Indie Wonderland: SUPERHOT

A few hours in

Turns out, no, it isn’t. It gets worse.

This much worse.

I’ve heard people say that SUPERHOT would have been better without its story. Just, like, cut it out entirely. The story does nothing but distract from the gameplay, is the claim, and it intrudes on your flow often and at the worst possible times.

I don’t entirely agree with this. I see where the flow complaint is coming from, because yes, SUPERHOT has a tendency of drop-kicking you into the narrative when you least want it. You never ‘want’ it, because the story’s not very good. Still, I personally think SUPERHOT‘s story at least makes the attempt to provide us with a better experience than ‘just shoot a bunch of red dudes in slow-mo without context’. Its heart is in the right place. It just fails at it so poorly, so flailingly. I don’t think SUPERHOT would have been better without the story, but I do think the story is in need of some serious editing.

To give you an example of how this works…

No, you know what? I’m just going to spoil the whole thing flat-out. Makes it easier to talk about, and you’re genuinely not impacted much. If you really want to preserve your spoiler-free SUPERHOT experience, skip ahead to the screenshot that reads ‘CONTROL’, white text on red.

Consider this your official spoiler warning.

Okay, with that out of the way:

SUPERHOT attempts to tell a story that is about you, the player, and the fact that you’re playing SUPERHOT. But not like, you-you: some poorly-defined in-universe stand-in of you, who’s still playing SUPERHOT, but a version of SUPERHOT that’s like the SUPERHOT real-you is playing, but without the bits that are about them not playing SUPERHOT.

You still with me? I’m okay if you want to make a flowchart or something.

This is your brain on SUPERHOT.

The game-within-a-game setup is the relatively simple start of SUPERHOT, and that bit’s easy enough to follow. Then SUPERHOT, in-universe SUPERHOT, starts thwarting your attempts to play. You have to deal with some cracks, and a password that you don’t know but your in-game you somehow knows. Then the game starts taking over your controls, forces you to insult your friends, and taunts you with your powerlessness.

You’re right, I’m not! Good lampshade, SUPERHOT!

The story then spirals into something that I think I’m supposed to parse as SUPERHOT ‘taking over’ or ‘mind-controlling’ your character. You surrender your will to the machine, assault a fancy well-guarded ‘hypercore’, and upload your mind to the internet. And in the end, you are told to use the body you are controlling to find yourself — your actual self, your own real body, wearing a VR set and plugged into a computer — and ‘sever the link between soft- and hardware’.

You don’t get to give yourself the gun.

This dramatic reveal moment — it’s all real, everything you’ve been doing and everyone you’ve been killing, it’s all real, and you just killed yourself — would probably have worked better if the game hadn’t played almost exactly the same scene halfway through the game. You already had me find myself and punch myself in the head, SUPERHOT. Kinda spilled the narrative beans a little early, there.

Regular readers and friends might know that I’m something of a fan of games that use basic gameplay to try and say something about the player. Spec Ops: The Line famously counters the player’s ‘I had no choice but to commit all those atrocities’ with ‘you could have just not done them‘. Bastion bakes a mechanical justification for playing New Game+ into the world and narrative, with all the shitty consequences that entails. And both Pony Island and Undertale have endings where the game characters explicitly ask the player to stop playing. This doesn’t work equally well for everyone; my Bluesian cohort Ninjustin in particular has strong opinions on why this sort of thing is ‘bullshit’. But generally speaking, I like it.

SUPERHOT doesn’t really pull it off.

Partially, it’s bad timing. The examples I mentioned all put their meta-behaviour player payoff near the end of the game, giving you some freedom in your choice of how to deal with it. Accept the insult or decline, quit or no, restart or delete? The game at large is over anyway. But SUPERHOT puts a big ‘YOU SHOULD STOP PLAYING’ moment right in the middle of the game. It actually doesn’t let you proceed until you manually quit the game, then restart. And then it spins it as some big moment of manipulation on its part. ‘YOU CAN’T STOP, CAN YOU’. Game, don’t give me that garbage! I know there’s like two dozen more levels to you. I don’t need this baby’s first meta-player-interaction. I just want to shoot more red dudes.

Partially, it’s ludonarrative dissonance. Nothing about SUPERHOT‘s narrative is in any way connected to anything about SUPERHOT‘s gameplay. Saving and reloading is crucial to Undertale, resetting the worldline is core to Bastion‘s everything, and Spec Ops: The Line forces you to make the decisions that damn you in-game, without much in the way of external prompting. But SUPERHOT can only do its ‘clever’ story by kicking you out of the red dude-murdering and dropping you into pseudo-DOS. This doesn’t make me immersed, it just makes me annoyed.

And partially, it’s just the ham-fisted nature of it. During SUPERHOT‘s first ‘big moment’, it takes some control away from the player, forcing you to perform certain actions to be allowed to proceed. ‘TRY TO QUIT’, it finally tells you. ‘SEE IF WE LET YOU LEAVE’.

So I hit ALT-F4. That seemed to do the trick well enough.

Yes, that wasn’t the intended input. Yes, I understand what I was supposed to do. But I was so annoyed at the game’s blustering bravado at this point, I just wanted to see what would happen. But when I loaded the game back it, I discovered that not only had it not worked, the game had actually dropped me back at the start of that whole overblown sequence. SUPERHOT‘s checkpointing is wonky at the best of times, and here I found myself forced to run a whole pseudo-humiliating mousetrap over again. If SUPERHOT‘s gameplay wasn’t as all-around great as it was, I might’ve actually quit the game right there and then.

Of course, that previous sentence should clue you in a little to why this review is actually a full review, instead of three paragraphs of ‘THIS GAME IS BAD’.

If you skipped ahead here to avoid spoilers, this screenshot was totally right!

Gameplay-wise, SUPERHOT is really good. It’s… more or less exactly what everyone was hoping, I think. It’s SUPERHOT. The free SUPERHOT online prototype demo, except expanded, refined, and ramped up to 11.

I know SUPERHOT is parsed and marketed as a first-person shooter, and no I’m not saying the line, but I feel as though that’s almost the wrong way to look at things. I find myself looking at SUPERHOT more like… like a puzzle game, really. A procedurally-generated, first-person puzzle game. One where all the pieces are red people and their small set of objects and weapons, the somewhat-interactable environment is your tabletop, and it’s up to you and your imagination to work out the best possible way to be the last one standing — or at least to survive as long as you can.

On first launch, SUPERHOT only has the story mode. This is part curated set of puzzles, part extended options tutorial. The first few levels explain your
basic movement options, but there’s much more to SUPERHOT than that. Sure, you can shoot guns, throw guns to stun enemies, and pick up guns from the ground. But did you know that if you throw a gun at an enemy wielding their own, they’ll drop it and you can pick it out of the air? Or that you can throw empty guns to block bullets and melee attacks? Or that you can use katanas to slice bullets? Or that bullets can stop other bullets in mid-air?

Two bullets where once there was one? Katana, you are my *true* friend.

The toybox gets even larger after you unlock the final ability, ‘hot-switching’, which lets you switch your current body for any chosen enemy — to the immediate explosive detriment of your current one. I’ll leave you to discover the ins and outs that come with this technique for yourself, save for this one: throwing a katana at an enemy, swapping into that enemy before the katana hits, and then snatching it mid-air to slice the former friend right next to you? Makes you super awesome.

Though there *are* downsides.

After you beat Story Mode, two more modes open up: Challenge, and Endless. Both of these are pretty much what it says in the tin. Challenge Mode lets you replay the whole game with various restrictions laid in. Move at higher speed, but you can only use and throw katanas. Hotswitching is unlocked immediately, and punches kill, but no other weapons. Time freezes completely when you stop moving, but enemy bullets are that much faster. These modes add some fun spice to ‘default’ SUPERHOT, and they force you to think in new and unexpected ways — the katana-throwing trick from before is practically a requirement in later Katana Challenge Levels.

It’s Endless Mode where SUPERHOT really shines, though. If SUPERHOT is a selection of curated murder puzzles, and Challenge Mode is those same puzzles with extra hot sauce, Endless Mode is a massive procedural puzzle generation engine. The premise starts simple: on this one map, kill as many endlessly-spawning enemies as you can before you die. But that’s only the deceptive tip of the iceberg. You quickly unlock dozens of maps to play on, and a variety of play modes: survive as long as you can, get as many kills as you can in twenty seconds, get as many kills as you can in twenty real-time seconds…

And of course, the game is keeping track.

SUPERHOT without Endless Mode is a funny curiosity, a few fun innovation tricks stretched over several dozen levels and then cutting out just as you’re getting warmed up. But SUPERHOT with Endless Mode is an endless source of bragging rights and gameplay videos for years to come. Doubly so because of the simple video editing and uploading tools built into the game itself: Superhot Team has cleverly anticipated that a game about doing cool slow-mo murder stuff, and then seeing those results sped-up in real speed as an awesome reward for your hard work, would very likely spawn some sort of sharing community in short order. Them building that community themselves along the game proper is just clever business. You can already watch hundreds of fancy SUPERHOT gameplay videos on their Killstagram, if you will. Here are mine.

I might go make a few more, in fact.

Final thoughts

More than with any other of my recent games, I feel what you think about SUPERHOT is very strongly personal. I’ve heard the complaint that the game is too limited in scope, for instance: with only three gun types, two melee weapon ‘types’, and one effect to throwing stuff, there are only so many permutations you can go through before you’ve seen them all. And the enemy AI is dumb enough to allow for easy exploitation: almost any Endless Mode can be made trivial by hiding around a corner and waiting for enemies to run around, one by one, into your waiting arms of death.

I get these things, I do. They just don’t… matter to me? I actually like SUPERHOT‘s limited scope of weapons and options: it creates a limited play space focused more on doing the best with a few familiar tools than hoping for the one weapon you like or need. And yes, the AI is easy to exploit! Doing so sort of misses the point of the spectacle-focused Endless Mode, I feel. Why would you murder in a corner for seventeen minutes straight? Just to make a super-boring video?

And on the other side of things, there is still so much good I could still mention here. Like the fact that melee targets glow in intuitive red-black stripes when you’re clear enough to hit. Or that time moves in bursts when you fire a gun, meaning you absolutely have to be sure of the next few seconds before you commit. Or the crisp-clear sound design. Or the weird, hidden ‘chat channel’, that I sat on and read for ten minutes straight, giving me a clearer view of SUPERHOT‘s world than any of its gameplay narrative. Or the ASCII tree-cutting minigame! Or the fancy visual effects you live through in some of the optional challenge modes. Or, or, or…

Taken in the context of what it clearly attempts to be — a flashy fancy slow-mo murder simulator slash gameplay video creation engine — SUPERHOT passes with flying colours. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s more or less what I wanted it to be: SUPERHOT as I knew it, except more so. The story might be nonsense and a pile of chips, but the gameplay is fun enough, and the gameplay modes savvy enough, to keep me coming back long after I thought I’d be done.

And while 23 dollars might seem like a high price, in current-climate indie game terms? If what I’ve written here at all appeals to you, SUPERHOT is likely to be an investment that you’ll have fun with for months, maybe years to come?

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Jarenth’s still not going to say the line. He has a thing about ‘funny’ game marketing lines. Ask him why on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

5 comments

  1. I definitely agree with your complaints about some parts of the story. I guess I have grown to expect games that try this to be a little more self aware. Rather than quitting I just went and idled in the fake chat group for a while wondering if the game would try to nudge me back on course. If you are going to trying to play with the player’s expectations you really need to allow the player to play back and test limits.

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