Moving in Time: A look back at the original Superhot prototype

Features
March 17, 2016 by Miguel Penabella

Conceptual and perhaps even stranger than its full-length successor, 2013's Superhot deserves a much closer analysis of its themes and ideas.

“It’s about time.”

These three words stutter us into existence in the 2013 short prototype Superhot, only now recently finding its full-length, bigger-budget final release. The full game will inevitably supplant the original demo (playable here), but these opening words still linger in the mind. It greets us irritably, as though we’re late for the occasion, thrown right into the middle of an incursion against one of its many scarlet-silhouetted enemies. The three words also serve as nimble wordplay, summarizing the demo’s central theme and gimmick. Superhot is a game about time and bodily movement, amassing robust power as we slowly lurch through it.

Exploring the original prototype of Superhot is necessary because few critics adequately analyzed it at the time when it was released, declaring it ‘interesting’ and ‘novel’ without much deeper engagement. Like short films that turn into feature films, prototypes can often serve as templates of form and style before full development. Just as how the short film Obvious Child by Gillian Robespierre planted an original story before expanding it in a theatrical release, videogames follow in this tradition of experimentation. Similarly, games like The Stanley Parable by Davey Wreden in 2011 is wholly distinct from its lengthier revision two years later.

So too is the Superhot prototype. This early demo boasts a minimalist aesthetic atop its unique take on time and movement, and now that we’re approaching three years since its initial release, it’s worth reexamining on its own terms.

Superhot (2013 prototype). Superhot (2013 prototype).

We've seen games like Titanfall or the upcoming Mirror’s Edge Catalyst which emphasize freedom of movement and our mastery of space. Superhot takes such power further by granting players the freedom not of space but of time. In this game, the player holds total dominion over the passage of time, like a new kind of god.

“Time moves only when you move.” The words flash by on the screen, one by one, announcing to us our untouchable advantage over the anonymous enemies of the game. We cross the confines of time’s rules, bending it to our will. The passage of time moves at an exaggeratedly slow pace when immobile, but the slightest of turns or a single step forward suddenly speeds the world around you to the pace of your motion. You act as a conductor of time based on your movement, allowing the game to wildly careen and tumble forward or to stop dead in its tracks. When fired upon by an enemy, you simply need to freeze, and bullets will hang lifelessly in the air as you move out of the way accordingly. Leaving red trails behind them, they’re suspended in time as they slowly glide forward, almost peacefully, these harbingers of instant death.

The violent pleasures of Superhot rely on this power over time because those abstracted enemies encircling you fail to cross such temporal restrictions. The stylized shooter takes the form of a puzzle or strategy game because it confronts you with the challenge of moving through treacherous situations before being rewarded the opportunity for a precise kill. Like a turn-based strategy game, you’re granted ample time when motionless to consider how to dodge an oncoming bullet or where to advance next. Careful choices in movement inch you closer to enemies, and these aggressors are swiftly destroyed.

The concept of time as dependent on player movement emerges out of the innocuous feline Flash game Time4Cat (playable here), its core mechanics directly replicated in Superhot and directly cited as an influence in an interview with creative director Piotr Iwanicki for Gamasutra. Iwanicki lifted the ideas from that game and re-contextualized it in a first-person shooter. As such, the Superhot demo serves as a kind of testbed for experimentation, divorced from the expectations of a full-length, official release.

'Sophie' (Xavier Veilhan, 2007) 'Sophie' (Xavier Veilhan, 2007)

Some of these raw ideas and untested stylistic choices introduce a visually and narratively striking presentation alongside its pioneering gameplay. Starkly white, minimalist interiors vaguely reminiscent of the modern sleekness of Mirror’s Edge house the events of the game, conveying a half-remembered world as though colors and textures have failed to render effectively. Even the game’s enemies lack context, seen only as anonymous, humanlike red contours donned with sunglasses like the shape-shifting agents of The Matrix. Before they started looking like Xavier Veilhan’s polygonal sculptures (left) and exploded into crystalline fragments in this year’s rework, the demo saw these enemies unravel in ribbons. Such enemies and the red bullet trails from their gunfire neatly punctuate the empty spaces and the colorless, Brutalist pillars of concrete that comprise this game.

The Superhot demo’s understated visual elegance finds its highlight in one lone stretch of hallway with three enemies at the far end, gunfire rocketing towards you. The visual minimalism and your lack of weapons strip away the elements of a shooter game to its essence. Eschewing bombastic action, the demo coerces you to scramble for a handgun midway through the hall, dodging streams of bullets by ducking into tiny alcoves alongside the hallway like a stop/start game of dodgeball.

The Superhot demo unravels how we think about and experience a shooter videogame. As games like Star Wars: Battlefront or the Far Cry series become more disposable and flashy, prototypes like Superhot emphasize the gestural as grandiose. Big things like gunfights are rendered stagnant and minute, while small things like individual shots ring out like fireworks’ explosions. The noise of a gun slowed down as time dilates becomes an infinite thundercrack of deadly percussion. Because Superhot favors precision and careful movement over constant action, each of the few kills you perform carries considerable weight. In calling attention to the effort and lethality put into your struggles against a few individuals, Superhot upends the mindless, reflex nature of gameplay in most other shooter games.

This frustration of an unthinking, mechanical mindset when playing a shooter ties into the Superhot demo’s Manchurian Candidate-esque storyline of sleeper agents brainwashed by unseen forces and its oppressive feed of commands. The text flashes one word at a time, “TAKE THEM OUT,” conveying the tyrannical relationship between the player and the game because you’re merely a puppet to be controlled. The distorted voice repeating the title at the end of each level—“SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT”—evokes a cryptic, mantra-esque quality like code words meant to awaken a sleeper agent from inactivity.

The domineering relationship of the game as it orders the player to kill carries a fetishistic bent with its massive, capitalized typography: “TAKE HIS GUN. KILL THEM ALL.” However, the Superhot demo undercuts the power of its gunfire with the pathetic, spongy sound when bullet hits flesh. There’s no screaming or human pain, just the sense that you’re a silent killing automaton operated by the player. The protagonist immediately tosses their weapon when a level is complete as though they’re disgusted, or perhaps because the gun is suddenly rendered useless when all are dead, and so it loses all meaning and power.

That gesture of repulsion is what the Superhot demo is ultimately after, to throw away the elements of the shooter genre and rethink how we experience videogames. Where most shooters -- Destiny, Rainbow Six Siege, Battlefield, Battlefront -- promise a deep, kinetic experience, the reality is that they’re as hollow as the perfunctory automaton of Superhot, who kills without greater thought. The Superhot prototype insists that if we are to uncover something new and overcome those barking the same old orders in our heads, we should slow things down and observe them with sharper clarity. Only then can we move forward and sidestep whatever dangers may come our way.

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to video games. He is an editor at Haywire Magazine, and his written offerings can be found on Kill Screen, PopMatters, Unwinnable, and elsewhere, all of which are archived on his blog, Invalid Memory.