Superhot Is Not As Clever As It Thinks It Is

Another random article wherein I complain about things that are on my mind right now. I am going to be spoiling the shit out of both Superhot and Undertale in this post. I don’t think spoiling Superhot will hurt you much at all, but Undertale is a spectacular game that you should absolutely be playing blind, so give that a whirl if you haven’t already and then come back.

So, Superhot is a video game in which you play a video game. Specifically, a hacker buddy of yours tells you through a fake OS that serves as the game menu that he’s just come across a crack for this new game Superhot and he wants you to try it. He sends you the file and then you start playing the actual game. Superhot is a first-person shooter, except it has almost nothing in common with other FPS’ and is thus one of those games that shows how abysmal our game categorization system is at handling new ideas. Movies don’t have this problem. Hardcore Henry is weird and different and we have no trouble calling it an action film.

The actual gameplay is all in this somewhat abstract presentation. Bad guys are red, you’re blue, environments are all white. This makes it harder to figure out what’s actually going on even after it becomes clear (relatively early) that the game-within-a-game is not actually a game.

Anyway, Superhot’s thing is that time only moves when you move. This is one of two main advantages you have over your enemies, and the other is that you can aim your gun at where the enemy is going to be when the bullet arrives instead of always shooting directly at them no matter what the situation like a moron (which is what the AI always does). You have one hit point just like the bad guys, your rate of fire is just as limited as theirs, they’ll pick up guns from the ground if they’re disarmed just like you will when you run out of ammo, and unlike you, the bad guys never actually run out of ammo. Since time is stopped while you aren’t moving and bullets are bizarrely slow, you can dodge bullets indefinitely so long as you’re dealing with a small number of enemies, you’re in a space open enough that they can’t blanket it all with gunfire, and you don’t lose track of enemies behind or to the sides of you. That’s a lot of ifs, but dodging bullets is still a thing you can do at all. You can actually weave between the bullets of an enemy firing an assault rifle on full auto at you, avoiding any damage while running more or less straight towards him.

You also have plenty of time to line up accurate shots, to the point where, as mentioned earlier, you can headshot moving targets 30 feet away with just a few hours of practice despite the fact that bullets move so slowly that a weapon aimed directly and precisely at a moving target more than about ten feet away will actually miss, so you have to aim ahead of them.

The flow of the game is a lot like Hotline Miami. You have one hit point and are badly outnumbered, so you must carefully plan and execute an attack that picks off enemies one by one. On your final attempt, you are a crazy skilled badass who tears through enemies by taking advantage of their predictable AI and your own insane accuracy and ability to dodge bullets.

This is exactly as much fun as it sounds like. I gave this post a grumpy title because complaining about things is the mode I’m in right now, but before we dive into why it’s not as clever as it thinks it is, I do want to be clear that Superhot is a fun game. Just because their efforts to be clever didn’t stick the landing doesn’t mean it’s bad. If you liked Hotline Miami you are reasonably likely to like Superhot.

So, remembering that Superhot is a video game about playing a video game, as you play levels you have intermittent conversations with your hacker/pirate friends, some mandatory, most optional, in which you have an actual chat client where you can type responses. It doesn’t actually matter what keys you hit, though, the messages are pre-determined. You just hit the keyboard until the sentence is complete and then press enter in order to progress the plot. After a while, your in-game system is taken over by an evil corporation, the people who made Superhot, and they brainwash you into playing Superhot forever, because it turns out that Superhot is actually some means of seizing control of some random schlub’s body Agent Smith style, whereupon the players are used to kill people working for a rival company who attempted to steal the Superhot technology. Towards the end of the game you get the power to hotswitch, transfering your consciousness between one body and another and killing your previous host. In the final level, you use this power to hotswitch into the rival company’s core and take over.

Despite having copied your consciousness into the computer core of a megacorporation, you are for some reason enslaved by the HotCorp instead of becoming a nigh-unstoppable machine god with the power to hotswitch into any body that gets close to you with no cooldown. This unlimited hotswitching is a power you demonstrably have after taking over the core, so it’s not clear why HotCorp has any power over you at all at this point. Maybe they’re exercising some kind of wireless control, but if the core has wireless access at all, why did we have to slaughter our way through like forty security guys to get into the core room instead of just hotswitching into one of the rival company’s smartphones or the secretary’s front desk computer?

For that matter, why are fully 100% of all enemies encountered in the game relentlessly hostile? Disarmed enemies at range and with ready access to cover will ignore that cover to try and acquire new weapons and attack. No one ever runs away. No one ever freezes up or panics. No one ever cowers behind cover rather than running straight towards a heavily armed, pinpoint accurate, and ruthless attacker who’s closer to the shotgun than they are. No, they sprint straight for the shotgun every time and get their heads blown off. Since there’s early signs that Superhot is playing with the fourth wall, what with the game introducing itself as a game that your hacker buddy just gave you (I imagine this premise would be doubly creepy and immersive for people who pirated the game, since pirated games are sometimes the delivery method for something that muck up your system like HotCorp does midway through the game), it occurred to me very early on that I might be piloting some kind of infantry drone (or rather, hopping between several) to kill real people, but I discarded that idea almost instantly. The enemies were way too aggressive to be real, and it would’ve been easy for the devs at Superhot (the actual, real devs, not the fictitious HotCorp) to program in a few different enemy behaviors, with some enemies being more cautious and others outright cowardly. I thought that instead maybe Superhot was supposed to be some kind of next-gen hacking thing, and the “people” I was shooting were actually defense programs. That would explain why they behave so predictably. Turns out nope, my first suspicions were correct, and there is no explanation at all for why everyone, even unarmed business executives, are relentlessly aggressive. Conversations in the hacker chat mention executing the CEO of the rival company near the end of the game and talk about how he didn’t even resist, but none of the enemies actually encountered in-game behave anything like that (exception: I did find one enemy who did not attack me, but 1) he had an assault rifle, 2) he’d used it on me in previous attempts at the level, and 3) he didn’t move at all, so I assume this was a glitch).

So, Superhot has a couple of rough edges to its story. That’s not what makes it less clever than it thinks it is, though. No, the part where Superhot tries to be clever is where it plays with the fourth wall, and just like basically every non-Undertale game to attempt that, it’s failed. Superhot has a sequence fairly early on where the system you’re hacking locates you, and you can see “yourself” sitting at a computer in an apartment, and after this is where the plot arc of HotCorp taking over your machine and ultimately your mind begins. At this point it’s pretty clear that your character is not meant to be a stand-in for the real, actual you playing the game, but rather that you’re playing a character in a video game. Just like when playing a Halo game you’re not playing as yourself, you’re playing Master Chief. Whoever this unnamed protagonist sitting in that apartment is, he’s not you, despite what the game-within-a-game setup seemed to be angling at early on.

Except then the game tries to make out like that guy is you. In a chat conversation with your hacker friend, one of the default responses you’re forced to type in is that the room you see “yourself” in when HotCorp locates you doesn’t look like your real room, but you knew it was your room anyway, like a dream. Later on one of those pre-determined responses acknowledges that the keys you’re hitting on your keyboard have no correlation to the messages you’re typing and sending at all. So, Superhot is trying to explain away its limitations in eroding the fourth wall, but all that does is draw more attention to those limitations. At one point after HotCorp has taken over your machine, they jump you into a body that’s in “your” apartment complex using Superhot, you go to your own apartment, and you hit your in-game avatar’s real, actual body in the back of the head. HotCorp then talks to you in the chat and instructs you to turn off the game and call an ambulance to deal with your head trauma. At this point the only way to progress in the game is to actually close the application, because the HotCorp hackers won’t let you select any other option in the game’s fake OS. So clearly the game is trying to erode the distinction between player character and player by having me actually quit the game rather than having a “the next day” transition screen, but listen, Superhot, I’m not calling an ambulance for the head trauma I didn’t take from the Superhot drone that didn’t break into the apartment I don’t live in. Quitting from my fake in-game desktop to my real out of game desktop is just a reminder that none of this is real.

As an aside, during this arc of the game HotCorp tries very hard to stop you from playing Superhot anymore. They send threatening messages, they hijack your system and impersonate you to tell your hacker friend to stop playing, and when that doesn’t stop you from playing they coerce you into inflicting physical trauma on yourself and lock you out of your system completely after telling you to call an ambulance and stop playing. This doesn’t really gel with the next arc where they’re brainwashing you into being their pawn. At the end of the game they tell you to go and recruit other people to play, just like your hacker friend recruited you at the start, and optional hacker chat conversations towards the end make it clear that the entire room has been brainwashed by HotCorp via Superhot. So why’d they try so hard to keep you (and to a lesser extent, your hacker friend) from playing in the mid-game? Were you actually working for the rival company during the first arc, and it’s only after people refused to leave Superhot that HotCorp began brainwashing them into doing their bidding? Is trying (very hard) to convince people to leave the game somehow part of the brainwashing process?

Superhot’s biggest failure, and the place where Undertale completely upstages them in this whole “breaking the fourth wall” business, is their inability to predict player motivations. Obviously some players are weird and will have weird motivations but you can still get like 80% of players nailed down to one motivation if they’re doing X instead of Y. In Undertale, if you slaughter your way through every single enemy in the game to get the genocide ending, Flowey talks about how you’re probably doing it just to see what will happen, and then mocks the people who are watching on YouTube because they don’t have the guts to do it themselves, thus catching in one bit of dialogue both how messed up it is that the player is killing a planet just to see what it would be like while also taking to task anyone who thought they were being clever by watching the events on YouTube without tainting their own playthrough. And taking the genocide ending just to see what would happen or watching it on YouTube because you don’t want to do it yourself are by far the two most common motivations behind the people who see that content.

Superhot, meanwhile, forces you to mash the keyboard until some responses about “pride” or “I just can’t stop myself” come out. The real reason players continue playing Superhot even when HotCorp is clearly using your willingness to keep playing for their own benefit is (for like 80% of players) because Superhot is kind of fun and despite the game’s desperate insistence that the barriers between game and reality are eroding and HotCorp is slowly enslaving you, it doesn’t ever actually feel threatening at all because the game keeps accidentally reminding you just how solid the barrier between game and reality actually is by having you inflict head trauma on yourself that you won’t actually be harmed by and requiring you to write out messages that aren’t actually yours and deeply contradict your own motives.

I refuse to replay Undertale because that world feels real enough to me that it would be an unpleasant experience to muck it up just to fight Omega Flowey again even if that boss fight was a lot of fun. Meanwhile in Superhot, at one point the game tells you to try and quit and when you press escape, the menu doesn’t come up, and HotCorp boldly declares that they’re in control. So I hit alt+f4 and then brought up task manager to kill it manually. I’ll grant you that might have been slightly harder if I were using VR, which is clearly how the game was meant to be played, except no, actually, it wouldn’t have, because I would’ve just taken the headset off. So Superhot challenged me to see who was really in control, I definitively proved that it’s actually me who is in control, and then I patted Superhot on their precocious little head and said “yes, Superhot, you are definitely in control here, now do you want to show daddy your next level?”

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