(Plot SPOILERS ahead for SUPERHOT.)
SUPERHOT should be a lot more fun than it actually is. Here’s a game with one of the most innovative twists on shooter mechanics I’ve seen in years yet I find it difficult to play the game for more than forty minutes. It’s a rare case of a developer nailing the gameplay with a blindingly original core concept but then utterly failing to build anything close to an effective game around it. At the very least, SUPERHOT’s failure is not due to a lack of trying, but rather due a mismanagement of content and tone which ultimately ends up undermining its mechanics with few benefits to show for it.
In case you haven’t been watching the ubiquitous videos floating around, SUPERHOT’s gameplay consists of your standard loose FPS mechanics a la Half Life except everyone dies in a single hit. Far more importantly, time only moves normally when the player moves and it moves at a tiny fraction of normal speeds when the player is standing still. The result is an intriguing combination of pseudo-turn based strategy and twitchy improvisation that’s greatly encouraged by shooting mechanics which incentivize maneuverability (ie. guns have low ammo and can’t be reloaded but enemies can be disarmed easily). I could describe what SUPERHOT’s gameplay looks like in exhaustive detail, but it’s better to just watch a YouTube video of someone playing it far better than I ever will.
While the gameplay’s features are still a bit underdeveloped (the campaign is only 2 hours long, there aren’t enough weapon types, only one enemy type, etc.) the core mechanics alone are enough to make SUPERHOT worth playing. They are innovative, complex, and most importantly, fun. The problem is that just about every other aspect of the game, including the story, music, and menus, create an oppressive atmosphere which directly contradicts the overwhelmingly fun mechanics.
As soon as the game is started, the player is confronted with clunky, ugly menu screens emulating a particularly dirty retro computer. This interface seemingly exists to carry the campaign’s bizarre self-aware narrative concerning a sentient program which somehow hijacks people’s brains after luring them into playing SUPERHOT (the game within the real game’s narrative). I’ve heard a lot of negative evaluations of SUPERHOT’s story but I honestly don’t get the hate. It’s a simple but well-made presentation of addiction and insanity which uses its retro aesthetics to purposefully make the player uncomfortable with ugly and restrictive level designs cut between the liberating shooter sections.
The problem isn’t the narrative itself, it’s how it meshes with the gameplay. The story is designed to be oppressive and grueling while the gameplay is fun and freewheeling. While that clash may serve to amplify the narrative (by creating an addictive paradigm for the player that mirrors the player-character’s own addiction to SUPERHOT), that benefit isn’t worth the cost of undermining the mechanics by constantly knocking the player out of an enjoyable rhythm to drag him through bleak visuals and disquieting plot points.
It especially doesn’t help that the narrative’s atmosphere isn’t contained to the campaign, but rather permeates the entire game via the omnipresent retro computer menus and jarring, static-filled level transitions. The bleak atmosphere even seeps into the core gameplay with a barren lack of music and eerie sound effects which do little to amplify the elation of pulling off a series of complicated maneuvers and successfully completing a level.
The obvious point of comparison to SUPERHOT is Hotline Miami, which similarly features extremely fun and hyper-lethal shooting mechanics with rapid respawns. But HM’s developers understood the nature of their mechanics far better than SUPERHOT’s. Hence HM had a carefully crafted atmosphere designed to capture the dualistic nature of the gameplay: the insane mania of its violence, and the jarring silence at its conclusion. Therefore HM uses a bright neon color scheme, snappy transitions, a surreal story, and pumping techno music designed to convey the gameplay’s situational energy.
In contrast, SUPERHOT’s equally fun gameplay struggles to breathe under a black and white color scheme, cumbersome transitions, an oppressive story, and no music whatsoever. Which isn’t to say that SUPERHOT should have copied HM’s general aesthetic, I’m sure something interesting could have been made out of SUPERHOT’s sharp contrasts rather than HM’s swirling sensory overload. Maybe SUPERHOT’s music could come in jarring bursts while the player and gameworld move, and then slow to a crawl as the player and gameworld do the same.
But instead SUPERHOT is left with an overwhelmingly bleak atmosphere which buries its gameplay under an aesthetic framework which is hard to stomach for long. Imagine HM’s gameplay under the atmosphere of Dark Souls for a rough point of comparison. Rather than getting carried through retry after retry to the tune of unavoidably catchy music and hypnotic visuals a la HM, SUPERHOT leaves me empty and weary even when I succeed. This type of gameplay is supposed to provide short bursts of hyper-active fun, but SUPERHOT not only utterly fails to do so, but didn’t even seem to try.
After playing the campaign I got the distinct sense that SUPERHOT’s developers fell in love with the game’s narrative a bit too much. I can’t think of any other reason to position so much of the game as a complimentary boost to its story while seemingly undermining its gameplay. It’s just bizarre. The gameplay is the primary selling point here. It’s the reason SUPERHOT will be bought, played, and remembered. I love a good campaign as much or more so than most players, but I’m also aware that games have echelons of focus based on their strengths and weaknesses. HM 1 certainly had a good campaign, but it’s ultimately the blitz gameplay that it’s remembered for. In a way, I actually admire that SUPERHOT’s developers went for an interesting and unorthodox story (though self-aware meta-narratives are becoming more and more common on the indie scene) but creating this narrative at the expense of its gameplay demonstrated a terrible lapse in judgement.
As much as I admire SUPERHOT’s originality I have a hard time recommending the game overall, especially at a rather steep $25 price tag. Hopefully a sequel will be made eventually with a different aesthetic tone and give the SUPERHOT gameplay the set-up it deserves.