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Size is ruled by perspective in the bizarre dreamworld of Superliminal

I pick up a little chess piece and hold it up in front of my face so it appears to touch the ceiling and floor at the same time. When I drop it, what was a palm-sized pawn hits the floor with a heavy thud and fills the entire room. I'm stuck in some kind of lucid dream. Like the optical illusion of pinching the Tower of Pisa between your fingers while standing a block away, in first-person puzzle game Superliminal what you see is what you get, and in the most literal way.

Superliminal first surfaced as a tech demo from 2014 that showed off out-of-the-box puzzle solving strategies, like the player picking up and dropping an exit door on their own head and finding another exit hidden on the surface of a planet hundreds of miles above the level. The demo got plenty of excitement five years ago despite its placeholder visuals, but now Pillow Castle Games is back with a new trailer and new demo for Superliminal that's got a sleeker look and an intriguing story to go with its puzzles.

I begin in a room with beige and green walls that reminds me of a doctor's office. It's empty other than a table and a paper titled "Terms of Service" that I conveniently cannot pick up or see clearly enough to read. A foreboding feeling hits me. I don't want to know what my character has gotten themselves into or why.  

It only takes a few moments to grasp the rules thanks to the helpful pop that signals me picking up or dropping an object paired with the clatter or boom it makes on the floor to let me know what size it's become. 

The routine is easy: to enlarge I stand beside something small, pick it up, and hold it up facing the opposite end of the room until it appears larger from my perspective. Think back to the Tower of Pisa. To shrink things, I do the opposite and stand far away from them, pick them up, and then place them down beside me.

(Image credit: Pillow Castle)

The first few rooms, all with the same austere color scheme, introduce me to the rules of the dreamland with some forced perspective puzzles, covering these basic principles. A giant chess piece blocks an entire hallway, so I pick it up while standing far away and put it down closer to myself, cutting its size in half. In another room there's nothing but a set of small wooden alphabet blocks and an exit about ten feet off the ground on the opposite wall. I pick up a block and hold it near my face so it appears half the size of the opposite wall. When I drop it, it's almost as tall as I am. I do the same with the second block, stack them like a set of stairs, and climb out. If this is the tutorial, I can't imagine how complex it'll get later on.

If you do happen to see your parents, please punch them in the face as hard as you can and immediately run away.

Dr. Glen Pierce

A prerecorded woman's voice tells me over the intercom that this set of rooms is my introductory tutorial to the Interactive Lucid Dream State (yes, that's iLids). Unassuming piano jazz plays over the speakers while I pick up and put down all the toys provided for me in each room. It's a pleasant backtrack, until things start to get strange, that is. In one hallway a window shows a room stuffed full of alarm clocks so tightly they're pressed against the glass all reading "12:05 AM." The jazz feels ominous now. 

In the next room, a block hides an open doorway boarded over with planks that I pull off and discard. I'm in the service hallways of the buildings now, surrounded by brick, concrete, and thick round ventilation ducts. An early '00s boom box sits on one of the ducts, flashing red. When I touch it, a recording plays. Dr. Glen Pierce informs me that "we" have no idea where "you" are. Meaning me, apparently lost in my own dreams. "Please assist us by finding your way out of this dream without assistance." 

The puzzles quickly become more abstract than before. I pick up a Rubik's cube and find it's cut in half. Another Rubik's cube falls apart when I touch it, turning into a pile of multicolored blocks. Other Rubik's cubes are the caps to long pillars that I can push and pull out of the floor and walls. 

Does my character have some preoccupation with Rubik's cubes haunting them in their sleep? Are the little rainbow puzzles a standard part of iLids protocol? The recurring elements are amusing when you attempt to take them at face value, but like any good puzzle game, Superliminal is teaching me its language and its rules by making each new challenge familiar but slightly different from the last.

I'm now routinely climbing out of rooms with colored walls and smooth jazz into dark and forbidding back halls filled with the whoosh of air through industrial ducts and the occasional tape from Dr. Pierce. In one, he cautions me not to interact with anything that seems "psychologically significant." In case that isn't clear enough, he provides a colorful example. "If you do happen to see your parents, please punch them in the face as hard as you can and immediately run away," he says quite calmly.

Superliminal carries a classic Portal-like vibe of outsmarting a system designed to trap you with a similar dry humor, a comparison that could easily be either vindicating or damning seeing how many games have gone the weird facility and wry narration route. 

With the positive reception of Control this year, it seems we aren't worn out yet on the surreal being treated as mundane by shady companies and bureaucratic entities. I just wonder what Superliminal is like in full swing. The current demo is less adventurous in puzzle design than the tech demo from 2014, which I suspect means that all the best puzzles are being saved for release. 

Superliminal's short demo sticks to the basics: introducing the size-changing puzzles and the setting. It's a nice first impression. I enjoyed the haunting atmosphere of mundane surroundings made eerie by surreal visions of stopped clocks, oversized chess boards, and fractured Rubik's cubes. I only wish I'd gotten to see some of its more complex puzzles to really take its measure. It's still due sometime this year, so I'll likely the get the chance soon. 

Lauren loves long books and even longer RPGs. She got a game design degree and then, stupidly, refused to move to California. She plays indie games you haven't heard of and will never pass on a story about players breaking games or playing them wrong.