Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Superhot asked me, or rather, ordered me to tell you that “it’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years,” but not to tell you “too much” or “reveal the nature of the system.” And now I am in an uncomfortable moral dilemma as a writer. I enjoyed Superhot, but…am I just obeying its orders by telling you that?
Let’s shelve my existential crisis for now, because the Polish studio Superhot Team’s Superhot is the most meta game I have ever played. My uncomfortable feeling is a testament to its success at being meta. It is the kind of game Evil Abed from the show Community would make. The premise of Superhot is intentionally confusing. You play as someone playing a game called Superhot which incidentally appears to be the tool of an evil corporation. It uses this ridiculous plot to frame its levels.
Much of Superhot is a first-person shooter with the innovation that time only moves when you move. It’s core gameplay loop is incredibly compelling. Each level feels like a puzzle. I would stand still, time would be frozen, and I would examine the five red guys around me and try to determine how to kill all of them without dying. I would fire a bullet, everyone would move slightly, and I would then slowly move to line up my next shot. When I can land a succession of slow-motion hits, Superhot feels almost balletic, like a perfectly executed dance routine. By the end of the game, I still wanted more of this brilliant loop. Unfortunately, the post-game challenge modes don’t quite provide the finely tuned experience of the main game, as they are all a rehash of the story missions with slight variations.
Besides the challenge modes, my other main gripe with Superhot is the lackluster soundtrack. The game is mostly silent, with a few electronic interludes interspersed. It’s a lost opportunity. I would have preferred a full electronic score to accompany the game, to emotionally accentuate its weirdness. Instead the levels are mostly silence punctuated by gun shots, giving the game an almost empty feeling at points.
Superhot ultimately succeeds by playing with game conventions and video game culture in myriad ways. Superhot appears as the main character’s computer terminal. The in-fiction Superhot that the protagonist is playing – the shooter part – is one component of their terminal.
The main character also frequently messages a friend of theirs along with the corporation that owns Superhot. At one point, the friend asks them what they think of Superhot. “No plot, no reason for anything, just killing red guys,” they say; and yet despite arguing for its vapidity, the protagonist is quickly consumed by the game. Before long, they say “I just want to get back in the game.” The developers begin to approach an interesting subversion of video game expectations through this meta conversation. Is this commentary on how we interact with video games? Are we too obsessive with the way we play games? But then Superhot plunges you back into shooting red guys before you can take the time to ponder that.
At one point the main character says “I can’t control myself. I’m not even typing these words.” At first this seems like they are simply commenting on their inability to stop playing. However, as I considered these words more deeply, they took on new layers of meaning. When read from my perspective as the player, I also do not have control in many aspects of Superhot. I don’t have control over what the main character does other than shoot. I am literally not typing the words on the protagonist’s terminal; they just appear when I hit the trigger. Can I ever really embody a game character? Is choice in games an illusion? Don’t worry about it, it’s time to start shooting red guys again.
I’m not certain if Superhot is actually profound in any way, but it is entertaining through its sheer strangeness and the wonderful feeling of its slow-motion shooting. Perhaps rather than saying something profound, it used its cyberpunk-influenced philosophy as set dressing to put me in the strange world of slow-motion red guys. It’s more aesthetic than substance, but its red and white aesthetic is captivating. Superhot feels like a post-modern drug trip, and a fun one at tha…wait, I’m doing exactly what Superhot ordered me to.
Superhot is available to download now on Steam for Windows and Mac. Superhot was played using a review copy provided by Superhot Team.