Arts video game review

Perception is reality

When forced lucid dreaming goes wrong

9529 superliminal   liane xu
The alarm clock is a recurring, guiding motif in 'Superliminal.'

Developed and published by Pillow Castle Games
Available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, MacOS, and Windows

Imagine you wake up in a plain room with nothing but a table and a terms of service form ready for you to sign. Perplexed, you sign and proceed out of the room. Soon after, a calm feminine voice speaks to you over the PA system, congratulating you on falling asleep and welcoming you to SomnaSculpt technology’s dream therapy session. As you continue, the overhead speaker advises you to look at things from a new perspective. It’ll be the key to you progressing through the dream and helping you cope with the problems of your conscious life. 

However, you don’t even finish the first dream when you notice the orderly rooms don’t seem very well crafted. You find your way down a side path and get a warning that you should proceed back to the orientation room but ignore it and continue onwards. Your actions set off some warnings. The calm voice tries to guide you back to the correct path or occasionally issue error warnings. Another voice, that of Dr. Glenn Pierce, attempts to reach you as you descend into more dream layers. He informs you of their progress (or lack thereof) in tracking you within the dreamscape and tries to help you wake up as best as he can.

Tonally, Superliminal reminds me of The Stanley Parable, where the protagonist explores a mysteriously empty office building at the behest (or in spite) of an omniscient narrator. The Superliminal player doesn’t have as much freedom as The Stanley Parable player, but both games give a vibe of constant unnerve and the story spiraling into nonsense. The aesthetic of the games’ graphics are also similar.

Gameplay-wise, Superliminal is a fun mind exercise. Your perception of objects changes their size and how they can be oriented in a given level. For example, say you’re given a standard rubber duck. If you pick it up and lift it so that it’s way above your head and then let go of it, the rubber duck will fall and drop the size of a bathtub. This manipulation is not only limited to the objects you interact with, but it extends to yourself as well, adding another level of thinking to the puzzles. 

As the dream layers increase, the surroundings become more abstract, and the developers took care to craft a different ambiance for each level. The one level I found most compelling was Blackout, which perfectly emulates the horror game experience. In stark contrast to most other levels in Superliminal, the Blackout level is constantly swathed in darkness. The few paltry sources of light you do get reveal bloody handprints and gruesome blood trails, and I braced for a jumpscare at every turn. 

Beyond that, there isn’t anything that particularly sets Superliminal apart from other first-person puzzle games. It’s a fun, relatively short game that is interesting to play through. If you seek other games that truly challenge your brain, I’d recommend Return of the Obra Dinn or Gorogoa.