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  • An Analysis Of The Mechanics And Narrative Of Superliminal

    - Erik Dewhurst

  • Level 2 - Optical


    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 you're lost in their lucid dreaming system. He confirms that things aren't 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, you'll 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, they're 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.

    Level 3 - Cubism


    An alarm wakes you up in a sleep-study bedroom. It's 4am and the halls are empty. You turn a corner and you're in an industrial hallway then an art gallery. The Orientation Protocol indicates that you attempted to use an unauthorized pathway. Now you're 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 leve's 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 that's 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 you're 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.

    Level 4 - Blackout


    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 aren't 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.


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