown to a massive size.
This is the key mechanic of Superliminal. Later, I find an orange block painted on the walls. If I stand just right, the block looks real. I can pick it up as if it were a physical object, and now it’s in my hands. Portraits, seen in the right way, can become doorways to another environment. It’s not about what’s real, it’s about what looks real.
You see, I’m in a therapy session conducted via dreams. I don’t know who I am, but I’m clearly here to test a program and learn something in the process. It sounds soothing, right up until it becomes clear that something, somewhere, has gone wrong, and I’m stuck inside a dream that very quickly begins to feel like a nightmare.
The key mechanic
Everything comes down to the idea of tampering with reality through the use of perspective, which is legitimately very neat. I spend my first hour or so with the game making boxes bigger and then smaller again while chuckling to myself. It feels like a magic trick, but one that I control.
The problem is that Superliminal isn’t a sandbox; it’s a puzzle game. You can’t make everything bigger or smaller, and there are doors every so often that block you from bringing your useful soda cans, exit signs, or chess pieces into the next level.
This often makes Superliminal feel like Portal. I’m moving from segmented level to level trying to figure out what the game wants me to do, instead of having fun with everything that I’ve been shown is possible. As I go deeper into the dream and the world becomes less logical, I paradoxically feel more constricted, not less.
What’s worse is that Superliminal is occasionally buggy to the point of shouting in frustration. At one point I found a ledge that was too tall for me to climb over with a single brick. There was a second brick painted on the walls but, for some reason, I couldn’t find the exact angle that would allow me to use the brick as an object instead of a painted decal.
So I used the one block I had access to, made it big so it clipped through the walls, hurled my character at the glitching brick, and ended up on the high ground regardless. It didn’t feel right, or even satisfying, but it worked?
On another occasion, I had to manipulate the size of a pool float in order to reach a high door. I resized the float and moved through the doorway only to find myself in a broken environment without textures. It was certainly surreal, but not in the way the developers probably intended.
A story that doesn’t quite work
I am accompanied by voices as I descend into a dream world, including the affable but unhelpful Dr. Glenn Pierce and a female sounding AI. Glenn tries to soothe me but fails, and the female AI repeatedly chides me angrily for not dreaming correctly.
Superliminal struggles as hard to connect on an emotional level as it does to work on a mechanical level. Everything remains thoroughly middling. Even as the game is trying to suggest a sense of isolation and escalation through environmental cues, like soda cases stacked to read DIE as I approach a door, or increasingly incoherent and desperate whiteboards covered in scribbled pleas for me to WAKE UP, I don’t really feel alarmed or concerned. There just isn’t the sense of urgency that the design is clearly trying to inspire in me.
The companions in Superliminal are too flat to make much of an impression, if you’ll pardon my pun. Superliminal’s characters get stuck in the same patterns and emotional tone throughout the game, without enough variance for them to come across as characters with their own desires and stakes. I can tell where the jokes are, but they don’t hit with the weight they should.
At one point, the character who is supposed to be testing me — there’s Portal, again — informs me that I’m “exhibiting signs consistent with an increase in fear, hopelessness, and frustration.”
That was true! But it wasn’t with the dream, it was with the game itself. The few clever tricks that make me actually feel on edge play with the sense of how we’re used to interact with games in general, not with these puzzles in particular. A loading bar fills up, only for the frame to expand to the left and fill again. My cursor becomes an awkwardly drawn smiley face. In one of the few environmental gags to actually land, I see a garbage can in a recycling bin.
I rarely feel accomplished, because I never feel like I am outsmarting the game. I’m just doing the few tricks the game has shown me will work, only for those tricks to sometimes fail due to technical issues, not subversion in the design. And often when I fail I can’t tell why, whether it’s because my idea is bad or the game just isn’t recognizing that I’m doing what I should be doing. The lack of feedback is maddening; this is a finished, polished product with some very impressive scenes, but that makes the roadblocks even more frustrating.
I don’t want to dump on the game. It’s the product of a small studio working for over half a decade. But at the same time, my husband had to check on me after he heard me shouting at my screen: “Come on, what the fuck” multiple times. Perhaps there’s an angle from which Superliminal is a satisfying, Portal-style thriller, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find that angle. And as the game was so fond of reminding me, perception is reality.
Superliminal is now available on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a “retail” Epic Games store code provided by Pillow Castle. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.