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Superhot is the unthinkable: a truly original first-person shooter

Superhot is the unthinkable: a truly original first-person shooter

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Superhot is another game about shooting people in the face, but wait please don’t leave. Created by a small team on a modest budget, the shooter finds novelty in the creatively exhausted genre. Where its contemporaries like Call of Duty and Battlefield have chosen to be faster, louder, and more complex, Superhot is slower and compact, akin to a box of puzzles — very deadly puzzles that involve, yes, shooting people in the head.

The gimmick is time. Everything in Superhot's ceramic world — the people, the vehicles, the shrapnel, ammunition — move only when the player moves. When the player steps, the enemy steps. The player stops, the enemy stops. Think of the schoolyard game of red light, green light — but applied to all physics.

The game is as slow or as fast as you’d like, allowing you to carefully align a headshot, evade a punch, or take a breath and consider how to untangle the deadly knot you find yourself in. The tweak is simple in nature but seismic in effect, crumbling the barrier to entry of a genre reliant on twitchy reflexes. The badass action flick sequences of other shooters — you know, leaping into a room of enemies, narrowly dodging a payload of hot lead, and popping heads like they’re zits — are reserved for experts, but Superhot has you, no matter your gaming prowess, achieving them within minutes.

The goal of each stage is to suppress enemies and survive, dodging countless bullets with these Matrix-like reflexes. Each bullet leaves a red trail that calls to mind when TV detectives festoon spartan crime scenes with red yarn, charting the trajectory from where a bullet was dispatched to a hole in a wall or floor or body. The red lines aren’t just an aesthetic choice, though they do bring life to the bone-bleached architecture. The trails are crucial to reading the game.

Reading, across forms, is an assumed skill. We know how to read a book, moving from left to right, turning pages, looking for themes, symbolism, and foreshadowing. Same goes for a film, in which we understand time has passed when night rapidly becomes day. We get montage, so when a dowdy teenage girl discovers her latent beauty by switching between dozens of outfits at a department store changing room within the span of a pop song’s chorus, we don’t assume she’s a witch who can make her clothes morph simply by closing and reopening a curtain.

Superhot explains its rules with subtle visuals

Video games have it tough; the most avant-garde creations need to communicate how to read unfamiliar mechanics. Kind of like the "show, don’t tell" rule of cinema, a smartly crafted game summarizes the rules of its universe with a handful of subtle visuals. The player doesn’t even notice the game has taught them how to dodge bullets; it comes naturally.

A trail in Superhot conveys the angle of the bullet’s trajectory by communicating in the simplest fashion: where the bullet was fired from, the path on which it has already traveled, and the point at which it is now. With that visual info, the mind can easily predict when, where, and if the bullet will strike its target.

The decision to slow time is novel, but without the line — without the knowledge of how to exploit time — Superhot would be just another shooter for players who can invest time towards a superhuman mastery.

The red line is one of those "so brilliant I take it for granted" inclusions, a single visual cue that makes use of an instinctual understanding of how an object on a straight path, moving at a consistent speed, will reach a given point at a predictable time. Watch it, above. Someone made the video game equivalent of a "two trains are running in two directions on a straight path at non-variable speeds, which train will reach its destination first" scenario, except the trains are bullets, and the destinations are humans heads — one being yours.

The meta story is the stuff of SyFy matinees

Maybe human isn’t the best word to describe the characters, a race of mannequins made of ruby glass. They look like people, but I’m puzzled, even after completing the story, as to what they represent: A well-armed techno gang? A personified computer virus? The developer? Me? The game’s story is ambitiously meta, treating you, the player, as a secret participant in a '90s-tinged hacker community, and the game as a nefarious bit of software that’s more dangerous than it looks. Or, I believe that’s what’s happening. As thrilling as the game’s collection of polygonized action film set pieces can be — like the crowded elevator, the high-rise meeting room, and goon-filled back alley — its arch plot boils down to a couple twists, and a lot of vague philosophizing about control being an illusion, particularly in video games. Lines like "You’re a dog. Good dog." You know, that sort of high-brow, low-brow idea we’ve seen games kicking around for a decade now.

So the story isn’t great, but it’s compelling enough in that SyFy movie sort of way, and provides context beyond "shoot the red guys." Anyway, I’ll take ambition over apathy. It’s because of ambition, after all, that Superhot finds something wholly original in a genre that has become bereft of originality.

Even without the guns, bullets, and ruby glass guys, Superhot would still be a pleasurable ballet simulator, with you dodging strings of red, in a fleet footed dance. But I’m okay with the weapons, which remind us that a handful of people with a great idea and a gift for the finer, overlooked details are just as worthy of a genre as publishers with fancy offices and ludicrous marketing budgets.

Superhot is now available on PC, Mac, and Linux, and is planned for release on Xbox One at a later date.