In a world starched white, a fiery red humanoid has just shot at you. You dodge to the left as you see the bullet cruising past you and take aim at another enemy to your right. As he shoots, you step back to let it glide harmlessly in front of you while the faceless adversary shatters under the duress of your gunfire. In real time, this would take about a second but in Superhot, this exchange represents an entire 3 minutes of gameplay.
In Superhot‘s minimalist, clear-cut visual landscape of white corridors and battlefields, time only moves when you do, giving you mastery over the ticking clock. This simple mechanic allows you to clear enemies despite being heavily out-manned and out-gunned. It also makes this a fascinatingly complex first person shooter puzzle game.
The beginning levels seek to introduce you to your new powers and this new gameplay design, but things really get interesting once you’re into the meat of the game. With weapons such as katanas (to slice away bullets in mid-air) and new obstacles to champion, the simple days of the first levels are dramatically left behind and you’re thrown into complex, strategic battle choreography. You’re playing a puzzle game without even realizing. Here, strategy and lateral thinking are prioritized over gunfire, as a single stray bullet is all it takes to end your run.
Set up in a series of situations, each level provides the opportunity to try new manoeuvres and stretch your abilities. It is regrettable that at times levels do not seem to offer anything new to the gameplay experience, and become a rehash of previous experiences. The slowing down of the first person shooter model however has created an unprecedented depth of gameplay where every move can be scrutinized and adjusted. The puzzle is just as much about predicting enemies’ future movements as it is about orchestrating your own movement in the present time. So, when you complete a level and sit back to watch your moves in real time, the level of bad-assery is second to none.
Not only does the visual design of the game create a world of intense focus and drama, the tension built by this central game mechanic itself is a win of its own. Silence permeates the game, with the only existing sounds being the glass-like shattering of your enemies and gunfire. So when you’re weaving through an onslaught of gunshots, that one bullet that takes you down will have you reeling back from the screen your nose was just pressed up against in shock.
So high is the level of engrossment generated from this simplistic provocation of tension, you find yourself angling your body as you play in order to avoid the bullet you can see it about to whizz past your head. A point to be made here, however, is the first person nature of the game means that you are unaware of the parameters of your character and so quite often cannot deduce whether you are safe from a bullet or not.
Beauty also reigns in the subtlety of the gameplay details. An inevitable result of slowing down a first person shooter to this extent is that new elements of gameplay must arise from situations that were previously taken for granted. A brilliant example of this lies in the types of weapons used by both the character and the enemies. There are no reloading functions in Superhot. Instead, players must throw their empty weapons at enemies to cause them to drop their weapons for which you can dash in and grab.
Physics and gravity dictate in the real world that an empty weapon weighs less than a full weapon – and in this slowed down version of reality this distinction becomes a real aspect of combat. A smaller, lighter weapon for example will take longer to hit an enemy than a larger one, and an enemy’s large weapon will fall to the ground faster than a smaller one. This attention to detail, while not necessarily crucial to gameplay, displays a critically high level of smaller gameplay functions that become increasingly important as one progresses.
The game’s central identification is this manipulation of time and herein lies one of the most prominent thematic explorations of this highly self-conscious title – the element of control. It is clear even from the beginning computer command line interface that acts as a central menu that this notion of control is a central feature of the game. The interface forces the player to engage with a retro design that harks back to an era when programs could be easily created by users with lines of command – an era when man had simple, holistic control over computers.
This places the player back at the center of this control within the gameplay experience even from the start. This is also reflected within the action segments of the game, the reason the player never feels frustration at their death is because they recognize that they are in control of their life. They can see each step play out, and they know at all times where all bullets and enemies are – their death is only ever their fault and not pre-determined by the computer itself.
It is in this aspect of control that some of the underlying narrative themes of the user-computer dynamic come into play. The general plot is incredibly ambiguous. You are initially sent a message by a friend showing you the superhot.exe file – you play a bit, and come back to chat. Over the course of this back and forth things get deeper and deeper. Without spoiling the plot, players can locate within the action gameplay secret locations that offer bizarre hints at the overall trend of the chat element of the game and you piece together information from both elements of this game, it is clear that there is a merge between the human and game world.
It is here that Superhot demonstrates the fragility of considering man and machine as two distinct entities. There are several layers of complex theme and plot to be interpreted here, however the laborious decoding of its narrative is not required for full enjoyment of the game. The action sequences are still immensely enjoyable. In fact, even if you find all the hidden areas and decode all the plot points, you are never really sure if you fully understand what Superhot is telling you – but the beauty is that you aren’t expected to. This idea of control within the user-computer dynamic sets up Superhot as possibly the closest a first person shooter game has come to truly unifying the player and character. The game speaks only to you and engages you in a narrative discourse that becomes personal and complex, devoid of authorial voice.
Simplicity is key to Superhot‘s self-conscious, incredibly badass exploration of the relationship between man and computer. With the campaign mode running between two and three hours, the simple nature of this gameplay isn’t swollen with unnecessary padding. This limits the replay value, of course. However, one of the best unlocks is after completing the game is Endless Mode, which pits you against endlessly respawning enemies in attempt to amass the highest number of kills possible.
Simple does not mean boring
Gamplay - 9/10
Plot - 8/10
Design - 8/10
It’s tricky to bring something new to a highly creative industry with a highly volatile audience, however to turn a 7 day game jam project into an innovative, unique development of the fps shooter is almost as impressive as the experience Superhot presents itself.