I put the moon up front with this because I hate to open with a quote straight off. Anyway, now we’ve had the moon, here’s Nathaniel Hawthorne on dreams. Hawthorne’s ambition was “to write a dream”. He meant: “a dream which shall resemble the real course of a dream, with all its inconsistencies, its eccentricities and aimlessness – with nevertheless a leading idea running through the whole.” Tough gig? Quite. “Up to this old age of the world, no such thing has never been written.”
Superliminal certainly gives it a go. It is not, in truth, particularly dreamlike a lot of the time, but it is set amongst dreams – in a sort of dream laboratory in which you are thoroughly lost. And it pulls a lot of dreamlike tricks. Superliminal is all about perspectives. Let’s say there’s a room with a door halfway up the wall that you really want to get through. You have a little wooden block in your hand. If you can position the block so it looks big enough to climb upon to get to that door – voila! The block will be big enough. Perspective is reality here.
It gets a lot more complex than that, of course. Your job is to navigate increasingly fraught environments looking for the exit. At first I worried this was going to be one of those games that follows the comical bureaucratic blandspeak template of Portal, but it’s a lot more interesting and heartfelt than that. At first I worried, like I mentioned, that it wasn’t particularly dreamlike – that Hawthorne was right and the subject was just too tough. But it’s a mediated dream, I guess – a lab dream. Almost a guided dream. More than anything it’s just a wonderful puzzle game.
So you know how to make objects bigger and smaller than they initially are – by making them appear to be as big or small as you want them to be. Dice, exit signs, chess pieces. All of these can be blown up or shrunk down, and the pleasure of Superliminal often lies in finding a surprisingly practical use for such a fantastical object. A huge chess piece, for example, can weigh down a pressure plate. A vast dice can be pulled from the wall to reveal a gaping hole behind it. The ramps in this game! The stairs!
Superliminal is just getting going though. Fairly soon objects themselves are not what they appear to be. A block may turn out to be two blocks, a chess piece might lift off the floor and carry a chunk of that floor with it. Actually, a chess piece might really be a clever bit of perspective painting that warps as you walk around it, like that amazing skull in The Ambassadors. Inverting that, paintings on various surfaces might line up just so and… an object that wasn’t there before appears!
Sueprliminal is not afraid to get complex. At one point it turns out the lights. At another it sends you through a gloriously hellish maze, the details of which should not be spoiled. But it’s at its best when it’s pulling pretty simple tricks on you, like one involving a doll’s house that will live on in memory.
Its greatest trick, though, is that this weird topsy-turvy dreamland all makes a beautiful kind of sense by the end of it. This is a brief game, but a very generous one. I wandered in. I puzzled. I dropped the moon at one point. And I left having taken something important from the whole experience.