Critical Play: Puzzles

Game: Superliminal
Creator: Pillow Castle Games
Platform: Steam (PC)
Audience: Puzzle players, 12+

Superliminal uses the changing perspectives of the puzzles well integrated into the game that creates an experience of satisfaction and frustration based on the manipulation of perception. 

Superliminal is entirely based on manipulating your perspective by making objects seem smaller or larger than they actually are. The player’s ability to solve puzzles relies on their willingness to explore pathways that may seem unreasonable or impossible. For instance, when first playing the game, I had to continuously pickup a chess pawn, adjust my screen angle, and drop it to make it larger to reach new areas (above). Superliminal’s puzzles forces the player to create new solutions that violate conventional logic, creating a type of fun from expression and discovery. The gameplay felt new and innovative because none of the puzzles were normal matching patterns, sequences, or ciphers. There was a constant need to move around and change the angles that you would look at certain objects.

This leads to the importance of feedback loops in the game. Since the changing perspective mechanic is central to the gameplay, the  feedback loops encourage the player to continue exploring and tinkering in the right path. For example, when making an object bigger, like a chess piece or rubber duck, there is a visual confirmation that it was the correct option since new areas become accessible or sometimes noises would play– allowing the player to keep experimenting and learning. Similarly, if an attempted method isn’t working, the pathway will stay blocked and the object will clearly seem awkward in place and not easy to work with. In the images above, the visual feedback of manipulating the puzzles along with the opened pathways (door) allowed me to go to new areas and attempt new things. This cycle of trial, error, and reward keeps the player motivated to progress further in the game.

In addition, the narrative arc is mixed into the gameplay, using the dream-like environment to tell a story of self-discovery and perception. The game starts with the player entering this therapy program and as the game goes on the narrative unfolds through each puzzle become more and more surreal and abstract. For example, the initial puzzles are simple and concrete in nature– a room where you manipulate a chess piece or a door exit sign. Then, the puzzles become gradually more complex, mirroring the player’s journey deeper into their subconscious and breaking down their mental barriers. There was one puzzle where the room entirely became a fade of white and the player was dizzy and nothing seemed to work– a drastic change from the immediate positive feedback of the first level.

Since the puzzles gradually increase in difficulty, it brings about the question of game balance. The game attempts to balance challenge and understanding through the increasing puzzle difficulty and pacing. Early levels of the game serve as a tutorial to  introduce players to the concept of manipulated perception with easy puzzles that give immediate feedback. As seen above, many messages on the wall would be instructions on how to manipulate objects in the game and progress, which helped to understand the controls and what was allowed. As players become more comfortable with the mechanic, the game gradually introduces more complex challenges that require more abstract thinking and longer times to know if something was done correctly or not.

One area for improvement in game balance is the occasional spike in difficulty. Some puzzles were disproportionately challenging, which led to a lot of frustration on my end. For example, there was one level where I had to constantly walk into random doors and I had no idea what was going on. I kept picking random ones and there was little to no indication if what I was doing was right. I ended up solving it a LONG time later due to chance, which was not satisfying at all. To address this issue, I think the game could incorporate a hint system or alternative pathways for difficult sections so that players can still progress in the game without being stuck and sitting there for long periods of time doing the same thing without change.

Compared to other puzzle games, Superliminal’s hard approach on linear progression ensures that players are always moving forward while being continually challenged by harder and new mechanics. There was never a point where I felt that I had to “restart” progress or go back to levels I already knew how to do. When returning to the “same place,” something would always change or be different. Superliminal also doesn’t use normal puzzle mechanics (as mentioned earlier) so there was actually a learning curve on how to progress in the game.

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