“Superhot” is a shooter game that flaunts its understanding of the discourse around video games. Its world is sculpted around how people talk about games and how games function in everyday life. As an example, the game has already gotten me to forward along an email to a friend that says, “SUPERHOT IS THE MOST INNOVATIVE SHOOTER I’VE PLAYED IN YEARS!” Considerate guy that I am, I acted so that he’d receive the discount that went with it. Oh, and I did that after the game told me to “OBEY,” so if I told you that “Superhot” is one of the best shooters I’ve played in a while, I’d feel as though it had colonized my mind.
“Superhot’s” subversions are baked into its gameplay. In the game, there is a chat room about the game, filled with enthusiasts who gleefully kick out newcomers, script kiddies, or anyone without the right connections. Funny as their chatter is, it wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful if the game over which they were geeking out weren’t as intoxicating as it is. “Superhot” breaks the first-person shooter down and rebuilds it into something novel and familiar — quite the hat trick.
Between brief, fuzzy intermissions that recall an ’80s computer on the fritz, “Superhot” drops you into assorted hostile situations — like in an elevator surrounded by gun-toting dudes. All of the enemies resemble polygonal ruby mannequins. The environments are heavily decked out in shades of white, gray and blue; they are serenely synthetic in a way that reminded me of “Mirror’s Edge.”
“Time moves when you move” is the game’s signature concept — ergo, if you remain still nothing happens. Nudge the analogue stick on your game pad a smidge and you’ll move in slow motion with the world around you. This allows you to mark the trajectory of, say, a buckshot blast from a rifle and maneuver out of the way. Conversely, if you tilt the analogue stick all the way, enemies move at whirlwind speeds making dodging exponentially harder. Get hit once, and you have to repeat the stage. The annoyance of failure is mitigated by the fact that the levels are short and reload times are fast, just like in “Hotline Miami.”
The time mechanic gives “Superhot” a tactical dimension. Move around too much, and you’ll waste opportunities to evade and unleash attacks. Move around too slow, after firing a gun for example, and your enemies will take advantage of your sluggish speed to scoot out of the way of oncoming projectiles. Thus, the game balances caution with brazen execution, in effect making every frame count. When you complete a stage, you’re treated to an uninterrupted replay played out at full speed that allows you to marvel at all of your feats of derring-do.
“The thing I really got out of it when I first experienced it was that it took the adrenalized piece out of shooting, which then allows it to come back in a different way that the player has more control of,” said Scott Alexander, a writer on the game. “So, instead of being dropped in a battlefield where if you don’t move right now you’re going to get a bullet in the head and you’ve got a system telling to you to move, [in ‘Superhot’], the system is telling you if you don’t move, you’re okay. Just stop for a second, breathe, look around, think, now act. … Giving the player [control over time] allows you to bring in more decision-making and a little bit more rational thought.”
Not long after the game seduces you, it begins to pull away. In different ways, it calls attention to its addictive gameplay loops, then taunts you for putting up with them. “No plot, no reason for anything, just killing red guys” flashes across the screen as the game proceeds to deconstruct your relationship to it and vice versa.
“It’s creating a desire in the player, like it’s creating the ultimate entertainment in [David Foster Wallace’s] ‘Infinite Jest,’” Alexander said. “It’s mentally bringing the player into a state that it wants to bring them into, and the player wants to be brought into — the player is complicit with their own entertainment to the system. This happens when you play ‘Call of Duty’; it’s just that they don’t mention it. [In ‘Superhot’] the system turns back around and looks at you and says, ‘Is this what you really want?’”
If you’re looking for a soulful, artistic shooter “Superhot” is it.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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