Thursday, March 3, 2016
I recently wrote a Superhot review that you can read by clicking on this hyperlink. It just went up the other day, but I want to note that I actually wrote it last week, before the embargo was lifted and the game landed in public hands. This is important because Superhot's release has morphed my opinion of the game. Not substantially, though, and certainly not for the worse. Let me explain.
See, we knew what Superhot purported to be: a shooter in which time only moves when you do. It fulfills that standard, and it is, to my mind, about as much fun as a game centering on this idea can realistically be (i.e. very). Hopefully my review explains that, so I won't waste much time reiterating anything.
But what I also mentioned in my review is how wonderful Superhot is in ways we weren't expecting. Namely, it's a cracking good sci-fi story. More accurately, it's a relatively bog-standard sci-fi story presented in a manner that I've never seen before. Here's a product in which viral marketing actually plays a tangible role in the game's plot. Superhot's developers were depending on their fans to make this narrative whole, and the gamble has paid off.
The most immediate characteristic of Superhot's story is that it's meta as hell. It tells you, point-blank, that you're playing a video game. The menu is designed to look like a DOS interface, many of the "cutscenes" are stylistically filtered to resemble ASCII art, and the campaign opens with someone inviting you, via an unassuming chat program, to open some "superhot.exe" file. When action gets heated, you're assured, frequently, that it's all just a game. None of this even looks real; the plainly visible polygons highlight the artificiality of these scenarios.
And that sells the underlying thrust of Superhot's narrative, which is that you're being manipulated into performing nasty deeds for some very powerful people. We never learn who exactly they are (unless this information is buried deep within the game, which wouldn't surprise me), but we're going along with it because, hey, it's good fun and none of this is real, right? Superhot so transparently and unambiguously being a video game is what makes this plot work so well. If this were real, these corporate overlords would want us to think this is just pure escapism.
But Superhot unveils its' villains nefariousness in increasingly unsubtle ways, namely when the "protagonist" develops doubts over the perceived innocuousness of his or her actions. That's when the bad guys make it clear that we're not in control. Video games like to present us with the illusion of choice when there's so little true emergent design in this medium; every decision that we make is ultimately something that someone on the development team planned for. Superhot pokes fun at that in amusing ways, particularly when the stranger on the other end of the line tells you to quit and you cannot continue the campaign until you've exited and restarted the game.
In a medium oversaturated with Chosen Ones, Superhot makes it clear that you're not special. You're just another drone. You can't fight the system. You're going to do bad things for bad people, and you'll go along with it because you're having too much fun, and you don't have a choice anyway. And you won't be rewarded for it. After everything you've done for your bosses, they'll thank you by forcing you to put a bullet in your own head, because you're just as disposable to them as the legions of people you've gunned down for them.
Where it gets cool is the way the developers of Superhot have deployed the game's actual, real, not-fictional fans to get this message out by relaying the game's deliberately cheesy marketing schlock. For one thing, the campaign ends with a canned word of recommendation ("the most innovative shooter I've played in years," etc.) that players willingly repeat on social media because they enjoyed the story and want to play along. The message even includes a link for a discount - an effective incentive, since if you're going along with all of this, you obviously enjoyed the game enough to want other people to try it, as well.
Even better, though, you've surely noticed that it's impossible for people to praise Superhot without at some point slavishly repeating its title. "SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT." They're always sure to put the period between the "super" and the "hot." Obviously, it's a reference to the fact that each level ends with a disembodied voice chanting the title while the words flash across the screen.
So what was the point of that, and why are we reiterating it? Well, remember that one Seinfeld episode when George keeps randomly singing his last name around a women he's dating with the hope that the annoying will become the infectious, much as a commercial jingle seems irritating but gets into your head? Same thing here. For a bit, you wonder why the game keeps shouting its title at you. Then you get used to it. Then you stop paying attention to it. Then it becomes an integral component of that experience, so central that you can't talk about the game on Twitter without joining in.
The best part is that I didn't even get to see this before I did my write-up. Superhot already earned one of my most positive reviews in recent memory, and now I like it even more, in this exact moment, at the peak of its popularity.
Of course, if Superhot hadn't been both good and high-profile, this gamble wouldn't have worked. But since the game has impressed so many people, the ultra-meta corporate marketing angle of its plot is taking full form within those of us who are just trying to spread the word about how much we enjoy this thing. We're all the slaves, and we're perpetuating the cycle. We know the truth, but we're too comfortable to care, and we don't have a choice, anyway.