Superhot's designer shares how he used 'real mind control' on players

March 15, 2016 by Laura Michet

Speaking at the Game Developer's Conference yesterday afternoon, Superhot director Piotr Iwaniki explored the themes, mechanics, and subliminal messaging of his one-of-a-kind shooter.

At the end of Superhot, the game gives you precise instructions on how to market it to your friends. I won’t go into any further details -- that would completely spoil the game’s story -- but it’s a funny moment. It’s funnier still to see players and reviewers using the game's instructions as a strategy to actually convince their friends to play.

Yesterday at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, Superhot designer and director Piotr Iwaniki gave a talk on the ways his team took inspiration from real world ‘mind control’ techniques. His chief example? The kind of stuff you see in mobile games. “The fun thing about story in Superhot was we felt like we did not invent anything,” he said during the presentation, which was titled 'Game Design and Mind Control in Superhot.' “We are just doing what other games are doing.”

Laughing, he admitted, "Those tricks are the theme of Superhot, [but] we are using them too.”

What are those tricks? Putting on his best dramatic “evil Russian” accent, Iwaniki compared them to the kinds of things a movie villain would say. "REMEMBER TO PLAY OUR GAME! TELL OTHERS ABOUT THE GAME! STAY IN OUR SYSTEM, BRING YOUR FRIENDS TO US,” he shouted. “You basically turn into an evil spambot writing messages to your [friends].”

Superhot, he said, is on its deepest level a game about control. The player has extremely precise control over their actions, much more than in other shooters. “Many people have called it a puzzle game. It's a shooter where you can have time to make your decisions, so people call it a puzzle game, but if you think about it, it's not a puzzle game… making it as a puzzle game was not ever our approach. we focused on the flow of the game... on very fast, intense action scenes.”


Iwaniki talked about how in many traditional first-person shooter games, “The general way of doing a story... is always this Half Life 2 design where you are always in control, right? Because in Superhot we have much finer control, you feel like a total badass of destruction... so we either keep with this total player control and we try to build a story with that, or we play around with it.”

In the end, Superhot played around with those themes rather than take them straight. Iwaniki mentioned how so many of the players in his target audience hated cutscenes. “It’s a real hatred!” he exclaimed. “So let’s do a story about that.” Superhot ended up as a game within a game, full of moments where the player loses a little bit of control over their actions -- but only in interesting ways.

In the first few minutes of the game, the player learns that their character in the game is also a gamer, a player who is playing the game Superhot themselves. The ‘evil masterminds’ in the game are also game developers: the developers of a fictional ‘superhot.exe’ download the main character’s been given by a friend. “The player wants to play more games, so he drives this character inside the game, which is a lot like him, into insanity.”


Theme through table jumping

Iwaniki also discussed how the Superhot development team sought to let these core themes -- time moving only when the player moves, and the high fidelity of control that offers -- resonate not only through the story but throughout the rest of the game’s design. A spare color palette and a total lack of texture allows the player to focus on only the things they need to complete a level. Iwaniki's team kept the levels spare and abstract, but also plausible. "We always focused on making the places look real... the game happens mostly in the imagination of the player, and your imagination is always a lot more interesting than whatever the developers can control.” Players fill in the details themselves; when the player’s character capsule jumps over a table, the game treats that movement very crudely. But the player, feeling like a badass, totally in control, usually imagines that they have leaped into the air like a ninja.

The team also focused on making sure that the core mechanic -- time moving when the player moves -- was absolutely at the center of the game. There was no room for distractions, like textures or large levels that required exploration. “Your movement should always be in the context of enemies or of dodging bullets... never in the context of 'I have this point and I must walk to it,’ for five or ten seconds,” Iwaniki said.

The original version of Superhot, available here, was created in only a few weeks and started out as a submission to 7DFPS -- a game jam where participants make an entire FPS in only seven days. We're running a feature on it later this week, but in the meantime, you can look at the original prototype for yourself and decide how the ‘mind control’ theme affected the final project. Those of you who have finished the game may notice that ZAM’s review did not use the mind-control phrase that Superhot commands its players to use.

But, in the spirit of things -- and because it’s the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years -- I used it somewhere in this article. Sometimes, getting mind controlled can be pretty entertaining.