Superliminal is a 2019 surreal puzzle game from Pillow Castle. Following in the footsteps of Demruth’s 2013 Antichamber, it features puzzles based around forced-perspective. The story’s got kind of a Portal thing going, too – you’re a dreamer who’s accidentally stumbled into a sleep therapy dream, and nobody totally knows where you are or how to get you out, and when they do figure it out the computer turns on you and won’t let you escape – Portal vibes, right? And yet by the end of the game, you’re listening to rising strings, those soft angelic sounds that signal transcendence and enlightenment, while a doctor tells you how you’ve successfully overcome your self-doubt and proven your ability to cope in the world. It’s a bit of a mood shift – which is not bad, necessarily, but it’s definitely – it’s noticeable.
But okay, let’s stay with that for a minute. How does fiction move between moods? How do you handle that kind of shift in a way that’s compelling rather than jarring? Is there something that we can identify Superliminal as potentially missing, something that can help us understand genre and mood more broadly? Part of the initial conversation would have to be about expectation. When we talk about genre, we’re really talking about the expectations that the audience brings to a piece of fiction. If you’re watching science fiction, you expect spaceships and technology. If you’re playing a Portal game, you expect a song at the end. The way that we understand texts is through reference to other texts – through the repetition of motifs and story elements making up a particular type of tale. That’s the etymological root of the word ‘genre’ – it comes from the Latin genus, meaning ‘class’ or ‘kind’. It’s the same root word as ‘generic’ and ‘gender’ – it’s about categories, types, groups of things. When you’re in a given genre, people expect a series of events that fits with the broader group. And that’s not to say that the audience has to know everything that’s going to happen. In a murder mystery, they don’t need to know who the killer is from the start. But they do expect that the story will eventually resolve with the killer’s unmasking and defeat. To put that another way, the audience expects that they will not understand until the end. Even the plot twist exists within a framework of expectation. You hear people complain sometimes that a plot twist was too obvious – that they saw it coming a mile away. The expectation is that plot twists are unexpected.
All of this is just to say that expectation, as a concept, is not about your moment to moment experience. It’s more about the broader structure of narrative as a whole. Surprise and subversion and shocking twists all have their place within a narrative ecosystem, and we expect them to behave in certain ways, even when we don’t anticipate their arrival. In the case of Superliminal, then, when it sets up a wacky Portal-esque narrative, people expect a certain set of roughly proximal events. Its transition back into serious deep-and-meaningful psychological revelation is a tough one. It’s not impossible – the most obvious route is to show how the comedy or goofiness is somehow implicated in that deeper revelation, as in (for instance) Bo Burnham’s famous ‘Can’t Handle This‘. But If there’s no integration, the comedy and the deep-and-meaningful can clash in really awkward ways.
Partly this conflict is a dissonance around responsibility. Both Portal and Superliminal are built around the idea of a system working in unexpected ways. Their particular brand of comedy could be described as the chaotic engine gag. It’s what we see with a runaway wagon, or a car rolling away because you forgot the handbrake. The machine is functioning perfectly, but because it’s not managed appropriately, it’s creating chaotic results. It’s a gag about hubris, about how humans create things that they can’t control and get themselves into trouble. And, crucially, in both Portal and Superliminal, you do not play the people who created the machine. You’re not an operator or a designer – you’re a rat in the maze. You’re the victim of these dumbasses who lost control of their technology. In Portal, you’re abandoned to the machine. All of its creators are dead, and your only recall is to run the machine to its end – both on a literal level, as you finish all the game’s puzzles, and on a fictional level, as the game’s climax sees you kill Glados. You have to take on that responsibility to look after yourself, because there’s nobody else to do it. In Superliminal, however, the creators still exist. Dr Glenn Pierce, who leads the project, is in pretty steady communication. He knows you’re in the maze, and he’s communicating with you and trying to get you out of it. That presence creates a shift in the player’s sense of responsibility. Pierce can fix it. It’s his toy, he’s the one with the power, he’s got to sort it out. There aren’t any immediate threats to your life, so you’re really just larking about until Pierce can re-establish control. There’s really a sense that when he does finally figure it out, it’ll almost be a shame, because it’s fun exploring these forced perspective puzzles.
That shift in responsibility really interrupts some of the emotional maneuvers that the game tries to make. For instance, at one point, Pierce has a solution figured out. You’re about to escape the dream, but the computer blocks your progress. You’ve not been fixed, it claims. You’re still experiencing doubt and uncertainty. You must therefore continue with the dream-training until your attitude changes. On a purely practical level, I can’t imagine any player feeling self-doubt at that particular point, right when they’re thinking they’re about to win the game – so it doesn’t resonate with the player’s own emotional arc, or with the dynamic between the player and the scientist. Again, you’ve just been larking about. If the game worked here to create a sense of isolation and abandonment, to raise the stakes by breaking down some of those supportive links with the outside – if, for instance, the player believed that Pierce was somehow removed from the situation, that you were abandoned to your fate – there might be a different mood. But again, there’s just not really enough in that direction. The jokes stop, and you continue plodding along, and the game feels a little more grey, a little less entertaining – and then eventually you reach the end and you’re patted on the back and given a big speech (from Pierce) about how you overcame your insecurities – which is especially bizarre, because you’ve spent the first half of the game feeling schadenfreude at how Pierce can’t control his machine. Your emotional journey is pushed into center stage, even though you’ve really just been a bystander watching another person’s drama. The resulting effect is a bit weedy. It’s not bad to make the player reevaluate the meaning of a game, to recast events in a different light – but there are still expectations about what you need to make those transitions effectively. Superliminal is missing a couple of those bits.