Indie Game of the Month: Superliminal lets you see puzzles from a different perspective

For this year’s last Indie Game of the Month I had a lot of choices. Platformers, visual novels, strategy games, it seemed like everyone was trying to get their big indie title out before the end of the year. However, I didn’t end up choosing any of them. Instead I went back to the end of November and picked Superliminal, a first person puzzler set to come out on other platforms this month. Why? Well, because it taught me to look at problems from another perspective, and from a certain perspective, it is still releasing in December. Besides, this is one game you really should be checking out, in my opinion more than the rest of December’s indie offerings.

A first look at Superliminal would make it seem like a Portal-alike. It’s a first person puzzle game with a simple gimmick, a reliance on physics, and a quirky sense of humor. The gimmick this time around is perspective. The game’s motto is “Perspective is Reality” or rather, if you can see it, that’s how it is.

What does this even mean? Well here are a few examples. You know how a small object held close to your face looks bigger? Well, if you grab an object in Superliminal and then orient it so that it looks bigger from your perspective, it becomes bigger in the game. The simplest puzzles in the game involve growing and shrinking objects like this, just to hit switches or build platforms.

However, like any good puzzler Superliminal soon starts riffing and remixing on this simple premise. What if you were to grow or shrink a doorway? Well, from a certain perspective this would make you bigger or smaller relative to the doorway, which thus makes you bigger or smaller in the game world.

And it doesn’t waste any time introducing new ways to experience this simple motif of “perspective is reality.” If a painting on the wall looks like a table, then that table is really there. If you can line up two unconnected paths in the distance such that they look like they connect then they do connect. If a shadow looks like a hole then it is a hole. If you place an object on it such that it looks solid, then it is solid. This very simple mechanic really has you stretching and twisting you brain for certain puzzle solutions.

Then, in yet another twist, Superliminal starts loosely interpreting the definition of perception. It doesn’t just toy with physical perception, but emotional perception as well. A stage is creepy only if you think it is. It’s impossible only if you think it is. Everything only exists the way that you see it. By the end of the game, it’s clear that this is a kind of deeper metaphor for the troubles of life.

That’s the central tie-in for the game’s plot. You are someone who has been experiencing depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and all those wonderful feelings that have become so common for all of us these days. You go to an experimental dream therapy center to work through these problems in your sleep. The issue, the dream diving technology goes on the fritz and a crazy A.I. wants to keep you in your dream instead of letting you wake up. Sound familiar?

Well at the risk of pointing toward a spoiler, even the story is a riff on the game’s central theme. Yes, it looks like it is ripping off Portal, but does it only look like that because you perceive it that way? The answer to that question is more complex than you’d think, and I’ll let you find it for yourself.

My main issue with Superliminal is that it’s depressingly short. You can finish the whole game in an hour and a half or so if you are good at solving puzzles. Even if you get stumped, this will only inflate the playing time another hour or so. This is a $20 game that you’ll blow through on your lunch break. That’s not a particularly good value proposition. Of course you can get a little bit more value by looking for secrets but in general the game ends when the credits roll.

But this is the season of gift giving and it’s my particular belief that the best gifts are things that the receiver wants but would never buy for themselves. So if you have a friend that loves first-person puzzle games, consider picking them up Superliminal. While it might not be a fantastic value proposition, it is a fantastic game. It’s worth experiencing at some point, even if you don’t shell out full price for it right now.